Stephen Coats: Teacher of Solidarity, Presente!

by Paul Ortiz

Stephen Coats, the longtime executive director of the U.S. Labor Education in the Americas Project (US/LEAP) died suddenly on April 1 at 61 years old.

This is a terrible loss for the labor movement in the Americas, and it is only bearable because Stephen trained and fortified so many activists (including the writer) to carry on his work.

For decades, the terms “international labor solidarity” and Stephen Coats were virtually synonymous. As coordinator of the U.S./Guatemala Education Project (US/GLEP) during the 1990s, Stephen relentlessly kept U.S. labor activists apprised of the repression of labor and social justice activists in Guatemala and throughout Central America. Brother Coats taught us that the death of one labor organizer in Guatemala was a blow to the labor movement in the United States.

In the era of Reaganism and Thatcherism, US/GLEP taught consumers to see the connections between low prices in the U.S. and low wages in Latin America. In those days, companies like Old Navy, the Gap, and Starbucks scoffed when we used the term “corporate social responsibility.”

I recall a senior manager in retail telling me after a fire had killed workers in a factory that supplied clothing to his store that, “those workers were not directly employed by us; therefore, we have no responsibility for what happened.”

This answer was not good enough for Stephen Coats, and he gave us the educational tools we needed to keep pressure on U.S.-based retailers while workers organized new unions in Latin America.

Stephen played a critical role in helping both labor unionists as well as high school and college students build international solidarity committees throughout the 1990s.

The campus-based student anti-sweatshop movement was a major achievement of this era. US/LEAP provided us with scripts, statistics, and worker testimony to present to neighbors, shoppers, and managers in order to demand that people in the United States understand that our lives as consumers were intimately linked to the working conditions of laborers throughout the Americas. We used these materials in informational picket lines, in store sit-ins (the direct predecessor of today’s “flash mob” tactic), and in guerilla street theater.

Stephen Coats leaves many important legacies behind as a community organizer. It makes me smile every time I shop at a grocery store, winery, mall outlet or coffee shop and see the “Fair Trade” section with products and educational materials explaining the chain of production and the roles that each of us must vigilantly play to understand that an injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

Just twenty years ago, it was unthinkable that U.S. firms would accept the idea of “corporate responsibility.” This is part of Brother Coats’ legacy and the legacy of thousands of fair trade warriors activated by US/LEAP and other Central American solidarity groups of the 1980s and ‘90s.

The struggle for international labor solidarity is far from over. We can honor Stephen’s memory best by becoming active in the struggle to remind workers in the U.S. that our fates are bound up with those of our brothers and sisters in the Global South.

Visit US/LEAP’S web site for more information:

Stephen Coats, Presente!

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