Oscar Mondragon is the executive director of the Malibu Labor Exchange. His passion for workers’ rights was born in 1970s activism with the United Farm Workers. Mondragon marched with renowned labor organizers César Chávez and Dolores Huerta, and learned from him that helping people help themselves led to economic prosperity for all.
Those lessons of nonviolent activism helped Mondragon form Malibu’s Labor Exchange back in 1993, when the city didn’t have much to offer itinerant workers. Mondragon believed that every worker deserved to be treated with respect and dignity, and he worked hard to match potential local employers with the sometimes homeless day laborer – gardening, housekeeping, landscaping – they needed. Eventually, the Labor Exchange trailer became a familiar fixture in the city center, and a cautious mutual trust was established.
“We did basic background checks and evaluated skills of everyone,” Mondragon said. “We survive on donations, with no support from the city and now, we have workers come from as far as Oxnard. Malibu employers treat them well and the pay is better than on farms.”
Mondragon knows a little about the life of a seasonal worker. He was born in Mexico City and his father brought the family to California with the Bracero Cultural Program after World War II. His family would travel from Salinas to the Imperial Valley, making schooling a luxury Mondragon and his siblings never got to enjoy.
“I was self-taught,” he says simply.
The Labor Exchange was not readily embraced 20 years ago and local citizens like Martin Sheen helped show the way to acceptance.
“At the time, the key thing was to establish the Labor Exchange as a working entity, not a charitable effort,” Sheen said. “Everyone was very aware of the over-privileged vs. the under-privileged dynamic. The Sheriff’s Department was key to our efforts and Oscar gave us credibility.”