fb-pixel Skip to main content

Kathy Andrade, unionist who fought for immigrant workers, dies at 88

Kathy Andrade, a longtime garment union activist in New York City and a native of El Salvador who pushed the labor movement to embrace immigrants rather than view them as threatening the livelihoods of American-born workers, died July 2 in Manhattan. She was 88.

The cause was cardiac arrest, her husband, Jorge Colon, said.

From the early 1960s to 1995, Ms. Andrade was director of education for Local 23-25 of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, a large and influential chapter in New York. But the title alone hardly conveyed her effect on her union, which represents men and women in the sewing trades. She embodied the boots-on-the-ground activism and intuitive people skills that helped the union thrive, helping countless immigrant garment workers navigate the path to citizenship, learn to speak English and even broaden their skills by teaching them how to make jewelry.


“She was like the Godfather,” Ana Ramirez, a relative who as a child would visit Ms. Andrade at work in Manhattan’s garment district. “There would be a line of people outside her office, just waiting to get help.”

When Ms. Andrade started with the ILGWU, many organized labor officials saw immigrants, whether living in the country with legal permission or not, as jeopardizing the job prospects and higher wages of union members, labor historian Rachel Bernstein said in an interview. “Kathy was really instrumental in making sure” that the ILGWU “didn’t take that stance,” she said.

Jay Mazur, a former president of the ILGWU, called Ms. Andrade “the premier advocate for the undocumented.”

“She knew the word before anybody else,” he said.

Ms. Andrade successfully pushed Mazur, who at the time was an organizing director in Local 23-25, to speak publicly in support of workers living in the country without legal permission and to promote pro-immigration language in union policies, like calling for the federal government to grant those living in the country without legal permission amnesty.


Muzaffar Chishti, a former ILGWU immigration lawyer who is now a senior fellow with the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington think tank, directing its office at New York University’s School of Law, said that in large part because of Ms. Andrade’s work, “the local became the first formal labor entity in the country to fight for the rights of the undocumented.”

“She was not looking at policy,” he said. “She didn’t know what legislation to push, but she instinctively knew that the rights of the undocumented had to be protected if you wanted to protect the rights of all workers.”

The labor movement later caught up with Ms. Andrade, especially as large swaths of the labor force — notably in agriculture, health care and construction — became increasingly composed of immigrant workers. In 2000, the AFL-CIO formally called on the federal government to grant amnesty to an estimated 6 million immigrants living in the United States without legal permission and to eliminate most sanctions on employers who hired them. That proposal and others like it have never found sufficient support in Washington, however.

As the New York local’s education director, Ms. Andrade organized sewing classes for new members — she herself was known for creating elaborate quilts in tribute to garment workers — and helped many navigate the immigration system and work toward citizenship.

She also encouraged the local to work with other marginalized groups. Evelyn Jones Rich, an activist working with the Congress of Racial Equality, often collaborated with Ms. Andrade, whether it was in securing union funds for picket lines against businesses that discriminated against Black people or finding ILGWU members to join a protest march.


“She was a little lady, but she was a giant,” Rich said.

Ms. Andrade was born Enriqueta Mixco on July 8, 1932, in Santa Ana, El Salvador. Her father died before she was born. She and her mother, Rosaura Pocasangre, lived in Guatemala for much of her childhood to avoid political unrest in El Salvador. Returning there in the 1940s, she married a man from her hometown and took his surname, Andrade.

The couple went to the United States in 1949, but within a few years her husband died of cancer. In the early 1950s, Ms. Andrade took a job in a factory that made airplane parts and parachutes in Long Island City, Queens, becoming one of the few women to work there. She soon joined the machinist’s union.

She later left the factory over her immigration status as a noncitizen, found a job making belts to sew on dresses and joined Local 40 of the ILGWU, also in New York.

Mazur was working for Local 40 at the time, and after Ms. Andrade had approached him with questions about the union — carrying herself with unmistakable confidence when she arrived at his office, he recalled — he sent her out to nonunion factories as a “colonizer” to spread the word about workers’ rights to unionize.


When Mazur became the organizing director of the ILGWU’s Local 23, which would soon merge with Local 25, Ms. Andrade followed. She became a U.S. citizen in the late 1950s.

She met Colon a few years later. Ms. Andrade was competing in a pan-American cultural pageant in which young women modeled the traditional garb of their homelands. Ms. Andrade represented El Salvador. Colon was a freelance photographer covering the event. The evening sparked a friendship that turned into “a love affair that lasted 59 years,” said Colon, her only immediate survivor.

The couple lived in Penn South, a cooperative housing development in the Chelsea section of Manhattan that was originally sponsored by the ILGWU and catered to union residents. Ms. Andrade died in a hospital.

Even after her retirement in 1995, when the ILGWU merged with the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union to become UNITE, she remained active in the labor movement, championing immigrant rights. She also became involved in Hudson Guild, a social services organization that supports the immigrant community in Chelsea.

“She spent every waking minute doing something to help somebody,” said Bernstein, the labor historian. Her work was “a terrific example of how unsung women make a difference.”