Anna Nowlan received a primer on the importance of workers standing together in solidarity early on in life. Born in El Salvador to a family living in poverty, she witnessed her parents’ struggle to provide for their children and their subsequent participation in the labor movement, becoming community activists in the 1980s to fight for social and economic justice.
This was during the violent period of the civil war in El Salvador which took its toll on Nowlan’s family.
“My father was killed during armed conflict that was going on in the country at that time, so my mother had to raise me and my brother alone during that difficult time,” said Nowlan who joined Local 600 as a business representative for the eastern region in April. “She continued to mobilize the community. I would go with her to meetings and rallies. She was eventually forced to leave the country, leaving behind my brother and me.”
In 1997, when she came to the United States, Nowlan immediately wanted to learn about the labor movement in this country. Nowlan’s mother was a textile worker and a leader with UNITE HERE, and she continued to give her daughter exposure to organizing. By the time she reached high school, Nowlan considered herself an activist, and she eventually joined American Friend Services, a New Jersey-based nonprofit working to help immigrants secure legal status in the U.S.
Nowlan also volunteered for the Labor Re- search Association (LRA), which developed training protocols for labor unions.This spurred her on to volunteer for unions in New Jersey that were part of the LRA. “It was at that time that I was recruited by AFSCME and began my career in 2000 as a labor organizer in training,” recalled Nowlan. “I was promoted to union organizer and assigned to work throughout the U.S. helping to mobilize workers.”
At the AFL-CIO’s Organizing Institute, Now- lan learned from the international labor move- ment leader Hector Figueroa.This was her second time meeting Figueroa, and he became a source of inspiration for Nowlan as well as a mentor.
In 2005, following the birth of her daughter, Nowlan decided to take a break from organizing and left AFSCME. But her continued desire to improve the community led her to Women Rising, an organization for survivors of domestic violence, where Nowlan worked as a triage counselor and helped place survivors in counseling programs and shelters. She later worked as an organizer for Dis- trict Council 37 in NewYork and was subsequently promoted to council representative.
In 2012, Nowlan worked on Barack Obama’s reelection campaign through a program in Florida called Mi FamiliaVota. Canvassing neighborhoods and encouraging people to vote was “intense full-of-feeling work,” Nowlan said.
Back in NewYork, Nowlan continued broad community engagement. She focused on giving people the opportunity to share their stories, including their struggles about unem- ployment and accessing health care. Some would talk about having to live in shelters despite working for the City of NewYork because they didn’t earn enough to afford rent.
“I learned about their fear of retaliation,” Nowlan said. “They feared losing their job if they spoke out and not being able to provide food for their children.” Throughout her career,
Nowlan has witnessed how crucial unions are in helping families get out of poverty. It’s organized labor, she insists, that paves the way for the working class to get leverage by providing good jobs that pay a liv- ing wage and offer health benefits.
Nowlan maintains that the biggest inspiration to continue in her work is seeing the hard work and dedication of the people she represents.
“You have to go through a lot of things in order to realize what’s important,” she said. “People have their own stories to tell and so you can never operate on assumptions. Being able to connect with those I represent allows me to be successful at my job.”