When Marx exhorted workers of the world to unite, I doubt he envisioned a major role for the American son of a Baptist missionary couple. But I would argue that the life and work of Stephen Coats, who died unexpectedly of a massive heart attack on April 2 at the age of 61, might very well have pleased both Marx and Jesus, if not the institutions that claim to follow the teachings of either.
As executive director of the U.S.-Guatemala Labor Education Project (U.S./GLEP) and its successor, the Labor Education in the Americas Project (USLEAP), Coats did as much as any single U.S. citizen to build effective, mutually respectful ties between workers and union leaders in Latin America and their counterparts in the United States.
Coats played a key role in the emergence of the U.S. and global anti-sweatshop movements. US/GLEP’s campaign in both Guatemala and the United States from 1996 to 1997 pressured clothing company Phillips-Van Heusen to sign the first union contract in that country’s maquiladora sector. Through his organizations, Coats also helped launch coalitions and campaigns fighting the assassination of trade unionists in Colombia and Guatemala, as well as supporting the organizing rights and demands for better working conditions of workers in Latin America’s coffee, cut flowers, auto parts and banana industries.
Coats used virtually every tool available in these fights — filing charges of infringement of labor rights under trade laws, working with monitors (often local ones) to enforce corporate codes of conduct, negotiating Fair Trade contracts, helping cooperatives find new markets, challenging trade agreements with inadequate labor protections, and providing support and protection for individual threatened unionists. His memorable victories included embarrassing Starbucks into adopting a code of conduct for coffee workers in 1998 and backing the rights of Johnson Controls workers in Mexico to throw out a union that was an employer protection racket in favor of an independent one.
In many, perhaps nearly all, of these campaigns, victories were small and short-lived, as governments reneged on agreements, companies shut plants and relocated, and global economic shifts undermined hard-won accomplishments.
But judging from our conversations over the years, Coats never wavered, even when discouraged and disappointed by foundation or union financial support falling short. He often told me that he wished unions would put more of their resources into global solidarity work, but he continued to work with a wide range of unions, labor-related groups, and global consumer, environment and anti-poverty organizations.
And he never veered from his guiding principle: All of his work had to empower workers in Latin America, not attempt to substitute for them.
Coats grew up in a small, remote rural village in the northern section of Thailand inhabited by the Karen ethnic group, where his parents worked for many years as missionaries. After undergraduate studies at New College in Florida, he pursued theology at Yale Divinity School, under the leadership of Rev. William Sloane Coffin, and later at the Union Theological Seminary in New York City.
He left Yale to work at the anti-poverty group Bread for the World, where, as policy director, he helped to guide work on global and domestic food aid, labor standards in trade pacts and expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit. Todd Dieterle, a colleague at Bread for the World, remembered him as “a serious and steady hand…always deep in thought…but maybe most important, encouraging others.”
At Bread for the World, he met and married Kim Bobo, a “hurricane,” in Dieterle’s words, in contrast to Coats’ low-key tenacity. Coats and Bobo, who is now executive director of the Interfaith Worker Justice group that she founded, moved to Chicago in 1987, when she took a job at the Midwest Academy organizer training school. They had twin sons, who describe their father as deeply involved in their lives while they were growing up.
At USLEAP, according to board president Gail Lopez-Henriquez, Coats was a “modest and self-effacing personality” who kept the organization alive even when it could afford only one underpaid employee: him. But despite the constraints, according to Dana Frank, a board member who is a labor historian and worked with Coats over the past two years to restore democracy to Honduras, “Steve kept hundreds, if not thousands, of trade unionists alive” over the years in Latin America.”
Friends recall Coats as a man moved by both progressive politics and a continued, practicing religious faith. But his remarkably devoted, productive life on behalf of workers of the world seemed to spring from an even deeper source: a fundamental decency and compassion that would have found expression in Steve Coats whatever the formal label attached to his beliefs, regardless of the words of either Jesus or Marx.
David Moberg, a senior editor of In These Times, has been on the staff of the magazine since it began publishing in 1976. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He has received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy.