As he chants and marches with his buddies in front of the Herb Alpert Foundation building in Santa Monica, Ricardo — a 23-year-old Guatemalan-born airport worker — is armed with nothing more than a plastic, noisemaking toy trumpet. Today, he‘s a spark plug for Local 814 of the Hotel Employees & Restaurant Employees. Four years ago, though, he would spend his days and nights as a soldier for one of L.A.’s toughest gangs — “doing drive-bys, robberies and muggings.” And often carrying weaponry considerably more threatening than a shiny noisemaker.

In the past couple of years, Ricardo has become a frontline militant for one of L.A.‘s most active and innovative unions. And on this sunny day last week, he helped lead his union brothers and sisters in the action against Alpert — charging that management at the LAX-area Wyndham Hotel, which is owned by the onetime Tijuana Brass trumpeter, among others, wasn’t “negotiating in good faith.” The union alleges that Wyndham Hotels, which manages the hotel, is dragging its feet. “Alpert‘s got to come to the table and work this out,” says Ricardo.

When Ricardo isn’t working on the Wyndham, he‘s likely to be putting in time on one of the other myriad projects of the 2,700-member Local 814: enforcing the living-wage ordinance it has with Host Marriott, which manages food concessions at LAX, or organizing the workers at the chain that operates many of the retail stores at the airport.

Ricardo is just one of a number of former L.A. gangbangers who have traded in their pistols and shotguns for picket signs and clipboards. “More than anywhere, you see this down here at the airport,” says 25-year-old Local 814 staff organizer Francis Engler. “The employers down here have made a serious mistake. They consciously sought out the youngest and poorest to hire as their work force. Little did they know they were importing into the workplace, and into the union, a whole concentration of very tough kids who weren’t afraid of the company — or the cops.”

Engler‘s local was just about brain-dead as recently as five years ago — in danger of withering away. Instead, the national union leadership took over the local, appointed current president Tom Walsh (who has since been democratically elected by the membership), and since then Local 814 has marched to the forefront of area organizing. LAX is the center of a multi-union organizing drive, backed by the national AFL-CIO, and 814 is the local that has picked up the most members and won the most impressive settlements so far.

In a campaign initiated in early 1998, the union fought for a new contract for the 400 workers employed at LAX by Host Marriott. Last January, the union prevailed: Base wages went up from $5.75 an hour with no benefits to nearly $8 with free medical care.

Ricardo is hardly alone. Whether it’s at Jodi Maroni‘s, or Starbucks, or Burger King, or one of the snack bars, says Engler, you can just about bet that at least one of the employees working behind the counter brings years of tough street experience to the workplace.

Ricardo certainly does. He asked that his real name not be used nor the gang he has graduated from be mentioned. “I was in since I was 12,” he says. “And the gang is just like any other company. They want you to keep working for them. They don’t like it when you quit and take profit away from them.”

Ricardo quit his gang when his second child was born and he decided, “It was time to grow up.” When he took his first low-wage job, working for Host Marriott, a few years ago, he says, he had never thought about a labor union. That changed when the living-wage campaign got under way. When the union asked workers to show their support one day by wearing a campaign button on their lapels, Ricardo was incensed by the company pressure brought to bear on some of the work-site activists. “One thing you learn from gangbanging is ‘respect.’ You got to have respect. And sometimes you have to stand together to win that respect. That‘s what I bring to the union.”

One of the other ex-gangbangers forged into a union leader by the LAX struggles is 28-year-old Jose Sandoval. Born in Mexico and bred in L.A., Sandoval found himself recruited as an adolescent into one of the notorious Lennox gangs. His story reads similar to Ricardo’s: drive-bys, burglaries, arrests and trials. And the same sort of epiphany that his life was going to waste.

After he bailed from the gang four years ago, Sandoval found himself working inside a food stand in an LAX terminal. Another co-worker had been talking union to him — to little avail. At least until his “best buddy,” whom he had known since second grade, was fired for no apparent reason by Host Marriott. “Then I remembered all this talk about the union,” Sandoval says. “The guy who had been talking to me told me to organize one side of the terminal; he would do the other. Before we knew it, my buddy got his job back.”

After that, Sandoval became an organizing dynamo. When he‘s not working as a lead supervisor at an LAX Starbucks, Sandoval rotates onto the union staff as a paid organizer. Much of his strategic overview is translated directly from a decade of past gangbanging. “In the gang you learn how to organize,” he says. “After the [1992] riots, I helped to work on the gang truce. We’d get 500 gangbangers together in a park to meet. And I‘d get up there to speak in front of them,” he says with a laugh. “That’s when you learn not to disrespect people. Show disrespect in a situation like that, brother, and you get beat up. So with the workers at Host, I know how to talk to them. I know how to give them the respect that no one else does.”

In his off time, Sandoval is working on Local 814‘s campaign to win recognition for the airport’s gift-shop workers. He‘s particularly satisfied with having recently identified what he thinks are natural leaders from the gift-shop floor. “Every day, I’m out there helping people improve their lives,” he says. “For a long time all I did was hurt people, a lot of people. Now it‘s my turn to help them. It’s a gift I want to give.”

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