The Mountain of Concrete
by David Bacon
HUNTINGTON PARK (12/28/94) - You hear the truck long before you can see it. Its engine's low-pitched roar starts to rise, the sound of the gearbox becomes a whine, and your body tenses as you feel it strain. Finally you see it. A dumptruck appears around a bend in the road ascending the concrete mountain, and grinds its way slowly upward.
Looking from the street below, it's far enough away that it seems almost like a big toy. Enormous pieces of concrete pillars are piled onto it, as though a giant hand had snapped them off a crushed freeway somewhere, and dropped them into the bed. Forty feet above the street, as it reaches the summit, its huge tires leave a trail of dust in the air which floats and slowly dissipates down the crushed concrete slope.
Rounding a bend in the powdery road at the top, the truck disappears. Then you hear a rumble and crash, as it adds its load to the hundreds or thousands which must have come before.
They arrive at 6 AM. Through the day, one after another, the enormous trucks whine and rumble up the slope and dump their loads. On Cottage Street, which runs behind the concrete mountain, Linda Marquez, her brother Ignacio, and his wife Lilia rise to the din. The roar accompanies their breakfast, and sends families in the neighborhood off to work. It threatens to drown the Spanish soaps on TV in the afternoon. Children and young people learn to drive it out of their heads as they do homework after school. At dinner, the rumble is an uninvited guest. Finally, at 7PM, it stops. An LA street has never seemed so quiet.
"It used to go all night," Linda Marquez remembers. "But the worst part is the dust. I call it a phantom dust. You wipe off your furniture, and an hour later it feels gritty again. It's a taste in your mouth that's very flat and terrible. You always want to clear your throat, and after you rinse your mouth, it comes right back. I used to have a garden, but the two trees in front of my house are half dead now."
Over the last year, the trucks have been piling up resentment in what used to be a quiet Huntington Park neighborhood, as the mountain they built load by load slowly arose on what used to be the site of a storage yard for used tires. "I feel so angry to have to live in a situation like this," Marquez says bitterly.
At first glance she looks thin. Like many older people, the lack of calcium in her bones has made them fragile and easily broken. But her eyes belie any impression of weakness, and her voice is determined and strong. "It used to be quiet here," she remembers. "Now I feel as though being in my house is like being in prison."
The confrontation between Marquez and her neighbors, and the mountain of concrete, is a paradigm of the changing communities of southeast Los Angeles. Over the past twenty years, most of the big, heavy industrial plants of southeast LA have closed. The Ford assembly plant in Pico Rivera, and the GM plant in Southgate, closed years ago, putting thousands of people in the street. Bethlehem Steel, which spread out along Alameda Boulevard for half a mile, has been just a memory in the minds of its workers for a decade. Firestone Tires is gone. The list goes on.
And as they've closed, cities like Huntington Park not only lost what tax base plants like these paid. When workers who depended on the jobs, and who lived in the cities of the Alameda corridor, lost them, they could no longer support businesses in the community, or taxes for municipal services. Many moved away. And as the tax base for city governments and schools was decimated, the smell of desperation filled the corridors of the city halls of the southeast.
Huntington Park's city government welcomed Aggregate Recycling Systems into the neighborhood, despite the obvious price that neighbors in the surrounding blocks would pay, because those neighbors have changed as well. Most are immigrants now - people who have arrived in the neighborhood in the last decade. They are young families. Along the long block behind the mountain children chatter in Spanish, running through the street and the front yards after school and on weekends. Banda music is what's on the radio on Cottage Street.
Pacific Avenue, the downtown business district of Huntington Park, retains the eerie familiarity of a small downtown from the 1950s. There's a Woolworth's, an old brick S.H.Kress building, and other pieces of solid business architecture from the years when businesses spent real money on their buildings. But now new businesses have sprouted in the old shells. Botanicas, immigration legal services, clinicas and taquerias announce their services in neon and bold letters. Three old-fashioned neighborhood movie theaters are still very much alive in an era when most others have folded in the face of the cineplexes and the malls. But on Pacific Avenue, Frankenstein and The Professional play with Spanish subtitles.
In Cudahy, young mothers line their toddlers up in single file before the gate into the schoolyard at Park Avenue Elementary, chatting in Spanish in easy conversation. Through the fence they gaze at an odd green surface to the playground, and behind it, the cinderblock wall separating the school from the concrete Los Angeles River channel. The greentop covers an old toxic waste dump from the period after World War Two, when the military used the land. After caustic oil and tar came bubbling up through cracks in the playground in 1991, the school district closed the school for a year, scraped away much of the contamination, and gave the yard a new, supposedly impermeable surface. It's the only green schoolyard without grass in Los Angeles.
The present overlays the past here in odd juxtaposition. The issues of toxic contamination from a heavy industrial heritage, immigration and changing demographics, and their implications for political change, all revolve around each other.
Aggregate Recycling Systems hasn't received a warm welcome on Cottage Street. In fact, the mountain of concrete rose as the protests of this community also mounted. And Aggregate is not the only focus for community opposition to toxic contamination in the Alameda corridor. A rising tide of activity, springing up from neighborhoods and grassroots residents, is challenging the philosophy of jobs at any price, which has guided industrial development in LA since its inception.
In this swirl of activity, among the newcomers and older residents who survived the earthquake of deindustrialization, one of the city's most respected, urban-based environmental movements is reinventing itself. And along the railroad tracks down Alameda Boulevard, past the factories on either side of the mountain of concrete, another chapter is playing itself out in the rebirth of the city's labor movement.
Alameda Boulevard runs 21 miles from downtown LA to Long Beach. It passes through three cities created just for industry. One of them, Vernon, has 192 resi-dents, and 90 registered voters, at night, and a daytime population over 50,000. An-other five cities along the boulevard are ones much of the blue collar workforce of LA calls home. Two of them, Bell and Cudahy, have household incomes which rank among the five poorest cities in the United States. Four hundred thousand people live in these 8 cities, 92% of them Latino.
Concrete dust and noise are not as toxic as some of the other pollutants coming from the factories of the Alameda corridor. But its visibility to the residents of the neighborhood, and the misery it causes them, makes the issue important for LA CAUSA - Los Angeles Comunidades Assembladas y Unidas para un Sostenable Ambiente (Los Angeles Communities Assembled in Unity for a Sustainable Environment) - the new community-organizing arm of Citizens for a Better Environment.
CBE is one of California's most aggressive environmental organizations, with a long history of suing and fighting corporations over toxic contamination. Unlike many other environmental advocates, it has good relations with unions, and a record of balancing concern over jobs and the health of workers with cleaning up pollution.
A year ago, CBE moved its offices out of Venice, into the old Standard Oil Building downtown. Then it hired Carlos Porras as CBE's southern California director, to organize the bar-rios along the Alameda corridor against some of the highest levels of toxic pollution in the country.
It was a wrenching change in some ways. Huntington Park Mayor Rick Loya, who was on the CBE board at the time, says that "for some in the environmental community, fish come first. But CBE has expertise that minority communities need, especially small cities and communities who don't have a lot of resources of their own." Porras calls it "a conscious decision to get grounded as an organization in communities which have become LA's toxic hotspots."
In Porras, CBE found an environmental activist with a personal history like that of many residents of southeast LA. Tall, thin and intense, Porras is a son of the border, who grew up in El Paso. He speaks with a certain deliberation, as though he was thinking about each word before he says it. It's a way of talking many people learn in jail, which is perhaps where Porras learned it, since the hard knocks of his youth landed him in prisons on both sides of the border. "It made me very hard," he says flatly. "America the beautiful can also be America the bigoted."
Once in LA, be went to work for the water department of Santa Fe Springs. After the city tried to fire him "because I was Mexican," city workers elected him president of their independent union for seven terms, and vice-president for six. He joined the environmental movement when he and his coworkers took on Powerene, for emissions which ate up car paint, and which workers thought might be responsible for increased cancer in the public works yard. A Chicano student activist, and UFW supporter, Porras knows how to talk the talk, and walk the walk, in southeast LA.
A month ago, the neighbors on Cottage Street and the area behind the mountain of concrete, went to the city's planning commission to contest an extension of the facility's use permit. Recycling businesses, a growing industry in the southeast, can only receive conditional use permits, which put restrictions on their operations, because of the potential for contamination problems from the materials they process. LA CAUSA arranged to have an air dispersion study made, which showed unacceptably high levels of airborne particulates, dust particles too small to be seen, but those which wreak the most damage to the lungs. The planning commission received the study, but refused to accept its conclusions, or to conduct an environmental impact review of its own.
Last week, every seat in the Huntington Park City Council chambers was filled, and people stood shoulder to shoulder around the walls, as LA CAUSA and the neighbors went to the city council, to demand a study of the dust, and to challenge the permit until one was conducted. They were joined by the parishioners of St. Mathias Church, mobilized by its priest and by one of east Los Angeles oldest, and most respected, community organizations, the United Neighborhood Organization.
Mayor Loya, a city teacher, threw time limits to the winds, giving each of the neighbors who wanted to speak three minutes. Ruby Hernandez, a seven-year old girl who lives on Cottage Street, electrified the room as her voice broke, and she choked out: "I don't want to die, from something there that we don't even know what it is." Other residents spoke of asthmatic children and family members, and the increase in respiratory illness since the mountain began to rise.
But while Loya was sympathetic, other council members clearly weren't. Councilmember Rosario Marin made a point of challenging the statements from almost every resident, and attempted to discredit the LA CAUSA study results. Despite the fact that it uses methodology mandated by the state government, and that the issues it raises are a proper part of the permit process, Marin told CBE staff attorney Michelle Sypert that the study was simply based on "a mathematical formula."
Ignacio Marquez, now 70 years old, told Marin that he felt hostility from her, unlike the feelings she tried to inspire when she campaigned for votes in the city's last election. Other speakers echoed him. "I grew up in Huntington Park," he told her, "and I was proud." Hitching his thumbs through his belt loops, and pushing out his chest, he said "I used to walk around like this, and tell people with pride where I came from." Looking at him, you could imagine the fights he might have gotten into with that pride. "But now, there are a lot of us here who come from somewhere else, and you don't even see us. I'm not against industry. Hell, we live in an industrial area. I'm against the health hazards we're suffering."
"You see," says Porras, "there's a lot of political turmoil in southeast LA, which has given us some new Latino faces in city governments here, which before were almost exclusively white. But often we've replaced the white defenders of industry with Latino defenders of industry. I can't say we have a really progressive government in any city here."
For Loya, the problem is the age-old one of balancing jobs and economic development with the concerns of residents about their environment. "Face it, the mountain's hideous," he says. "But ugly's not enough. The question is really the fine particulate matter, whether it's dangerous to the residents' health. Maybe the situation can be mitigated. What we need is an EIR to study the options."
In the eyes of many residents, Loya is a hero. He went to the mountain, and he listened to the people. "I'm a teacher,' he says, "and I can't escape from people. When I go to the store, I hear about it, or when I talk to parents. I can't just say I don't care about jobs either."
In the end, the council voted to test the dust from all the business on that block of Alameda Boulevard. Granting an extension of the conditional use permit was delayed until January. Residents got a little of what they were seeking, but they remain suspicious of the process. And of course, the trucks keep whining up the dusty slope. The battle is clearly not over.
"We got involved in the Aggregate hearings because of the rampant pro-business mentality which exists in Huntington Park, and in all the cities of the Alameda corridor," Porras explains. Neighborhood outrage provided an opportunity for LA CAUSA to further build a base in the immigrant community and workforce, by taking on the issues which provoked spontaneous protest over an immediate environmental threat. LA CAUSA organizes its community base in gritty struggles, factory by factory, neighborhood by neighborhood. Its strategy is to use that base to challenge even more serious environmental problems.
One of them is GNB Battery Technologies in Vernon. Here LA CAUSA cooperates with Las Madres of East LA Santa Isabel in challenging lead emissions from the plant. GNB is a huge facility, the largest battery recycler on the west coast. In 1992 the company settled a case in which it was cited by the South Coast Air Quality Management District for excessive lead emissions and odors, and burning solid waste without a permit. The plant was a particular target of Las Madres, a 10-year old community organization in East LA and Boyle Heights, immediately to the north of Vernon. Children in these communities have an elevated level of lead in their blood, and community residents are concerned because of GNB's record.
According to Porras, GNB threatened to close as a result of the case. AQMD arrived at a settlement with the company, in which it paid $350,000. The money, however, goes into a fund which will be used to finance research on new battery-processing technology, to be conducted at the University of Missouri. The company says that it wants the new technology installed in its plant.
LA CAUSA and Las Madres plan to intervene in the permit process which the company will have to negotiate for new construction. Juana Gutierrez, director of Las Madres, explains that "we don't want the company to go, to take away jobs or move. We just want them to obey the law, and not endanger the health of our children." Porras points to a recent agreement negotiated between CBE and the Chevron refinery in Richmond, in which the community won a voice in how the plant operates. "We want a deal like that here," he says.
But for LA CAUSA and Rick Loya, the biggest threat is AQMD's RECLAIM program - the Regional Clean Air Incentive Market. According to AQMD spokesperson Tim Ruthstiver, under the old regulations, companies had to have permits, and obey emission limits, for each piece of equipment which emits pollutants like nitrogen and sulfur oxides, the main ingredients of smog. Under RECLAIM, as new regulations take effect, bringing limits below the emission levels of some companies, they can now buy pollution credits from other companies who have lower-than-required emissions.
The first company to buy credits was Anchor Glass, whose plant lies across the street from Huntington Park in Vernon. Because so many factories lie in or surround it, Loya says "RECLAIM just puts all the dirt in one place - my city." Porras accuses AQMD of reinforcing environmental racism. "The district's policy actually creates toxic hotspots, because as one polluter ratchets down emissions, pollution rises in another place, and becomes more localized in southeast Los Angeles." Ruthstiver admits that "it's an historic fact that some communities are cleaner than others," and that this will continue under RECLAIM, although, he says, it will only continue "for a little while."
CBE filed suit against the Air Resources Board and AQMD over fundamental flaws in RECLAIM, "but originally we didn't have any organizing strategy against it. Then Anchor Glass handed us the issue. It's become an organizing tool to show the impact of policy on the community."
But for Porras, it's also hard to mobilize people against abstract policy questions. LA CAUSA begins, therefore, with the issues which are the most visible to people in the community. Fighting Aggregate Recycling Systems or GNB can be a step to challenging Anchor Glass and the Air Quality Management District. Together, they are part of an overall strategy to build a movement against toxic racism and for environmental justice in the immigrant communities of the Alameda corridor. "We want to articulate an industry-wide and area-wide policy which reduces toxics, and prevents pollution," Porras says. "It's going to take site-specific struggles to get us there." He looks to a long-term alliance especially with the city's labor movement to provide the political muscle to challenge industry power in local governments.
Despite two decades of plant closures, and the loss of most of its heavy industry, Los Angeles is still the largest manufacturing center in the United States. Seven hundred seventeen thousand workers walk through the gates of LA's factories every day, dwarfing the 400,000-strong industrial workforce of Chicago's Cook County, now the nation's second largest manufacturing concentration. Over half of LA's industrial workers are immigrants. Trapped in an apartheid-like subclass of minimum wages, bone-crushing injuries, and intense speedup, they have become the backbone of militant labor protest in Los Angeles.
This is not a reality unknown to the city's unions, who have had to choose between being pushed into irrelevance by shrinking membership, or organizing these new workers. Increasingly, they have chosen the latter course. Their plan is called the Los Angeles Manufacturing Action Project.
LAMAP was originally the brainchild of Peter Olney, whose peripatetic career as a union organizer took him from Boston to LA to San Francisco and LA again, working for a handful of different unions. His description of the project is deceptively simple: "a multi-union, area-wide organizing drive, linked to the immigrant community."
Like the best and smartest organizers across the country, Olney, whose big frame, plain shoes and union jacket make him look like an industrial worker him-self, sees that the labor movement has been dying of disconnection to the social upheavals which gave it birth. Organizing drives once moved millions to redress the fundamental inequalities of a corporate economic system. Over the last two decades, however, workers and unions have been forced into mechanical and legalistic campaigns, littered with fired workers, closed plants and broken unions, where the company holds all the advan-tages.
But the history of the union struggles of immigrant workers in Los Angeles is by-and-large a history of success. At American Racing Equipment, workers started a drive to organize a union in 1990 with a spontaneous strike, and ended with a contract. The police riot in Century City provoked enough outrage to bring major maintenance contractors to agreement, and thousands of workers into the union. Four thousand drywallers fought a wildcat, brushfire war with the homebuilding industry for a year, and in 1993 over twenty contractors signed contracts as well.
"That's the excitement of LA," Olney says. "Fights involving immigrant workers are very militant. They've forced unions to discard tired old tactics. They hold out the potential to force us to re-look at the whole question of how to organize, and what organizing means."
By next year, LAMAP will be the largest-scale, most meticulously-planned or-ganizing effort mounted by the labor movement and its allies for many years. It draws on the immigrant experience - in fact, as Olney points out, its whole point is to follow the immigrant workforce through the plants and barrios of the nation's largest manufacturing district - the Alameda corridor.
LAMAP proposes to spark a wave of organizing down its length, targeting industries rather than workplaces. It seeks to build a movement which will sweep through its communities, tying the fight for living wages and safe jobs to an end to toxic pollution in schoolyards and neighborhoods.
Some might question the wisdom of organizing industrial workers in a city which has probably lost more industrial jobs in the last decade than almost any other, and where the recession lingers on after the economic cycle has turned up elsewhere. Statistics compiled by Goetz Wolff, who leads the research effort underpinning LAMAP, document that over 200,000 jobs fled Los Angeles between 1979 and 1992.
But manufacturing still constitutes a higher percentage of employment here than it does nationally, about 17 as opposed to 16 percent. Even more important, the loss of manufacturing jobs has hit overwhelmingly the production of high technol-ogy and durable goods, from computers to aircraft, and automobiles to steel. But the workforce in industries like recycling, garment manufacturing, food processing, printing and plastics has remained almost constant. These are the industries of the Alameda corridor, sustained by the sea of immigrant labor which surrounds them.
LAMAP research builds on previous efforts to create academic institutions in Los Angeles to serve working-class communities. Kent Wong, director of UCLA's Labor Center and president of the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance, the AFL-CIO's organizing arm for Asian-American workers, sits on the LAMAP advisory board. This year, LAMAP was adopted by the Community Scholars Program of UCLA's Department of Urban Planning and the Labor Center, which every year brings together community and union leaders - the community scholars - and graduate students.
"We believe that the subjects of research can be researchers themselves," ac-cording to Gilda Haas, director of the program. "In fact, if the people of southeast LA have no role in posing the questions, the chances of the research being useful to their needs is about zero." At its conclusion, this year's Community Scholars Pro-gram will produce, in addition to information on specific industries, a feasibility study for a multi-union organizing drive in the Alameda corridor.
Olney and LAMAP are using this extensive research base to identify viable organizing targets - that is, industries which will stay in LA, and have the money to support higher wages and benefits. Both garment and custom wheel manufactur-ing, for instance, rely on just-in-time delivery, and easily accessible facilities where production changes can be made overnight. LA food processing, ironically owned increasingly by Mexican capital, is limited to areas close to markets and suppliers.
The Alameda corridor now has its own transportation authority, which plans to spend $1.8 billion to transform the infrastructure of transportation which links the area's factories and the port. Railroads and roadways will be streamlined, and submerged below groundlevel, from the rail yards in east LA to docks in Wilmington, San Pedro and Long Beach.
Porras explains that increasing the power of immigrants at work will ultimately make it easier for them to win their efforts to clean up their neighborhoods. "The environment is not the number one need in peoples' lives," he says. "People have to sustain themselves first. Once they've started to climb the economic ladder, they start articulating demands for a better environment to live in." Olney responds that "our issue isn't job cre-ation; it's control of the labor market. Communities represented by unions can use that control to raise their economic level and win political power." LA CAUSA has pledged to support union drives, walk picketlines, and bring community pressure to bear on employers when workers need the leverage.
David Sickler, director of Region 6 of the AFL-CIO, criticizes unions for hav-ing been too slow to forge community alliances in the past. "We've organized in a vacuum," he asserts. "By the time we got in fights with a company, and went to get community support, it was already too late. The employer was seen as more of a resident of the community than the workers."
The whole idea of LAMAP is to put the pieces in place before the action starts, to hit the ground running. And ironically, the hardest piece, more difficult than re-search or community support, is the labor movement itself. In part, the problem is resources. The industrial unions which most logically would want to organize the workers of the Alameda corridor, including the machinists, autoworkers, and steel-workers, are the ones most pummeled by plant closures and loss of membership.
"This is very difficult," Sickler says. "These unions are the most financially strapped, fighting permanent rearguard actions, trying to keep what they have." On the other hand, he points out that the Los Angeles Labor Federation, one of the country's largest, has resources of its own, as do many local unions. Some, like the International Ladies' Garment Workers, already have a long history of organizing drives and strikes among the immigrant workers of the Alameda corridor.
The county Federation itself set up the California Immigrant Workers Association in 1987, originally to help immigrants with the paperwork requirements for amnesty applications under the Immigration Reform and Control Act. CIWA has a base of associate members extending through southeast LA. Sickler looks at its seasoned organizers, Joel Ochoa and Jose de Paz, as an LAMAP resource as well.
But unions also have no patience. When unions in Silicon Valley last year joined to launch the Campaign for Justice, an ambitious effort to organize San Jose's immigrant contract workforce, the pressure to produce immediate results pulled the coalition apart after a few months. LAMAP organizers believe that its advance preparations will help organiz-ing sweeps move quickly, with knowledge of employer weaknesses and the com-munity support to exploit them. But at the beginning, at least, it will still be a race against time.
The biggest challenge LAMAP faces is the organizing process itself, and the ef-fect it has on workers and unions. Organizing upsets things. It raises workers' ex-pectations, and changes established power relationships, especially inside unions. It's no accident that many immigrant organizing efforts begin outside the established union structure, and then turn to it for support as the battle escalates. Sometimes this is to their mutual advantage. Although carpenters union organiz-ers helped drywallers get their strike started, and other unions provided food and support, the workers themselves had no organization to enjoin, or treasury which employers could seize in court.
Olney and Sickler expect LAMAP to use similar flexible tactics which empha-size direct action and the mass mobilization of workers, and which avoid the Na-tional Labor Relations Board. Sickler laments "too many years when we walked in lockstep with the NLRB, organizing one shop at a time. It was a failed approach. I don't think we have any choice other than to change," he says. "The immigrants are our future."
It's a future that Porras, LA CAUSA, Olney, and LAMAP all agree on.
It's not ironic at all that the same period which has seen the development of LA CAUSA, and the planning for LAMAP, is a period of rising anti-immigrant hysteria in California. Over 40 anti-immigrant bills were introduced into the state's legislature in 1993 and 94. They came not only from Orange County Republicans. Democratic Senators Boxer and Feinstein introduced measures calling for militarizing the border with Mexico, and charging border-crossing fees to finance it. Los Angeles Democratic Congressman Tony Bielenson proposed federal legislation to eliminate citizenship for U.S.-born children of immigrants. That hysteria reached a peak in the November election, with the passage of Proposition 187.
In Huntington Park, the city council, despite its divisions over toxic contamination, voted unanimously to oppose it. And this reflects, as much as does the siting of the mountain of concrete, the city's changing demographics. "Undocumented people have kept this town afloat," Loya says. "They deserve a voice in the safety of this community, no more and no less than anyone else."
The same upsurge in organizing activity which inspired the planning for LAMAP has also been an inspiration for anti-immigrant proposals like 187. They are not only a product of anti-immigrant sentiment, but an effort to maintain the second-class status of immigrants themselves.
Without immigrant factory workers along the Alameda corridor, without janitors in the of-fice and business parks of Century City, with-out farmworkers in Southern California fields, without electronics workers in the sweatshops of Santa Ana, and with no immigrant dishwashers and room cleaners in the luxury hotels of Newport Beach, the economy of Southern California would crumble. Immigrants are indispensable to the economy of those areas where the cry for exclusion is the strongest.
Proposition 187 cannot change what the California work-force and economy have become, nor can it end the state's recession. In-stead, all of these anti-immigrant proposals say: let's keep the lid on these people. There's too much money riding on it.
The question really is: do immigrants know their place, and are they willing to accept it? The importance of LA CAUSA and LAMAP is that they are a vehicle for people themselves to answer that question. And increasingly, their answer is no.
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