From Ilopango to Pomona
by David Bacon
POMONA, CA (8/25/93) -- For six weeks in the spring of 1993, Ana Martinez lived under a tree at the corner of Ninth and East End in Pomona, California. She wasn't homeless, although you could find her on that corner from the early hours before dawn, through the sweltering day, and deep into the night.
The tree marked one end of a road that had its beginnings in Ilopango, in her native El Salvador, fifteen years before. There, she began her working life as a teenager in a factory. Then she became a union activist and a refugee fleeing for her life. By the time she arrived on Ninth Street, her odyssey had included work as a seamstress and domestic in Los Angeles, and finally another career dedi-cated to the same ideals which forced her from her native land.
She became a union organizer.
On May 4th, 1993, on Ninth Street, immigrant workers from Mexico and Central America went on strike against Pomona's largest employer, the Cal Spas factory. By then Martinez was a veteran of Los Angeles' labor wars. Her union, the United Electrical Workers (UE), sent her to help them organize their strike and run their picketline.
Cal Spas' hot tubs are symbols of the good life in southern California. They conjure up images of warm evenings in the breeze on the patio, bathing in the spa's warm, turbulent water. But the 530 workers who labor in the sprawling factory are far removed from suburban homes with patios and tubs. Earning close to minimum wage, with no holidays or vacations, most live in cramped apartments in the sprawling Pomona barrio. The $3-5000 cost of a spa represents months of their take-home pay.
These immigrants are the workers on the bottom. They are the ones who produce the luxury goods they can never hope to own, who clean the beautiful hotels where they will never sleep, who nail up the drywall in the dream homes where they will never live.
"Workers at Cal Spas grew tired of these contradictions," Martinez says, "and they found somebody who could help them organize their movement from below." A distaste for personal aggrandizement prevents her from saying exactly who it was that those workers found, but the answer is obvious. They found her.
Los Angeles' immigrant labor wars, which have been going on for a decade or more, are producing a generation of veteran organizers. Ana Martinez is one of them.
Her experience highlights a little-noted contribution immigrants are making to American life, but one which will leave a lasting imprint. A hardened immigrant cadre is breathing new life into the labor movement. From countries throughout the Americas and around the Pacific Rim, they are bringing higher expectations into unions - new tactics for strikes and organizing battles, a desire to make unions democratic and more politically radical, and a sense of urgency about the needs of the people on the bottom.
Martinez' story begins in Ilopango, on the outskirts of San Salvador. "I began as a worker in 1974," she remembers. "I was 19." Along with a thousand others, she got a job working in the assembly plant of Texas In-struments, a giant U.S. electronics company. Martinez and her coworkers spent long hours at their benches, peering through microscopes, attaching tiny wires to computer chips.
In 1976 her first son was born, and then another in 1978. The pressure of growing families like her own led many of the factory's workers to begin organizing a union at the plant. "Ninety-five percent of us were women, and we had nowhere to leave our children," Martinez recalls. "In addition, we were risking our eyes working with the microscopes, and we had problems with the chemicals." They organized their fledgling union around demands for wage increases, nurseries for the children, and the problem of their deteriorating eyesight.
But those were dangerous years for unions in El Salvador. By 1980, many unionists had been killed by death squads, including two from the Texas Instruments plant. In response, many Salvadoran unions joined to call a general strike in protest.
Years later, Martinez' voice still trembles when she tells the story of that strike. "That day I worked in the calculator department. I kept asking myself what I was going to do, how I was going to get my depart-ment to stop work. I thought that if I went to each person and said 'Stop!" they would be afraid. My union compaņeros were no help Ņ they just gave me my job and left it up to me to find a way. Finally, I asked the mechanic who worked on my line where the buttons were that turned the machines off. I prepared my coworkers, and told them that at 8am there would be a general strike, and that the whole country was ready.
"When the moment came, I pressed the button and all the machines stopped. We all looked around and saw that the workers in the other departments had stopped too. It was very emotional, and very scary, because then the army came into the factory. The manager was so frightened he left in a helicopter.
"The head of plant security walked up and down the rows of machines, a pistol in each hand. Outside the factory, two workers who came from the printing plant next door to help, were taken by the soldiers and shot.
"The day after, we went to our union office to hold a memorial ser-vice for workers who had been killed. The army arrived, and arrested ev-eryone. They shot up the office. Two compaņeros died that day as well. The soldiers held me for hours, and then the company fired me."
Three days after the strike, a death squad sent by Col. Roberto d'Aubuisson en-tered the national cathedral in central San Salvador, and assassinated Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero. The civil war had begun.
Martinez calls her union a "revolutionary union" because they had a vision of larger changes which they wanted, beyond solving the problems in the plant. "We fought not just for our rights in the factory, but for a more just society. To survive, we had to learn to run our own union Ņ that we, the members, were the union."
But her activism made her a target, and she decided to leave the country. Recalling her decision today, the enormous conflict that she felt over it is still apparent. "Imagine what the war was like," she pleads. "We had one foot on earth and one in the grave. We didn't know if the next day we would wake up alive. All of my gen-eration who passed through these experiences were marked by the horrible trauma.
"I wasn't strong enough to face death. I had two small children, and I was afraid for their future. Others were harder. They could say 'I'm here, and I'll stay.' Many made that deci-sion, and many died. I thought I was more concerned with myself than with the struggle of our people. I called myself a coward."
The strike took place March 21, 1980. She left the country on April 21.
Martinez left her children behind, hoping to bring them later. She ar-rived in Los Angeles, and not long afterwards, her sister followed her. They helped each other through the first and hardest years.
She got a job in a garment shop. Sewing on piecerate, she was only paid $5.00 for a day's work. "I thought, my God, I'll never be able to do any-thing here." Then she got a job as a servant in a home. Cooking and cleaning for a family, she earned more than she could in a garment factory, but still hardly enough to eat.
"I went around with my clothes and possessions with me," she remembers. "I would go to the house of friends, and they would give me a place to sleep. Some-times I would sleep in a closet. Sometimes there were five of us sleeping in the hallway."
She began to get jobs cleaning houses. But that had its dangers too, especially for women. "We were in a strange country where we didn't understand the language, and our culture was very different," she explains. "When people offered to help us, we didn't know if they were honest or not, and we had such a great need to survive. Sometimes men, really bad men, would tell us they knew where there was work, that they would take us there. I had friends who were taken and tricked by men who said they would find them work, who later raped them. It was so dangerous, and we were so poor."
Finally, she found people who helped her bring her children to the U.S. But saving the money took four years.
Although the popular stereotype pictures immigrants bringing their children to the U.S. to take ad-vantage of social services and a supposedly better life, Martinez' attempt to reunite her family here was bitter, and ultimately unsuccessful. Her sons stayed with her for five years, while they lived near MacArthur Park in downtown LA. In the end, she sent them back to live with their father in El Sal-vador, despite the danger and the poverty.
"I began to see that Los Angeles was even a less healthy place for them to grow up," she says. "I tried to educate them at home, but outside, how could I control the corruption they were exposed to? The gangs, the drugs, how? Our neighborhood, in the center of the city, was a lost and corrupt place. I don't think any parent could do it."
Martinez kept looking for other Salvadorans who were involved in supporting the movement back home, and finally ran into people handing out leaflets in the street. She began to help, going to union halls in Los Angeles, and eventually beyond, explaining her experiences in El Salvador to workers here, asking for support for the unions back home.
Especially in the unions where immigrants were active, she began to make friends among the organizers. One of them, David Johnson, an international representative for the United Electrical Workers, asked her to help him talk to workers at a local electronics plant. "I sympathized with the UE," she says, "because it seemed more like the unions in El Salvador Ņ a rank-and-file union, run by the members. Some leaders of other unions I met didn't have much mod-esty. Their luxurious offices seemed like the kind a boss has in El Salvador. The UE's office was a storefront in Compton."
But fitting in with the UE wasn't easy either. Martinez was organizational secretary of her union at Texas Instruments. She and her fellow activists depended for survival on a very disciplined way of working. She had a hard time adjusting to the UE's freewheeling style.
"I couldn't see a plan," she remembers. "They just said, 'we're going to sign up some workers,' and we went out and did it. When I criticized, they thought I had a swelled head. They even wanted to fire me. But I told them, 'I'm learning, and I believe in the struggle. If I was just here for fun, you could have your job.' So they gave me a chance."
Still, Martinez wasn't unique. At the time of the Cal Spas strike, more than half the UE's organizers in southern California had been born outside the U.S. They all knew first-hand the culture of LA's immigrant workers and the problems they face. In addition, Martinez discovered that her activist history in El Salvador helped her find an organizing style workers also found familiar. By the time the Cal Spas strike started, she had cut her teeth on more than a dozen organizing campaigns.
When Cal Spas workers approached the union and described their conditions, Martinez heard an echo of her own experience Ņ of life lived close to the edge. "We had no paid holidays, no vacations, and no health care for our families," recalls Alfredo Carabez, a Cal Spas worker who helped start the organizing ef-fort. "Our supervisors told us that we had to work 12 and 16 hour days for months, and we were glad to get the overtime. Our wages were so low we couldn't live on 8 hours pay."
After Martinez helped set up a strike kitchen under the tree on Ninth Street, preparing a hot meal for the picketline ev-ery day, she discovered it was the only food many strikers had to eat. In their barrio apartments, there was nothing in the cupboards or refrigerator.
Carabez and his friends at the plant began talking union in late 1992 and early 1993. By April, he was fired. Then in June, he was beaten up in front of the plant by an assailant brought to the factory by a company supplier.
Other activists were set up as well. A union committee member was harassed by another worker, and when a fight broke out be-tween them, he was arrested and taken from the plant in handcuffs by police. Charges against him were later dropped. To the union, the incidents were all ways the company had to scare workers. And although these hardball tactics seem extreme, they're not uncommon among employers fac-ing organizing efforts in an immigrant work-force.
A week after Carabez was beaten, outraged workers struck the plant. Then the company locked the strikers out. For twelve weeks, Cal Spas work-ers mounted picketlines, and a consumer boycott of the company's re-tail stores.
The company began hiring strikebreakers a week after the strike started, almost all immigrants from the same neighborhoods. Strikers organized a march with their families through Pomona's barrio, ending with a rally at a city park. "They wanted," Martinez says, "to let the whole community know what was happening to them. They looked at the community as a source of support and protection."
It was hard for the Cal Spas workers, almost all from Mexico and Central America, to understand why the company had the right to continue operating with strikebreakers. In Mexico, Article 123 of the Constitution requires a company to shut its factory down during a legal strike. Strikebreaking is prohibited. "In El Salvador, where the law is similar, the government would say that all our strikes were illegal, of course," Martinez says. "But because we believed that we had the right anyway, we would ourselves take steps to close the factory down. Experience like this gives workers a much more militant attitude."
Eliseo Medina, another veteran southern California union organizer, says that "when you come from a country where they shoot you for being a unionist or a striker, getting fired from your job doesn't seem so bad."
In the end, however, the poverty of the strikers, their hunger and lack of resources, made it impossible for them to continue challenging Cal Spas. They offered to return to their jobs, and when the company refused to take them back, most of them sought employment elsewhere. The experience left a bitter taste in many mouths.
Nevertheless, the strike was part of a decade-long wave of labor unrest, one more indication that immigrant workers are less and less content to remain passive victims. "This wave is growing," according to Martinez, "because of the conditions them-selves. Workers are saying to each other that 'we're getting $4.25 an hour here. If they fire me, I can get a job like this somewhere else.'
"And even though some workers were demoralized that we didn't win the struggle at Cal Spas, in the long run, conditions are the same or worse every-where. The factories where you find immigrants are the factories where you find the lowest wages, the worst conditions, and the worst treatment. And things are worst of all where workers have no documents. In Pomona there are a mountain of factories like that.
"This is the hope that we have, that fires will spring up in other places."
For years, the accepted wisdom in most unions was that immigrant workers were unorganizable. They are often unaware of their legal rights, officials of these unions would point out. They have prob-lems with their immigration status, and few economic resources.
Yet Martinez believes that immigrants also have advantages which give them strength. She argues that "the fact that so many people live together in the same house helps us support each other. Our living conditions may be born of necessity, but they unite us."
The end of the strike also had its impact on Martinez. It left her asking herself the age-old question of immigrants everywhere Ņ where do I really belong?
Is she a Salvadoran in exile, looking first at the situation in her native country and thinking of eventually returning. Or has she become a permanent part of society here? Will she stay or leave?
"I don't know the answer," she concludes. "Like my friends and compaņeros from El Salvador, we came, we learned, we got involved in the struggle to find a better life, and found we could be useful here. I'm not sure what my destiny will be."
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