Immigrant Strikers Teach Unions New Tactics
by David Bacon
ORANGE, CA (7/29/95) - Strikers start gathering in the early morning darkness at the Carpenters Union hall in Orange. Soft conversations in Spanish fill the hall's parking lot, while inside workers drink coffee around folding tables, making stacks of picketsigns while they talk and wait. Then, the roar of three big motor coaches fills the cold air, as they pull into the lot. Some in baseball caps and denim jackets, some in blankets and sombreros, the strikers pile aboard. And on every bus, in almost every window, workers hold signs with just one word in large bright letters - ÁBASTA!
In Spanish it says ENOUGH! In one word, the strikers are announcing they've had their fill of jobs where you run all day across beams and rafters, and come home in the end with a paycheck which can't pay the rent. The BASTA sign is the touchstone of this particular strike, but the workers here are really speaking for thousands more.
This is the framers' strike. For half a decade now, immigrant workers have mounted one of the most sustained waves of labor unrest and activity since the organizing battles of the farmworkers union swept through the valleys of California and Arizona in the 1960s. Every year, strike after strike, march after march, picketline after picketline, rocks California - in hotels, office buildings, agricultural fields, factories and sweatshops. The conditions are the same, and the answer of the workers is the same.
The framers strike hit the Los Angeles basin in April. For two months, strikers battled with developers, contractors, police and the Border Patrol. By July, when the strike ended, they had gained contracts with 22 framing contractors, controlling the strategic 25% of the industry. But mounting legal reprisals against the strikers and their union forced the strike's suspension.
The strike pushed the envelope of new tactics outward once more, following on the heels of other strikes and organizing drives which have broken new ground for workers and unions across the country. Immigrant Latino workers are leading the resurgence of the labor movement in California, rebuilding its unions and contributing new tactics for winning increasingly difficult battles with corporate employers.
The framers - carpenters who build the wood skeleton of new homes - closed down the homebuilding industry of southern California. Immigrant workers did the same thing four years ago, when drywallers - workers who put up the interior walls - fought developers and contractors for a year, and won recognition for their union at its end. Both groups of strikers are drawn from the same workforce, almost all from Mexico and Latin America.
These strikes have electrified unions and workers across the southwest, and set new rules for the conduct of successful labor battles. Workers ran them democratically, from the bottom up. The initial battle of the drywallers won deep respect and support from unions and workers throughout the state, who sent food caravans and money to keep it going. Drywallers defied the police and the immigration service, and blockaded freeways when their car caravans were rousted as they travelled from job to job.
The framers' strike, following on the heels of the drywallers, began as workers walked off construction sites this spring in Los Angeles and Orange County. Picketing spread quickly as hundreds joined it from Fillmore to Newport Beach. Big groups of strikers, ranging from 75 to 300 workers, gathered in the mornings in Santa Ana, Sylmar, El Monte and Riverside to go out to the construction sites, and picketing spread out of the LA basin, towards the Mexican border.
Over 800 workers actively participated, and over a thousand more simply didn't show up to work. Alejandro Lopez, a member of the strike committee, estimated that "we stopped over 95% of the work in Orange County."
Picketing in the framers' strike broke the stereotypic image of a few strikers with picket signs standing beside a driveway, watching strikebreakers take their jobs. When the framers picketed, their lines numbered in the dozens, and even in the hundreds. One morning in June, for instance, a group of strikers headed out a building site in Huntington Park. They arrived at an apartment house being built a few blocks from downtown, and set up a line across the street. They began calling out to the workers inside to put down their tools. A half-dozen did, and walked out through the gate in the fence.
Then a group of strikers put their signs down, and went onto the job. At first the foreman tried to ignore them, as they went from worker to worker, patiently explaining what they were fighting for. They had leaflets in Spanish and English, and handed them out. Some of the workers talked to the strikers, and a few more left. The contractor , a white man who didn't speak Spanish and seemed to have difficulty telling the strikers from the workers, finally realized what was going on, and began shouting. He and the foreman demanded that the strikers get off the property, and called the police. By the time the police arrived, the strikers were already outside, and most work on the site seemed to have stopped.
In the big developments on the suburban fringe of LA, however, the strike met much stiffer opposition from contractors, police and the Immigration and Naturalization Service. During the first days, strikers caravaned from the union hall to the picketline in their own cars. On Monday, April 16 a caravan of about 35 cars filled with strikers left the union hall in Orange for a construction site in Newport. In Chino Hills they were suddenly cut off by patrol cars of the migra, as strikers call the INS. "They blocked us in front and in behind. Two people escaped, but the migra took sixteen of us. One of the migra agents told me they had been looking for us for two days. He said they were looking for cars with bumperstickers saying 'Carpenters Working Together.' That's us." Lopez notes that the INS has a policy of not conducting raids on picketlines, and says that they stopped the caravan so they could deport strikers without having to pick them up from the lines.
Developers cooperated with the INS because the strike hurt them. Lopez recalls a recent conversation with Ernie Castro, who owns Sundance Construction, a big construction company in Costa Mesa. "He told me he would call the migra. I asked him 'Why we weren't illegal while we were working for you, and now we're illegal because we're striking?'"
Baldwin Keenan, organizer for Carpenters Union Local 2361 in Orange, says that strikers were also harassed by the local police departments. "The police tried to keep us away from the job sites," he says. "They arrested pickets, and gave tickets for imaginary infractions, like parking too far away from the curb." After days of police and INS harassment of caravans, the union began renting busses to take workers to the picketlines.
Private property was not sacred to the strikers. To them, the right to a job and a wage which can support a family weighed more heavily than the right of a contractor to hire strikebreakers, and then use the property line to keep the strikers from talking to them.
They displayed almost a missionary zeal, and didn't use the word scab, or waste their time hurling insults from outside the job. Instead they looked at non-striking workers as potential strikers, and understood that the potential only became reality when they actually went onto the job and talked to them. These were scenes reminiscent of the youth of the labor movement, when the radical "wobblies" of the Industrial Workers of the World at the turn of the century proposed "one big union" for everyone. The mass picketlines and flying squads of strikers were a reminder of the CIO of the 1930s.
In a world where workers and unions have become hamstrung following routine procedures, on a playing field where only employers win, immigrants like the framers do the unexpected. They have faith in the power of their own numbers, in direct action, and in the common culture which strikers and non-strikers share.
The relationship between immigrant strikers and established unions is changing, as unions see the power in this workforce and its militancy. The framers have a much closer relationship to the Carpenters Union than the drywallers, whose strike was supported by the union, but run independently. The drywallers had to depend largely on their own resources, but striking framers received economic assistance from the union - both money and food. According to Baldwin Keenan, organizer for Carpenters Union Local 2361 in Orange, "the guys ran this strike. As a union, we've discovered that this is better, that we need to go directly to the workers."
During the meetings in which framers organized their strike committees, they also refined the three demands which have become the strike's rally cry. "We want a stable price of $156 a day, for eight hours, with overtime pay if we work longer," Lopez says. Current wages for framers can be as low as $50 for a ten or twelve-hour day. Wages have dropped 25% since 1988.
Workers also demanded a medical plan, and a training program. They wanted training because Mexican framers have less experience and knowledge than the minority of white carpenters who work in homebuilding, and who are generally paid more. Mexican framers usually do repetitive assembly work, while experienced journeymen do more skilled jobs. "With the money we make, we can't give up even a couple of hours now to learn better skills. That's why we need both higher wages and a training program," Lopez says.
The framers challenged the wealthiest and most powerful group of employers in southern California - land developers and the contractors who build for them. In March the head of the Irvine Land Co., the world's largest developer, was asked by Governor Pete Wilson to raise the money he needed to finance his impending bid to become the Republican presidential candidate. The framers' strike, like the drywallers' before it, was more than just a labor dispute. It had the feeling of an uprising from below, and it unfolded in an atmosphere of anti-immigrant hysteria, largely inspired by the governor and Proposition 187.
Both strikes have dramatized the growth of the immigrant workforce in California and the southwest, and its growing influence as well. In the long term, this growth cannot be halted. Anti-immigrant hysteria and efforts like Proposition 187 are designed more to make workers and their families vulnerable, and their labor cheaper. And as this workforce grows, the pressure to change the poverty wages it has been subjected to will grow with it.
The framers' strike, and the drywallers before it, are precursors of even larger struggles to come.
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