Immigrant Worker Strikes Face Anto-Immigrant Backlash
by David Bacon
POMONA, CA (8/30/93) - Two months ago, hundreds of workers at the Cal Spas factory in Pomona went on strike. Like thousands of other immigrant Mexican workers, they accuse their employer of maintaining sweatshop conditions and a second-class status for immigrants in the U.S. workforce. Throughout California's southland in cities like Pomona, factories, construction sites and workplaces are becoming pressure cookers, waiting for something to blow. Something did blow at Cal Spas, just the way it blew for over fifteen thousand other immigrant workers who struck here over the last two years. Their recent strikes are signs of building pressure from below, as their growing dissatisfaction meets an increasingly hard line taken by many employers who have grown dependent on their labor.
Ten years ago, during the height of the debate over the Immigration Reform and Control Act, Mexican academic Jorge Bustamante declared that U.S. immigration legislation always has the purpose of regulating the price of Mexican labor in the United States. Today, the growing number of strikes in industries dominated by immigrant workers is putting the lie to the notion that they will settle for the lowest wages and conditions possible. Fabian Nuņez, a spokesperson for the Mexican-American Political Association in Pomona, says current anti-immigrant proposals "are only trying to keep the lid on."
Conditions which led to the Cal Spas strike are typical of those facing Mexican industrial workers in the U.S. According to Alfredo Carabez, a strike leader, "we had no paid holidays, no vacations, and no health care for our families. Chuck Hewitt [Cal Spas owner] 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." Cal Spas starts workers at minimum wage, and because of heavy turnover, strikers estimate that over half the factory's workforce never makes more than $6.00/hour.
Last spring, a number of the plant's workers, including Carabez, contacted Humberto Camacho, a union organizer for the United Electrical Workers with a long history of organizing immigrants. They started a union drive in the factory. Then Carabez was fired in April. He was beaten up in front of the plant in June by an unknown assailant, brought to the factory by a Cal Spas' contract maintenance man. A union committee member was harassed by another worker, and when a fight broke out between them, he was arrested and taken from the plant by police in handcuffs. The union asserts that the company's personnel director tried to convince workers that, instead of organizing a union, she would serve as their representative to management.
According to Camacho, although these hardball tactics seem extreme, they're not uncommon among employers facing organizing efforts in an immigrant workforce. "But we are not beasts of burden," he declares. "Just because we speak a different language, come from another country, and have a darker skin doesn't mean that we don't have rights, or that we'll accept exploitation in silence."
Outraged workers struck the plant on June 18, a week after Carabez was beaten, and after the company had filed legal charges blocking the NLRB union election process. Since then the company has locked the strikers out. Picking up a tactic used increasingly in immigrant-based strikes since the experience of the farmworkers, Cal Spas workers have mounted a consumer boycott of the company chain of retail stores.
Cal Spas is not just a small sweatshop. It is Pomona's largest employer, with over 530 production workers in a sprawling factory, and hundreds more in dozens of stores selling spas throughout the country. The company has expanded rapidly over the last few years, and made over $100 million in sales last year alone. Cal Spas management says that creating these jobs has made a substantial contribution to Pomona's economy and to the economic well-being of the workers it employs.
The growth of Cal Spas is symptomatic of the changing demographics in the industrial workforce in Pomona, which was one of the original white suburbs of Los Angeles. Pomona used to be a defense and aerospace town, with big plants employing thousands of workers at high wages. The UE itself still represents members at a General Electric jet engine shop next door in Ontario, where wages are high and immigrants hold only a few of the plant's highly skilled jobs.
White people are not the majority in Pomona any longer, and Mexican immigrants are a large, growing and vocal community. Employment at the GE shop has dropped dramatically. The big aerospace, auto, rubber and steel plants of the Los Angeles basin have almost all closed their doors in the last decade.
Southern California's economy now depends more on industries like homebuilding and improvement (including Cal Spas), garment manufacturing, agriculture, and tourism. These industries in turn depend on immigrant labor, and they are increasingly marked by strikes over sweatshop conditions.
For almost two years, the southern California construction industry has been rocked by the successful strike of 5000 "drywalleros," the Mexican workers who do the backbreaking job of nailing up drywall in new homes. They struck over piecerates which had fallen by more than half over the last ten years. Border patrol agents repeatedly raided drywall picketlines. When the Highway Patrol harassed carloads of strikers as they moved their picketlines from one building site to another, strikers protested by blocking freeways, the lifelines of southern California. Late this past spring, they finally forced building contractors to sign the first union contracts covering their work for decades. They were the first union contracts won by a grassroots union organizing effort in the building trades anywhere in the country since the 1930's.
California's other immigrant-dominated industries have also been hit by strikes repeatedly over the last two years. Over 5000 Coachella grape pickers walked out of the fields in the 1992 harvest, winning the first wage increase in ten years. Los Angeles' garment workers conducted militant organizing drives, and struck employers again and again. In campaigns among immigrant janitors in Century City, and further north in San Jose's Silicon Valley, thousands of them have poured into the union.
The heart of the drywall strike was in Orange and San Diego counties. In the mind of the rest of the country, these counties present the image of an affluent, white suburban lifestyle, an image which represents life as it's lived by those who still enjoy power and privilege. But demographic change is sweeping these counties as well. The Latino barrios in Santa Ana, San Ysidro and National City are just some of the largest, and Westminster probably has more Vietnamese restaurants and businesses than any city in the country.
A sea change in demographics has taken place in the factories and workplaces of California, and in the communities from which the workers come. And although it is easier to see it here, the same change is taking place in Texas, Florida, New York, and other states where the immigrant population is climbing rapidly. It is a change reminiscent of the old South, of separate and unequal conditions for black and white, and now, brown and white.
It is no coincidence that California in general, and southern California in particular, is the geographic source for almost every current legislative proposal for restricting the rights of immigrant workers and services for their communities. Whether the proposals are draconian, like California Governor Wilson's proposal for throwing immigrant children out of the schools, denying immigrants medical care, and forcing workers to carry national identification cards, or more liberal, like Senator Boxer's for patrolling the border with the National Guard, they all have a similar ring.
In the eyes of immigrants themselves, these proposals are a product not only of anti-immigrant sentiment, but are intended to maintain their second-class status. Jose Semperio, director of San Francisco's Comite de Trabajadores Generales, a committee of day laborers who get their jobs on streetcorners every morning, points out that as the immigrant population has grown the immigrant community is becoming increasingly marginalized. "San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego and Orange County all eat because we work. But we have almost no chance to move upwards into better jobs, and to get out of the shadows. These proposals will oppress us even more."
Without immigrant janitors in the office and business parks of Irvine, without farmworkers in Southern California fields, with no electronics workers in the sweatshops of Santa Ana, and without 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.
Semperio accuses the proponents of anti-immigrant measures of hypocrisy, since the communities and businesses they represent benefit heavily from low-wage immigrant labor. "They have an economic interest in what they're proposing," he says. He describes the high accident rate among construction day laborers, almost all of whom are immigrants, and the almost-insurmountable barriers they face when trying to get medical attention. "Already when we have accidents, we're just dropped off at the hospital parking lot. Now they want to make it illegal for us to get medical care. This is really unjust. Our voice may not be as loud, but they're going to have to hear it."
Proposals like Wilson's and Boxer's cannot change what the California workforce and economy have become, nor can they end the recession, and they will not enforce decent living conditions or the right to organize for immigrant workers. Instead, they 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. Increasingly, their answer is no.
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