Price Pfister Workers Go Hungry to Save Jobs
by David Bacon
PACOIMA, CA (11/30/96) - While others in Los Angeles celebrated Thanksgiving by eating too much, three women and two men in the San Fernando Valley marked the occasion by not eating at all.
Housed in a motor home and three vans parked near the intersection of Paxton Street and San Fernando Road in Pacoima, these factory workers are going hungry to protest their sudden dismissal by the Price Pfister plant that looms over their makeshift planton. Workers are angry over some 300 layoffs at the plant which have been going on since January of this year. The job losses are a product of the company's decision to shift ever more production to a plant just south of the U.S. border. More layoffs are a virtual certainty.
By Thanksgiving, hunger striker Emilio Servin was in his second week without solid food. "I thought the company respected me since I'd been there over seven years," Servin says. "But on October 10 they called in about 30 of us, and told us there just wasn't any more work. No reason. And no severance. Some of us had spent our lives in that plant." If Servin doesn't find another job soon, he fears he'll lose the house he bought four years ago. At 42 years old, with three children, that's a scary prospect.
For decades, workers like Servin have turned out the Price Pfister bathroom and kitchen faucets in millions of Southland homes. In the process the company has employed thousands of working-class residents of Pacoima and its environs.. Most are immigrants, and when their once-secure jobs started disappearing, they found allies in a growing nucleus of aggressive union organizers and activists who form the Los Angeles Manufacturing Action Project (LAMAP).
This coalition is seeking to help organize a Southern California industrial work force that is 717,000 strong. Most of these workers come here from Mexico, Central America, and Asian countries around the Pacific Rim. They have been the backbone of strikes and union-organizing drives for almost a decade, producing more labor activity in Los Angeles than any other area of the country.
LAMAP, a project initiated by unions, academic researchers and community activists, is welding together an alliance based on that ferment, in order to unionize a big chunk of that industrial workforce. If it succeeds, it will change, not just the wages and working conditions of immigrants, but the political balance of power throughout southern California.
The action project took on the Price Pfister dispute fresh from a victory won two months ago after a bitter seven-week strike against Mission Foods, a major tortilla manufacturer. "When the strike started, LAMAP jumped out of the pages of research books, and into the streets," remarks Miguel Contreras, the first Latino leader of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, who won office just a few months ago.
Price Pfister presents LAMAP with a different challenge than Mission Foods, but an equally formidable one. Mission Foods is a rapidly expanding Mexican food monopoly, moving north to dominate the U.S. tortilla market. The drivers and LAMAP defeated this huge company by organizing a highly effective boycott in southern California's Latino community, threatening its share of the large and profitable Los Angeles tortilla market. [fighting for U.S. market share when its drivers walked off the job. Executives had no cost-effective way to rush their perishable product to market.]
At Price Pfister, instead of capital moving north from Mexico, the jobs are moving south, as management seeks to reduce labor costs. Mission Foods and Price Pfister have both been helped by the North American Free Trade Agreement, which has lowered barriers at the border for companies moving goods and capital.
Frustrated at the increasing pace of the layoffs, Price Pfister workers responded in October by forming a committee to fight for severance and extended health benefits. The workers demanded a harder line from their union, Teamsters Local 986. They insisted on being included in negotiations over layoffs, and over any benefits offered by local authorities to keep production in Pacoima. The local union has since helped pay for the planton and many protest demonstrations.
Teamster leaders in Washington also came to the aid of workers at Price Pfister. Teamsters president Ron Carey came to Pacoima in mid-October at the workers' request, despite the fact that Local 986 secretary-treasurer Mike Riley supported a rival candidate in the bitterly-fought election to determine who will head the national union, Carey assigned national organizer Felix Hernandez to help mobilize support, and called on LAMAP for help.
Early in negotiations, the company offered to pay one-half week's pay per year of service, up to 26 years, but only for workers still employed at the time [of] an agreement is signed. The three hundred workers already on the streets, including the hunger strikers, would get nothing. As layoffs continue, even fewer workers will qualify. On December 2, the company rejected the union's counterproposal, and reiterated its original offer.
Price Pfister vice-president Sam Wheeler said the company is closing its foundry, and relocating assembly jobs to Mexicali, but will continue to employ some workers in Pacoima, although he wouldn't specify how many.
In response to rising protests, workers say that on October 23 [Price Pfister vice-president Sam Wheeler told a closed, mandatory meeting of workers at the plant that the company would stop negotiating if demonstrations continued, and might even speed up layoffs. He announced that future demonstrations would be videotaped. The union has filed legal charges over the threats with the National Labor Relations Board, which prohibits company retaliation for union activity. Those charges are currently being investigated. Wheeler had no comment on the charges.
LAMAP hopes to solidify protest in the Latino community and among political figures, using tactics similar to those of the tortilla strike. Laid-off workers have already organized well-publicized marches. They've begun to leaflet potential buyers of Price Pfister faucets at the Home Depot, in much the same way that the tortilla strikers focussed on the Pollo Loco fast-food restaurants, in order to cut off one of Mission Foods' most important customers. Servin and his four companions organized the hunger strike in order to focus even more public attention on their situation.
At Price Pfister, the manufacturing action project is confronting the classic threat used by employers against union drives - the threat of closure. "We can't run away from it," explains Joel Ochoa, community coordinator for the manufacturing action project. "We have to talk about the real reasons why plants close, and what we can do about it."
Price Pfister originally claimed in the press that its closure in Pacoima was forced by Proposition 65, a landmark anti-pollution initiative passed by California voters in 1988. Company officials said that rules regarding lead contamination forced them to shut down its foundry production process, in which melted metal, including lead, was poured it into faucet molds. Lead is extremely toxic, causing brain damage and learning disabilities, especially among children.
But when the company shut down the foundry, it simply changed its production process. Faucet parts are now produced by machining, which avoids lead contamination. Moreover, the five hunger strikers in Pacoima, like most of the laid-off workers, never worked in the foundry. Their jobs were eliminated when the company transferred the assembly of faucet parts, and some packing operations, to a maquiladora factory just over the border in Mexicali. Employment in the Mexicali plant has grown to over 640, with 300 added this year alone, while the number of jobs in Pacoima has fallen from 1300 to below 1000.
This is obviously another sad episode in the history of the North American Free Trade Agreement," says labor coordinator Ochoa. "The company is moving because labor costs less in Mexicali, and in the process it's eliminating well-paying, stable jobs here in LA."
Hunger striker Victoria Sevilla, a former packing department worker, used to earn $11.03 an hour, her best pay since arriving in LA from Altamira, Guerrero in 1977. At 40 years old, with two children and four grandchildren, she doubts she will find another job at a similar wage. "There are plenty of jobs for immigrants in LA," she explains, "but almost all pay the minimum."
By contrast, Black and Decker Corp., the corporate parent of Price Pfister, saw its 1995 profits soar to $224 million, almost double the total of the year before. Despite this apparent rosy picture, however, the Price Pfister plant is under pressure to improve its margins. Shareholders are demanding ever higher profits from firms that have always made money, but now aren't making enough. These pressures were exacerbated at Price Pfister, when top executives used junk bonds to finance their buyout of the company in the 1980s for $35 million. The company was then burdened with paying off this debt, while the executives sold out for $215 million five years later - six times as much as they paid.
To keep the plant open, Los Angeles officials, led by city councilman Richard Alarcon, have offered an incentive package that includes tax breaks and loans for businesses located in economic enterprise zones. The hunger strikers, however, are demanding a quid pro quo. Any incentive given to Price Pfister should be accompanied by employment guarantees for the existing workforce, as well as fair severance and extended health benefits for those who have already lost jobs, they say.
"This company is not moving because of environmental regulations, or because its workers tried to organize a union, but because of greed," union activist Ochoa says. "And our community is committed to fighting it." In the meantime, as trucks continue to ferry machines to Mexicali, about 250 Price Pfister workers meet every Sunday in a Pacoima park. There they plan marches and more leafleting in front of the Home Depot on Foothill in Sylmar.
"How can Price Pfister dump us out of our jobs, and then turn around and expect Latinos to continue buying their faucets?" asks hunger striker Alejandra Torres. "What they are doing is a kind of discrimination against our whole community."
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