The Rising From Below: The Coming Labor Earthquake in Los Angeles
by David Bacon
LOS ANGELES (11/29/85) - Pacific Avenue in Huntington Park is like Main Street in a 1950s suburb, turned inside out and made over by botanicas, consultas de inmigracion, zapaterias and restaurantes, where the layered meat and pineapple of carne al pastor revolves slowly on spits, filling the sidewalk with spicy fragrance. Country people in broad-brimmed hats, cowboy boots or floral print dresses, or their teenage kids in long teeshirts over baggy jeans, fill the sidewalks. Families pushing strollers share the pavement with streetvendors, who sell coconut and strawberry paletas from little freezers on pushcarts, or strips of cucumber and mango with chile sauce in little plastic bags.
In front of Superior Market, the parade of strollers and wisecracking teenagers makes a detour around a line of flag-waving, shouting workers. Faces on the line are all the different shades of brown, like the others out here on the street. The line snakes up and down the sidewalk, and weaves into the parkinglot, threading its way among the vans with the dark windows and boomboxes, and the pickup trucks with little Mexican flags on the rear window.
Workers in the line shout out funny insults about the supermarket owner in Spanish, and the crowd laughs.
An hour earlier, these chanting workers were sitting in ranks of metal folding chairs in a community center a few blocks away. In small groups, they had testified to each other about the fear they felt in talking back to their boss at work. Striking garment workers had described how hard it was to pass out union cards among the sewing machines, or to finally turn the machines off and leave the sweatshop for the picketline.
One after another, rank-and-file workers and union organizers got up in front of the meeting, and filled in another piece of a picture of falling wages, dirty and unsafe machinery, and a life of long hours at work, with not enough time for children and families. By the time the appeal came to go out to Superior Market and help a group of workers win something back from the store owners, they were ready.
For two hours, carpenters and teamsters, machinists and warehousemen, tortilla makers and seamstresses, all sat looking at a long map pinned to the wall of the barn-like hall. The map showed Los Angeles' industrial corridor, stretching down Alameda Boulevard for 24 miles, from downtown LA to the Long Beach Harbor. The map is a picture of immigrant LA and its industrial workforce, a patchwork of cities like Huntington Park in the southeast corner of the LA basin.
Pointing to the map, David Sickler, director of AFL-CIO Region 6, whose heart is Los Angeles, made a dramatic proclamation. Immigrants, he said, waving a thin arm across a roomful of dark eyes, are the future of the labor movement. Sickler is a tall, lanky veteran of the Colorado brewery wars against the Coors family. For a decade he's watched, and helped to build, a growing wave of strikes and organizing drives among southern California's immigrant workers. In the drafty hall, he and other organizers saw the possibility that this inchoate upsurge could become something much greater. Their project is a movement whose name is an acronym for the map on the wall - LA MAP, or the Los Angeles Manufacturing Action Project.
"I don't have to tell you that the labor movement has been declining in numbers for years," he called out. Sickler, who had to stop after every sentence while his words were translated, was preaching to the choir. Everyone sitting on the uncomfortable chairs knew the desperate truth of these words, or they wouldn't have been there in the first place. "That's why so many of you are working for so little today," he told them. "But that's what our revolution in the labor movement is all about. It's about changing that direction. It's about building a movement, and making the public embrace it. And that's what LAMAP is all about - you're going to build that movement."
LA is the largest manufacturing center in the U.S. by far, with 717,000 workers pouring into its factories every day. Most of them come here from Mexico, Central America, and Asian countries around the Pacific Rim.
LA is a city which lives on immigrant labor. In recent years it has also become the battleground in a growing war between these workers and the political and economic powers-that-be. As a result of this upsurge and ferment, it is the place where the commitment of the new leaders of the AFL-CIO to organizing workers on the bottom will be tested, a commitment reiterated over and over in John Sweeney's insurgent campaign this year to become the federation's president.
Will the unions and workers, who for a decade have carried their rallying cries for social justice into office buildings, factories, and construction sites, receive the money and resources they need to turn the city upside down? Will the labor movement use the militancy of immigrant workers to pioneer a new kind of union-organizing, which short-circuits the failed tactics of the past? Will the organization of tens of thousands of new workers create, or recreate, a grassroots, bottom-up kind of union more responsive to them, one better adapted to the challenge of the global economy?
These are big questions and high stakes. LAMAP's organizers hope they hold some of the cards.
LAMAP is described by Peter Olney, its director, in deceptively simple terms: "a multi-union, area-wide organizing drive, linked to the immigrant community." Olney believes that the labor movement is dying of disconnection to the social upheavals which gave it birth. Organizing drives, he says, which once moved millions to redress the fundamental inequalities of a corporate economic system, have become mechanical and legalistic campaigns, littered with fired workers, closed plants and broken unions, where the companies hold 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. "That's the excitement of LA," according to Olney. "Fights involving immigrant workers are very militant. They force unions to discard tired old tactics, and make us relook at the whole question of how to organize, at what organizing means."
A group of workers at the Huntington Park meeting, garment workers on strike at Good Time Fashions, gave a living example of the militancy Olney describes. Their employer is a sewing company which contracts to Guess Jeans.
The strike at Good Time Fashions, like many immigrant-based organizing efforts, one started among the workers themselves. A new factory manager brought in time-study experts to videotape each of its 160 workers, and then cut the piecerates. The sewing-machine operators, mostly women, organized a quick, spontaneous work stoppage. The Spanish word for this kind of mini-strike, "paro," is a familiar part of LA's working-class vocabulary.
Sara Callejas, a Salvadoran immigrant with 6 years in the sweatshop, helped lead her fellow workers out the door. After they stopped work for a day, management suddenly began demanding that workers show their immigration papers. "They never asked us for papers when we were hired," Callejas says. When the company began to pick off the leaders, she was one of the first. It was the company's reprisals, and the workers' need for help, which brought them to the union. When management wouldn't discuss their grievances, the workers walked out again in July, and they've been out ever since.
Being immigrants didn't always make them militant; sometimes it made them afraid. Callejas remembers going to an affirmative action rally with a group of strikers, where a cordon of police stood on guard. "I saw the fear in peoples' eyes when they saw the police. In our countries, you have to risk your life to have a union, and the police and soldiers sometimes fire on people like us." At the meeting in Huntington Park, she expressed her hope that LAMAP would educate immigrant workers on the differences between their situation in the US, andtheir experiences in Mexico and Latin America.
Anger among garment workers has been building up for years, over wages which are already depressed, and getting worse. Goetz Wolff, a professor at UCLA and LAMAP's lead researcher, documents falling wages among LA's immigrant industrial workers. In women's apparel, the average went from $6.37/hour to $5.62 between 1988 and 1993. UNITE (the Union of Needletrade, Industrial and Textile Employees - the newly-merged combination of the old ILGWU and ACTWU) estimates that 120,000 people work in LA's garment sweatshops.
It's not just garment workers. Wages are falling in paper recycling, plastics manufacturing, textiles and food processing - all industries with an immigrant workforce. "Our wages and conditions are very bad no matter what industry we work in," Callejas says. By contrast, the average wage in aircraft production is over $20/hour, and rising slightly despite layoffs and recession. Aerospace is still a major industry in the basin, employing a mostly-unionized and native-born workforce.
LAMAP intends to attack this apartheid-like inequality.
LAMAP was originally Olney's brainchild, but he is by no means the only union activist who sees what the immigrant labor upsurge of the last few years could mean to unions, and to immigrant communities themselves. The first staff person to come to work for the project was Joel Ochoa, who heads the California Immigrant Workers Association. "It is my belief," he says, "that at this point the immigrant community is targetting labor and not necessarily the other way around. If you look at our experience, you see immigrants reaching out to unions much more than unions reaching out to immigrants. People are coming here from Mexico and all over Latin America, with a tradition and culture that gives them a rich repertoire of tactics for fighting the companies."
Ochoa, an immigrant from Chiapas, is certainly one of these people himself. Another is Ana Martinez, who came to Los Angeles from El Salvador, where she helped organize a general strike in a Texas Instruments plant in the early 1980s, and wound up fleeing for her life. She became a southern California strike organizer for the independent United Electrical Workers, and later for the hotel workers. Yanira Moreno also fled her native El Salvador as a young woman and activist. She was abducted and assaulted by supporters of the Salvadoran military junta in Los Angeles in the mid1980s, and today is an organizer for the Laborers Union.
The city's labor movement is the home to more and more immigrant labor activists, with feet on both sides of the border. Their impact on the immigrant workforce is one of the main reasons why LAMAP organizers believe a much broader movement is not only possible, but almost inevitable.
In 1990, one of the first battles in this war broke out when Macario Camorlinga and a group of his workmates organized a rebellion in one of the city's largest foundries, American Racing Equipment. The company manufactures racing wheels at a huge plant, employing 1200 immigrant workers in Rancho Dominguez.
Camorlinga had participated in an insurgent movement among workers at Latin America's largest steel mill, Sicartsa, in Lazaro Cardenas on Mexico's Pacific Coast. When the mill, built by the government, was privatized in the first round of neoliberal reforms, the wages of its workers were slashed, and half of them became temporary, contract laborers. Camorlinga and his coworkers were imbued with the ideals of militant, democratic unionism, and tried to force unions in the city to defend the workers against the reforms. In the end, he was blacklisted, and had to leave Mexico to find a job to support his family.
But Los Angeles was hardly the promised land. At American Racing Equipment, Camorlinga and his friends found low wages and miserable working conditions. They organized a strike of close to 1000 workers to end them.
Ochoa remembers that he and other labor activists "only found out about the strike by reading the paper. All of a sudden, five different unions rushed to the site, and stood on the other side of the fence, trying to get workers to sign authorization cards. The workers didn't need this kind of thing, and asked us to leave. Eventually they hooked up with the International Association of Machinists, won an election, and now they have a contract. The changes they've been able to accomplish are like the difference between night and day. But most important, they organized their own movement themselves."
American Racing Equipment wasn't an isolated experience. The city's janitors union, Service Employees (SEIU) Local 399, was rebuilt in a similar movement. In the mid-1980s, the union was driven out of the city's office buildings when janitorial contractors dumped their union workers, and hired immigrants. Local 399, together with the national organizing department of the Service Employees union, built a Justice for Janitors campaign in LA. Immigrant janitors poured into the streets, confronting building owners and the LA Police Department, and eventually won contracts covering 4000 workers.
The campaign became the union's national showpiece. When Sweeney, then head of SEIU, successfully fought his way into the presidency of the AFL-CIO, he used the LA Justice for Janitors campaign as a symbol of his commitment to organizing immigrants, workers of color, and low-wage workers.
But the most telling immigrant rebellion in Los Angeles in recent years was the yearlong strike by southern California drywallers. In 1992, from the Mexican border all the way north to Santa Barbara, an area of 5000 square miles, these mostly-Mexican immigrants were able to stop all home construction. Their strike, followed by a similar strike of framers this past spring, electrified unions and workers across the southwest, and set new rules for successful labor battles. Workers ran their movement democratically, from the bottom up. They defied the police and the immigration service, and blockaded freeways when their car caravans were rousted as they traveled from job to job.
Masspicketing broke the stereotypic image of a few strikers with picket signs standing beside a driveway, watching strikebreakers take their jobs. When the drywallers and framers picketed, their lines often numbered in the hundreds. They displayed an almost missionary zeal, not wasting their time hurling insults from outside the job. Instead they walked onto the construction sites, talking non-striking workers into putting down their tools.
In a world where workers and unions have become hamstrung following routineprocedures, on a playing field where only employers win, drywallers and framers did the unexpected. They had faith in the power of their own numbers, in direct action, and in the common culture of their immigrant communities. In 1994, they finally forced building contractors to sign the first agreements cov-ering their work in decades - the first union contracts won by a grassroots organizing effort in the building trades anywhere in the country since the 1930's.
LAMAP hopes to build on this wave of immigrant-based labor activity, following the immigrant workforce through the factories of the nation's largest manufacturing district - the Alameda corridor - sparking a wave of organizing which targets whole industries rather than individual workplaces. It seeks to build a movement at the same time which will sweep down Alameda boulevard, the heart of the corridor, through the industrial barrios of southeast LA, tying the fight for living wages and safe jobs to an end to toxic pollution and discrimination.
At the heart of LAMAP, Ochoa says, are four ideas. "Number one, LA is the manufacturing capital of the U.S., with about 700,000 jobs, the size of the entire population of a city like San Francisco. Number two, the city's in a deep economic crisis, with hundreds of thousands of workers surviving on minimum wage. Number three, union organizing is an economic development strategy. If you want to improve your community, you have to change things from the bottom up, not the other way around. And last, trade unionism is a political empowerment strategy, utilized many times by other immigrants in the past. But this time it's more difficult, because these immigrants aren't coming from Europe - they're coming from the south."
So far, nine international unions have made a commitment to the project, funding research into the industries of the Alameda corridor and its immigrant communities, opening an office in the heart of southeast LA, hiring the first staff to coordinate the base-building effort, and holding the first meetings of workers in target industries. Those unions include the west coast longshoremen, the teamsters, steelworkers, carpenters, autoworkers, machinists, food and commercial workers, oilworkers, and garment workers. As the process moves forward, and actual struggles for recognition and contracts begin next year, the ante will go up as participating unions hire and field teams of organizers.
But LAMAP isn't relying just on professional, fulltime organizers. Los Angeles union locals affiliated with the participating internationals are being encouraged to set up organizing committees among their rank-and-file members, especially those who work in the industries targetted for campaigns.
"Each union has to decide how to involve its own membership," Olney explains, "but the participation of the rank-and-file is essential." Sickler is more blunt. "Union members have to understand that their dues doesn't buy them a seatcushion to watch that fight. They have to come down out of the stands, and onto the field of battle with everybody else." But union members have responded to these appeals. They sometimes know their own industry and company better than their employer does, and can put that knowledge into the project's research base. On the ground, rank-and-filers are beginning the search for organizing contacts in non-union plants.
In addition to the policy board composed of the international unions, LAMAP is also setting up a Los Angeles-based organizing committee, made up of chapters of CIWA, church and community organizations, and representatives of workers in targetted industries. In each industry, LAMAP also hopes to set up industrial councils of both unionized and unorganized workers. As workers win recognition in individual companies, these councils will attempt to negotiate master agreements, bringing up wages and conditions for workers on an industry basis, not just in individual shops.
"Workers will join the individual unions involved - we're not creating a new entity," Olney says. But LAMAP plans to maintain coordination, not just in the initial battles to get recognition, but through the negotiations of the first contracts. In many cases, its organizers hope, they will be able to short-circuit the traditional two-stage battle to organize, where unions fight to get bargaining recognition first (usually through labor board elections), and then have to mount a second struggle to get a contract. Using traditional organizing tactics, unions nationally win about 50% of campaigns for recognition, and then go on to win contracts in only half of those workplaces, or a quarter of the total.
At American Racing Equipment, in Justice for Janitors, and in the drywall and framers' strikes, unions won recognition and contracts at the same time, short-circuiting the two stage process and avoiding labor board elections.
These tactics puts LAMAP on the cutting edge of current thinking in the labor movement about organizing new workers. This new thinking tends to look at unions as social movements, as the United Farm Workers was at its height in the 1960s and 70s. In the debate over leadership at the recent AFL-CIO convention, the defeated president, Tom Donahue, attacked the idea. The AFL-CIO was a trade union movement, he said, not a labor or a social movement. He went on to criticize civil disobedience and other militant tactics widely identified with Justice for Janitors. Donahue's attack sealed his unpopularity among the nation's best organizers, like Arturo Rodriguez, president of the United Farm Workers and successor to Cesar Chavez.
The UFW pioneered many of the organizing ideas which LAMAP and similar campaigns are adopting. Rodriguez criticizes the traditional style in which paid organizers make all the decisions, and workers just carry them out. "There's no way a campaign's going to be successful if workers don't take the leadership of it, if they don't take a role in making the decisions about what needs to be done, what strategies and tactics to use, and are just told to implement them. They can't be part of the effort to organize themselves in just a superficial way."
Democracy, Rodriguez says, is therefore a fundamental part of the process. "Workers are smart people, and can see very quickly if they're just pawns in an organization. If they think that, then there's really no commitment on their part to really do what's necessary to bring about change within the labor movement or in their workplace."
Along with democracy and militant tactics, alliances between unions and organizations in working-class communities is another element of progressive organizing strategy. David Sickler criticizes unions for hav-ing been too slow to forge community alliances in the past. "We 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."
In a yearlong process of preparation, LAMAP has sought to build relationships with community organizations throughout southeast LA. LA CAUSA, a grassroots campaign against environmental racism organized by Communities for a Better Environment, sees LAMAP as a valuable potential ally. Carlos Porras, the campaign's southern California director, acknowledges that "the environment is not the number one need in peoples' lives - people have to sustain themselves first," he says. "Once they've started to climb the economic ladder, they start articulating demands for a better environment to live in." Olney responds that "communities represented by unions can use them to raise their economic level and win political power."
LAMAP has followed the network of organizations among immigrant workers themselves, many of whom belong to clubs based on the state of Mexico from which they immigrated. Ochoa and other labor and immigrant rights activists used that network last year to build the huge 100,000-strong march of immigrant workers to protest Proposition 187. LAMAP organizers meet regularly with church organizations in the immigrant community, and have begun reaching beyond Latino immigrants to organizations in the city's large Korean community as well.
There are high expectations that the new Sweeney administration in the AFL-CIO will initiate plans for effective action and growth through organizing. Only a few areas of the country are preparing for large-scale, multi-union organizing drives, and LAMAP already has a year of resesarch and base-building behind it. That gives LAMAP a strong argument for increased support from the federation. LA has the additional advantage of an immigrant workforce with a decade of organizing battles already under its belt.
"We have to understand," Ochoa warns, "that we have a more sophisticated group of people than the media leads us to believe. The image of the poor immigrant coming from the rural areas of Mexico is no longer accurate. We're going to find a rich history of Mexican trade unionism here in the United States. We have to avoid the Christopher Columbus syndrome, assuming we're discovering and bringing to light something which in fact has been here for many, many years. We have to understand that the immigrant community is maturing, that it's ready to hook up with an institution like labor. Especially in the aftermath of 187, it's ready to do whatever is necessary to defend itself."
And that includes, Ochoa obviously hopes, making LAMAP the largest organizing drive since the titanic industrial wars of the 1930s.
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