David Bacon Stories & Photographs
Taking on the Tortilla King
by David Bacon

LOS ANGELES (9/22/96) - Ramon Alvarez is used to the hardscrabble life of a Mexican truck driver. He leaves his family before his kids are awake in the morning, and loads his truck at the tortilla plant before it's even light outside. As the cab fills with the smell of corn masa, he dashes from mercados to taquerias, through some of the world's heaviest smog and traffic, hardly stopping to wolf down meat and chiles in the lunch his wife packs for him. But Alvarez isn't bucking the traffic of Mexico City. He's driving his old GMC, with the Mission Guerrero logo stenciled on the side, from East LA to Pacoima, from San Gabriel to the ocean.

Despite the fact that Ramon Alvarez drives a delivery truck in Los Angeles and even belongs to a union, his family's standard of living is not much better than it might be if he was working at the same job in his native Mexico. So on August 3, Alvarez parked his truck. Instead of driving his normal route, he picked up a picket sign and joined 150 other drivers who went on strike against the Southland's largest tortilla manufacturer.

The striking drivers took on more than a local food processor. Mission Guerrero is the U.S. arm of a deep-pocketed Mexican monopoly with extensive ties to that country's ruling elite, including the current Mexican president and his predecessor. This multinational is enjoying increasing profits, power and influence in the U.S. Its largest and newest area plant, in Rancho Cucamonga, will have 50 assembly lines and 1,200 workers when it reaches full production. Mission Guerrero is a main tortilla supplier for the U.S. Army as well as a number of fast-food chains, including Pollo Loco, Taco Bell, Del Taco, Carls Jr. and Green Burrito.

Surprisingly, despite the deep pockets of their employer, the tortilla drivers won. After seven weeks of picketlines and caravans from tortilla plants to fast food restaurants, Mission Foods signed a new contract with the drivers union giving them a 22% overall pay increase for the life of their contract. That's not a bad achievement for any group of workers, proof again that the immigrant labor upsurge is not just an interesting sidelight at the margins of U.S. labor/management relations, but is in fact the most widespread and successful front on which workers today are challenging their employers.

The tortilla walkout extends a key battlefront in Southern California. What began as a local struggle by a small group of workers became the newest battle in a decade-long labor war. Together with other immigrant workers in Los Angeles, these drivers defied southern California's apartheid-style economy, which condemns them to an economic existence far below other parts of the population.

"We can all see that the stakes are very high in this strike," says Joel Ochoa, organizing director of the Los Angeles Manufacturing Action Project, "first and foremost, for the strikers themselves, who are fighting for their jobs and families, and for the survival of their union. But this is also a fight about the right of all immigrant workers to organize and live a decent life. This strike will make that right real, and easier to achieve, for thousands of others."

Alvarez can see these larger economic issues in his own paycheck. He brings home about $1200 a month, and between rent, utilities, and food for himself, his wife, and their three kids, it vanishes quickly. "My children are always asking for things I can't give them. They don't understand why we can't afford what, to their friends, is a normal life," Alvarez explains. "Meanwhile, I'm working 12 or 15 hours a day, six days a week. I don't even see my youngest son at all except on Sundays. He's still sleeping when I leave in the morning, and he's in bed when I get home at night."

What angers Alvarez and the striking drivers even more than the low wages and long hours is the system the company has used to avoid overtime pay, turning economic pressure into a whip. Before the strike, Mission Guerrero paid drivers a weekly rate of $250. It sold them their trucks, charging between $90 and $115 weekly. To get them to hustle, the company pays a commission, according to the value of the tortillas each customer buys, but only after the first $2000 in weekly sales. For a fast driver, it usually takes 2 to 4 days to reach the threshold.

So if Alvarez and his coworkers want to make more than a hundred dollars and change every week, they have to deliver a lot of tortillas. And if they spend more than 40 hours doing it, that's their problem. No one gets overtime pay. The drivers routinely put in 10 and 12-hour days, working a six-day week, for a total of 60 to 80hours.

The company said it paid $190 a week for fuel and the use of the truck, but just gassing up Alvarez' old GMC every week costs $160 to $180. He guesses that his fellow drivers were taking home about $180 a week on the average, although some paycheck stubs document a weekly take-home as low as $108.

As a union steward for drivers at one of the three big Mission Guerrero distribution centers in the LA area, it was no surprise to him that his coworkers voted almost unanimously in late July to walk out. After the company proposed a new contract which would have cut their take-home pay, he was one of the strongest voices urging them to take action.

Three years ago, Mission Guerrero drivers began an independent effort to organize a union. "Many times we would come to work, and the supervisor would tell one or two of us to go home," Alvarez recalls. "We would just have to watch while he fired our friends. Sometimes, we would come back to the plant at the end of a 12-hour delivery route, and a foreman would tell us to go out again to service another store. 'if you don't like it,' he'd say, 'don't come back at all.'"

Drivers started to hold small meetings in secret among themselves, away from the plant after work. Once they had the support of the majority, they went looking for a union to back them up. They found Teamsters Local 63. "We chose Local 63 because we heard it was a strong union," Alvarez recalls.

Despite the workload, drivers were even more concerned with winning health insurance than changing the pay scale. As a result, the company's pay system was not changed when the union signed its first contract three years ago. But the drivers won medical benefits for their families. "People had in mind getting that first contract signed, and then waiting for the next round of negotiations to make a lot of things better," Alvarez says. "In essence, we were willing to sacrifice those three years."

When the union began negotiating with the company earlier this year, however, they were given proposals which would have made the economic situation even worse. Hector Fernandez, Local 63's business agent, says the company, after meeting 7 or 8 times, proposed a $1.03 per day raise the first year, with smaller raises in the second and third years. But at the same time it proposed that workers pay more for their health insurance, more than canceling the proposed wage increases.

Roberto Velazquez, company human resources director, called the drivers the highest paid in the country in their industry. "We have a responsibility to make a profit," Velazquez says.

When negotiations deadlocked, the company began subcontracting deliveries, turning over 11 routes in Oxnard to an independent contractor. Once workers walked out, the company began hiring strikebreakers from the Labor Ready agency, at $8 an hour, with overtime pay. Strikebreakers didn't have to pay for the trucks. The trucks were escorted by security guards, some of whom are rumored to be armed off-duty police officers.

To increase economic pressure on Mission Guerrero, strikers kicked off a tortilla boycott targeting the company's brand names of Mission, Guerrero, El Maizal, Agras, Mi Colonial and Chihuahua. The company also supplies tortillas under the private labels of chain stores like Vons, Ralphs and Pavillions. Demonstrations ringed fast-food franchises in the Pollo Loco chain with caravans of delivery trucks, and crowds of angry strikers and their allies waved signs in front of restaurant doors. Teamsters national president Ron Carey spoke at rallies and mobilized the union in support.

The demonstrations clearly hurt the company. After four weeks of them, security guards began trying to stop the caravans of tortilla trucks from reaching Pollo Loco picketlines. In one incident, guards forced trucks to the side of a freeway interchange, spraying pepper spray into the faces of drivers. When the highway patrol showed up, guards swore that the strikers had attacked them, and had strikers placed under citizens arrest. But the drivers had videotaped the entire incident, and after viewing the tape, the patrolmen admitted they should have arrested the guards instead.

Guards got in front of another caravan the same day, slowing its progress to 5 miles per hour, heedless of the extreme danger, not only to the drivers, but to other cars on the freeway. Both Fernandez and Local 63's secretary-treasurer were followed from their office to their homes by cars full of armed guards in black jumpsuits.

"This strike was obviously not about money," Fernandez says. "The company wanted to break the union before it spread to the workers on the production lines in the plants themselves." Over 1100 workers walk through the gates of Mission Guerrero's two local tortilla plants every day.

Mission Guerrero, a division of Grupo MASECA (or Gruma), belongs to Roberto Gonzalez Barrera, the Tortilla King. While paying drivers a subsistence wage, he has amassed a fortune estimated in excess of $1.1 billion, including Mexican banks, brokerage houses and fast food franchises. Gruma has 10 plants across the U.S., and $400 million in total tortilla sales in the U.S. When it moved into the Los Angeles market, it was already one of the largest food producers in Mexico. With operations in Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and Venezuela, it's moving into Latin America as well.

Grupo MASECA is a giant monopoly, which produces 16% of Mexico's tortillas, and controls 77% of the market for corn flour. Traditionally, tortilla production in Mexico has been heavily subsidized by the government in order, in theory, to provide cheap food for the poor. Gruma grew rich on these subsidies, and the vast growth of its industrialized tortilla production put thousands of small producers, the nixtamaleros, out of business.

Government subsidies were channeled through the now-bankrupt government food enterprise CONASUPO, whose past secretary of budget and planning was current Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo. Grupo MASECA is alleged to have received an illegal payment of $7 million from CONASUPO during Zedillo's tenure, an accusation Velazquez denies.

The Gonzalez family is very closely connected to that of ex-president Carlos Salinas de Gortari. Gonzalez admitted two years ago to having made a $50 million dollar loan to Salinas' brother, Raul, on the basis of a handshake. Raul Salinas and Gonzalez planned together to build a tortilla and corn-milling plant in the state of Guerrero, which was opposed by Juan Francisco Ruiz Massieu, then the governor. Raul Salinas is now in a Mexican prison, accused of masterminding Ruiz Massieu's subsequent assassination.

As the corruption of the Salinas administration began to unravel after Zedillo took office, Carlos Salinas fled from Mexico City to Monterey, Mexico, aboard Gonzalez Barrera's jet, and then into exile.

Gruma has received subsidies in the U.S. as well as Mexico. When it began making plans for its Rancho Cucamonga plant, the city's redevelopment agency gave it a grant of over $400,000 as an incentive to create jobs. Governor Wilson's administration assembled a team to help provide further assistance, which included the state Trade and Commerce Agency, Southern California Edison, CB Commercial Real Estate, Inland Empire Economic Partnership and Catellus Real Estate Development (a division of the Santa Fe railroad empire).

"The popular stereotype that tortillas are produced in small storefronts is wrong," says Ochoa. Irwin Steinberg, president of the Tortilla Industry Association, estimates that 25,000 workers nationwide produce $2.5 billion worth of tortillas every year. They are almost all immigrant workers, in the same economic situation as the drivers. About a quarter of that production is concentrated in Los Angeles and southern California, and most of it by far belongs to Gruma.

Despite all its wealth and influence, Mission Guerrero has good reason to fear the labor action in Los Angeles. Its drivers are doing what over 20,000 other immigrant workers have done in southern California in the last ten years - organizing a union and going on strike.

In 1992, the celebrated drywall carpenters' strike, which won union recognition for over 4000 workers, convinced many immigrant workers that it was possible to fight and win. So did another strike, which swept up over 1000 workers at the huge American Racing Equipment foundry in 1991. Together with organizing drives by janitors, hotel workers and others, these battles have shaped an upsurge in labor organizing in the city's Latino immigrant communities.

"Unions aren't really targeting the immigrant community," Ochoa says. "Immigrant workers are organizing themselves, and going to unions for assistance." His opinion is supported by Dave Sickler, the AFL-CIO's regional director for California, Nevada and Hawaii, who says that "southern California has experienced a revolution among Latino workers. In company after company, they've fought for good contracts, and have set the standard for pay and benefits in many industries."

The Los Angeles Manufacturing Action Project was set up to help foster and coordinate these efforts among the city's 700,000 industrial workers. In two years of preparation, the project has researched industries like tortilla production, which are dependent on a sea of immigrant labor. LAMAP has established ties between union activists, organizations in the immigrant community-based environmental advocacy organizations, and researchers at UCLA.

Originally, LAMAP activists hoped that their project would receive substantial support from the AFL-CIO's new leadership, which campaigned for election last fall by emphasizing the importance of organizing. But bureaucratic infighting over how to mount large-scale campaigns has slowed the start of the AFL-CIO's own programs, and undermined support for projects like LAMAP.

The new reform leadership of the Teamsters Union, however, under President Ron Carey, has made a substantial commitment to the project. LAMAP, in turn, brought its resources into the strike at Mission Guerrero, and contributed key strategic planning and mobilization to the strike's success. LAMAP and Teamster organizers see the possibility that victory could lead to union drives among other tortilla workers, and LA immigrant workers generally.

The factories and workplaces of Los Angeles and southern California have become pressure cookers for immigrant workers. NAFTA-induced poverty pushes more and more people north across the border, and Proposition 187 and its lookalikes make them more vulnerable and their labor cheaper. People like Ramon Alvarez are tired of putting up with abusive conditions, but for their employers, abuse is a profitable business. Like Gruma, they want that money to continue rolling in, and they're willing to fight hard to keep the lid on. It's a recipe for a labor war.

Alvarez and his coworkers are not only changing things for themselves. They're changing them for the labor movement, helping it to remember that it has to be a social movement, and make common cause with the people on the bottom, to survive.

According to LAMAP director Peter Olney, "this war of immigrant workers is forcing unions look again at how to organize, at what having a union really means."

Top of Page


photographs and stories by David Bacon © 1990-1999

website by DigIt Designs © 1999