from the pages of April 1996

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Labor Earthquake in LA

By David Bacon

Los Angeles 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, it is the place where the commitment of the new leaders of the AFL-CIO to organizing workers on the bottom will be tested.

Will the labor movement use the militancy of this workforce 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 also create, or recreate, a grassroots, bottom-up kind of union more responsive to workers, and better able to adapt to the challenges of the global economy?

These are big questions and high stakes. And some of the people holding the cards are the union activists grouped together in the Los Angeles Manufacturing Action Project (LAMAP).

LAMAP is described by Peter Olney, its director, as a multi-union, area-wide organizing drive, linked to the immigrant community.” Organizing drives, Olney 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 advantages.

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.”

Returning from the AFL-CIO convention in New York where Sweeney was elected, LAMAP organizers held one of their first mass meetings in early November to draw out and discuss the experiences of immigrant workers. Over 100 people packed a community center in the poor southeast LA city of Huntington Park. A quarter were garment workers on strike at Good Time Fashions, a sewing company which contracts to Guess Jeans.

Like many immigrant-based organizing efforts, this one started among the workers. When a new factory manager brought in time-study experts to videotape each of its 160 workers, and then cut the piece rates, the workers organized a spontaneous work stoppage. The Spanish word for this mini-strike, “paro,” has become a familiar part of LA's working class vocabulary.

Sara Callejas, a Salvadoran immigrant with six 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, rather than the union looking for them. 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 U.S., and their experiences in Mexico and Latin America.

Good Time Fashion workers struck over cuts in their piece rates, but anger among garment workers generally has been building over wages which are already depressed, and getting worse. Goetz Wolff, a professor at UCLA and LAMAP's lead researcher, documents falling wages in the industries where Los Angeles' immigrant workforce is most concentrated. In women's apparel, the average hourly wage went from $6.37/hour to $5.62 between 1988 and 1993. This affects a big chunk of the immigrant workforce. 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.

But it's not just the garment industry. 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 per hour, and rising slightly despite layoffs and recession. Aerospace is still a major industry here, employing a mostly-unionized and native-born workforce.

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 1,200 immigrant workers in Rancho Dominguez. Camorlinga had been a leader of a previous insurgent movement 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 tried to force their union, which was closely allied to the government, to defend the workers against the reforms. When they failed, they had to leave Mexico for their own and their families' survival.

But Los Angeles was hardly the promised land At American Racing Equipment, they found low wages and extreme working conditions, and organized a strike of close to 1,000 workers to end them.

Joel Ochoa, who heads the California Immigrant Worker's Association, 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 4,000 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 year-long strike by southern California drywallers. In 1992, from the Mexican border all the way north to Santa Barbara, an area of 5,000 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. These 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.

Mass picketing broke the 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 1994, they finally forced building contractors to sign the first agreements covering their work in decades -- the first union contracts won by a grassroots organizing effort in the building trades anywhere in the country since the 1930s.

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, full-time 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 targeted 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.” Union members are already contributing their knowledge of their own industries to the project's research base, and are starting 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 targeted 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.

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 percent of campaigns for recognition, and then go on to win contracts in over half of those workplaces, or a quarter of the total.

Along with democracy and militant tactics, alliances between unions and organizations in working-class communities is another element of progressive organizing strategy. David Sickler, director of Region 6 of the AFL-CIO, which sponsors LAMAP, criticizes unions for having 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 year-long process of preparation, LAMAP has sought to build relationships with community organizations throughout southeast Los Angeles. 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.

After raising expectations about a new era of effective action by the AFL-CIO, and a new period of growth through organizing non-union workers, the pressure will be on the new Sweeney administration to show that commitment on the ground The transition period between the old leadership and Sweeney's new group of activists is still taking place, and is likely to last through the new year. The executive council meeting in February will probably decide on funding for major new organizing efforts.

There are only a few other areas of the country where plans exist for multi-union organizing drives, and LAMAP already has a year of research and base-building behind it. That makes it likely that LAMAP will get much more support from the federation, and especially from those unions which supported Sweeney and his new emphasis on organizing.