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A Victory for Immigrant Workers
Few people heard about the strike even though it lasted 10 weeks. Hidden away in Vernon, an industrial city carved out of South Central Los Angeles, 450 mostly Spanish-speaking immigrant workers fought and won an almost invisible battle. But it didn't go unnoticed. The garment industry found out that even the most exploited workers could bring a company to its knees. A section of the global justice movement saw firsthand the importance of linking with local struggles.
On March 8 garment workers represented by UNITE (Union of Needle, Industrial, and Textile Employees) walked out demanding a retirement plan, decent pay increases, and better working conditions. Hollander Home Fashions produces pillows and comforters for JC Penney, Ikea, Wal-Mart, and many other retailers. Most of the workers make less than $7 an hour, even after 20 years of service. Instead of negotiating a retirement plan the company offered to bring in consultants to “teach the workers how to save money.”
It was this condescending attitude that helped fuel high levels of support for the strike from workers. Few workers crossed picket lines, forcing Hollander to bus in scab replacements from a temporary agency. Hollander is a profitable company with $205 million in sales last year. They paid Labor Ready temp agency $12.50 per hour per worker, who then paid the scabs $8—more than all but the most senior UNITE! workers.
Initial pickets showed the militancy and confidence of the workers. When a court injunction limited pickets to five workers per entrance, workers stopped buses at nearby intersections, delaying them for up to an hour. Despite harassment from management and private security thugs, workers stayed strong.
“If we don't fight now, we're never going to get what we ask for, what we deserve,” said Maria Guzman. “They always want to treat you like you are inferior, and we're the ones who make them rich.”
But as the weeks wore on, workers ran out of money and energy. The union appeared incapable of sustaining the enthusiasm, or of taking the strike strategy to a new level. Faith was put in the expected solidarity from two other Hollander plants, one in Pennsylvania that eventually struck in May and another in Georgia.
Locally the strike suffered from passivity. It took several weeks before organized leafleting at retail stores began. Students and activists visiting picket lines were welcomed, but left without much of a sense of what they could do to actively aid the struggle. The Los Angeles labor movement donated $10,000 to the strike fund, but did nothing to actively build pickets or support. In fact, organized labor practically ceased to exist as it dissolved into the mayoral election campaign of eventual loser, Democrat Antonio Villaraigosa.
Immigrant rights groups organized a march of over 1,500 people on MayDay to call for amnesty for immigrant workers. The union failed to send anyone, let alone mobilize its members, even though the march ended across the street from the UNITE! union hall. Privately, workers were upset, but they lacked the confidence to challenge the picket captains and union strategists.
Some of the unofficial leaders amongst the workers saw the need for aggressive outreach and community support from the beginning. After all, it was only a year ago the Los Angeles janitors established a model for generating huge levels of sympathy and active community involvement in a strike so inspiring they made a movie about it.
Throughout the strike Hollander workers spoke on college campuses, at community meetings, and at a Stop the FTAA protest on the San Diego-Tijuana border. Student activists responded strong- ly to their struggle, especially at campuses with large Latino populations, such as the Cal State campuses in Los Angeles, Northridge, and Riverside.
In early May students called for a Saturday picket visit after a particularly moving testimony from a worker at a Cal State LA May Day meeting co-sponsored by several student groups. Chicano/as, socialists, anarchists, and anti- sweatshop activists began getting out the word about the South Central garment strike with the shrinking and dispirited pickets and about why the workers needed backing. Surprising even themselves, 50 activists, mostly students, showed up at 5:30 AM to support about 15 workers at their regularly scheduled picket. The small number of workers were surprised and rejuvenated by the eager young people, and the students were motivated by the committed unionists.
Students circled round to decide what they could do for the workers that the union couldn't do. It didn't take long to figure out that picketing the temp agency before the buses even left would surprise the company, and possibly bring badly needed publicity to the strike. The daunting time of 4:30 AM on the following Friday was set.
On Friday, May 18 about 20 students gathered before dawn at Labor Ready, Inc, admiring the anti-Labor Ready graffiti already on the wall. A guy from UNITE pulled up to relay the news that the strike had been settled. Workers the night before voted overwhelmingly to approve a contract offer that included 30-90 cent raises, better shop floor representation, and a 401K retirement plan with company co-payments. “Total victory” was declared.
There are a few lessons to draw from the experience of this strike. First, it should be made clear that the students didn't win the strike. In a way, the local union strategy didn't either.
Two things made the victory possible. One is that few workers crossed the line and the scabs were not very good workers. Output was dramatically reduced at the plant, so much so that the union believes the company was sending out empty boxes just to make it look like goods were getting shipped to market.
Even more powerful was the solidarity that the workers got from their union brothers and sisters in Pennsylvania and Georgia. Pennsylvania workers struck over similar issues eight weeks into the strike. The unity showed by the Georgia workers was even more inspiring.
Hundreds of miles away from the barrios of South Central LA, the small town, mostly African American workers in Tignall, Georgia walked out even though their contract wasn't up. The support for their companeros, most of whom don't speak the same language, was the kind of thing that once made the American labor movement a powerful force.
Did the student support help? The Hollander workers think so. At the victory barbecue, cheers and applause went up from hundreds of workers as someone introduced a student that was at both mobilizations. The timing of the company cave-in probably had more to do with mounting losses than the sight of dozens of young people up at the crack of dawn. But the support was crucial to the morale of the workers, and may have been factored in as a sign that reinforcements were available if the union sought to mobilize them.
One legacy of the strike may be that the union looks to allies in the global justice movement in future battles. Certainly a dialogue was opened up. For a layer of young activists it is clear, if it already wasn't, that local struggles can be as important as the far more glamorous, and more visible, anti-trade agreement mobilizations. Indeed, if those mobilizations are to grow beyond the current numbers, and diversify in their composition, it may be just these kinds of experiences that forge the unity to make that possible. Z
Bill Neal is a Cal State LA student activist in the U.S.-Mexico Border Action Project and a member of the International Socialist Organization.