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Everybody Loved It, But...
Everyone was telling us, Youre golden, Los Angeles Manufacturing Action Project (LAMAP) founder Peter Olney recalls. In 1995 the organization did seem charmed, its success seemingly guaranteed by its arrival at precisely the moment the American labor movement was waking from a half-century nap.
The AFL-CIO was having the first open presidential race in its history and while candidates John Sweeney and Tom Donahue disagreed on many things, both argued that LAMAPs campaign to organize southern Californias mostly Latino manufacturing workforce was precisely the sort of thing his candidacy was all about. But instead of sweeping LAMAP to success, events a continent away would ultimately force it to close its doors in January 1998a lesser-known victim of the same campaign finance scandal that brought down International Brotherhood of Teamsters president, Ron Carey.
Manufacturing does not fit the popular image of Los Angeles. According to LAMAP (pronounced LA map) organizers, greater LA contains the largest concentration of manufacturing in the world, outside of Germanys Ruhr Valley. In 1994 Los Angeles County led the nation with 638,700 manufacturing jobs42 percent more than runner-up Chicagos 450,400. (LA is actually the center of an even larger concentration, with an additional 445,000 spread among neighboring Orange, Ventura, Riverside, San Bernadino, and San Diego Counties.) Nearly 400,000 of these jobs lie in a 120 square mile corridor stretching 21 miles along Alameda Boulevard from downtown LA to the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.
The deindustrialization of the past few decades did not spare LA. It became the nations preeminent manufacturing center because other areas were harder hit. From 1979 to 1994 the departure of familiar names like Bethlehem, U.S. Steel, Firestone, Uniroyal, Goodrich, Goodyear, Pabst Blue Ribbon, Ford, and General Motors reduced the areas manufacturing jobs by 31 percent. The factories that were more likely to stay were the ones producing nondurable goods with greater need for proximity to their market. They are also less likely to be union. A consequence of the fact that nondurables now provide 44 percent of the areas remaining manufacturing jobs is the drop in the unionization rate of LA manufacturing from 34 percent in 1971 to 20 percent by 1987. By 1990 most of the countys new jobs paid less than $15,000 a year. Although they would hardly provide The Life of Reilly lived by the southern California aircraft workers of the 1950s television show, filling these jobs would still not be a problem.
The 1990s have been difficult for California, and Los Angeles in particular. The combination of riots, earthquakes, mudslides and gang and celebrity murders actually put a temporary end to a century and a half of domestic immigration. For five years, starting in 1992, more people departed California than arrived. But while the rest of the U.S. became disillusioned with California, Mexicans kept right on coming. Today one Californian in four is not a U.S. native and Latinos now comprise 37 percent of Los Angeles Countys population. New immigrants have filled three-quarters of the countys low-paying nondurable manufacturing jobs, with Latinos accounting for 68 percent of this workforce.
As with most waves of immigrants, most of this group may have been happy enough at first to have any job at all but eventually they grew restless. A June 1990 strike against International Service Systems, a Danish-owned cleaning company, brought union representation for 1,500 mostly immigrant workers. The same year 800 Latino workers walked off the job at American Racing Equipment, an aluminum wheel manufacturer, in a protest over working conditions. Although no union was involved in the walkout, 1,500 employees eventually joined the International Association of Machinists. In 1992, southern California drywallers began a year of roving wildcat strikes that attracted national attention, the impetus again coming entirely from the rank and file142 strikers would be arrested, but ultimately 3,000 mostly Mexican immigrant workers joined the Brotherhood of Carpenters under 20 separate contracts with the Pacific Drywall Contractors Association.
To Olney, all of this suggested that, Youve got a situation out there now where people have demonstrated an ability to organize. The question is how do wethe unionsfit in? Ive become convinced that union organizers cant be of the motel school. You cant just send a few people into town; put them up at a motel; collect authorization cards and file for a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) election. Its just not working. Its not how the CIO happened in the 1930sunionization came up from the bottom. That type of activity was clearly happening in LA.
Then in the process of leaving a job with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and looking for something new, Olney remembers being particularly struck by an LA Times<D> article over Labor Day weekend, 1993, about the size of the LA manufacturing sector and the number of Latinos in it. It talked all about injuries and health and safety but there was virtually no mention of unions in it. Right after that Goetz Wolfe, a labor researcher at UCLA, and I put together a proposal modeled on something SEIU, the Hotel Workers and the Teamsters had done in San Jose, called the Campaign for Justice, and we took it to David Sickler.
Sickler, who was AFL-CIO Regional Director at the time, functioned as something of a barker outside the circus tent, for LAMAP organizers as they started making their pitch to unions in February 1994. In November, 22 of them attended a presentation at a Los Angeles International Airport hotel; 2 months later 9 signed onto the program. Auto Workers, Carpenters, Food and Commercial, Garment and Textile, Longshoremen, Machinist, Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers (OCAW), Steelworkers, and Teamster unions put up $25,000 apiece and LAMAP was on its way. (The United Electrical Workers, not an AFL-CIO affiliate, also participated under OCAWs aegis.)
LAMAP was organized around four principles reflecting the emerging viewpoint among labor activists about what must be done to end labors long-term decline. The first was that unions should not totally rely on the NLRB, sometimes referred to by labor movement cynics as the graveyard of workers<F"FrizQuadrata BT"><F255> hopes. The NLRB conducts the union elections that theoretically guarantee American workers the right to unionize. And while the Board has been friendlier to workers under the Clinton administration than its immediate predecessors, the fact remains that management lawyers have applied dilatory tactics to its electoral machinery so effectively that the Boards actual effect is often nearly the opposite of its legal purpose.
Steve Babson of the Wayne State University Labor Studies Center thinks labor needs to remember that the successful campaigns of 1936 and 1937 had no reliance on the NLRB. Its existence wasnt even assured by the Supreme Court until the spring of 1937 and its administrative machinery wasnt effectively operating until 1939. Widespread efforts to circumvent the NLRB through local ordinances or pledges requiring employers to allow their employees immediate, Canadian-style, card check elections reflect the degree to which this point of view is shared on the grass roots level.
Josh Freeman, History Professor at Queens College, considers another of LAMAPs principlesattempting to organize whole industries rather than isolated companiesan element key to the success of the garment and construction unions in their heyday that makes sense today, particularly in small employer or highly mobile industries.
Of course, LAMAP was to be a multi-union effort, an element that Babson considers crucial to any successful organizing strategy. He notes that the successful campaigns of 1936-1937 were conducted on a national scale, simultaneously mobilizing workers across a wide spectrum of industries. In many cases members were only distributed to particular unions after they were organized. The original LAMAP plan called for organizing everyone into one unit and figuring out their specific union affiliations later, but the idea was dropped at the international unions insistence that their locals would never go for itan early indication of troubles to come.
But it was the fourth principleLAMAPs belief that in order to be successful its campaign had to be based in the communitythat brought the project interest well beyond the network of labors usual friends.
Father Pedro Villarroya has seen the new world order of the North American Free Trade Agreement era. His involvement with Saul Alinsky-style organizing projects in San Antonio, Texas has brought him into direct contact with the low wage maquiladora factories that American companies set up just over the Mexican border. So when he saw an article on LAMAP, I said this is my type of community project. Usually unions organize around an issue, like salary. This was around giving poor people a place in society. Long after its demise, he still bubbles with enthusiasm over what a great, great project LAMAP was and what it might have been. As director of the office for Spanish Ministry for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, he became the link with the Catholic bishops who were crucial to any effort to organize the Mexican immigrant community. When LAMAP made its presentation to the AFL-CIO organizing department it specifically called for the strategic involvement of community based organizations like the Catholic Church and Mexican State Federations.
The proliferation of Mexican organizations in southern Californian reflects the magnitude of the recent emigration north. One of LAMAPs community support campaigns was the Futball Fraternity project designed to tap into the network of soccer clubs. When the project was abandoned organizers had contacted and interviewed the elected officers of 12 of the Federation of Jaliscan Clubsbut they still had another 22 clubs to go. Estimates of the number of immigrants from this one Mexican Pacific state alone currently living in LA County run as high as 600,000.
The fact that LAMAP knew and cared where Jalisco was attracted interest in places outside the labor movements usual circuit, like the foundation world that Henry Allen of the Bostons Hyams Foundation characterizes as generally either hostile or indifferent to organized labor. Although Allen thinks LAMAP had only limited success in the foundation worldif it had been the darling of foundations it might still be around, the largesse industry did spring for a few things like funding for a Center for Labor Research and Training and the production of a Spanish-English video Organizing the Future.
But it was in academia that LAMAP probably found its most enthusiastic backing. Gilda Hass of UCLAs Urban Planning and Community Scholars Program found her students delighted at the opportunity to do something useful for the effort and work with people not on tenure track. In June 1995 some of her Masters students presented a report on Union Jobs for Community Renewal to the LA County Federation of Labor. California State University at Dominguez Hills students devoted a seminar to interviewing workers and community organizations in LAMAPs target areas. UCLAs Labor Center created an Organizing Immigrant Workers field study project for 12 undergraduates and even hired a LAMAP-Labor Center Coordinator.
All of this outside support was well and good, but by itself it wouldnt get the job done or pay the bills. The master plan called for a staff of 40 and an annual budget over $3 million. The hope was that each participating union would kick in $200,000 per year and the AFL-CIO would match it. The individual unions proved the harder sell. Although the publics image of unions is primarily blue collar manufacturing, LAMAPs manufacturing focus actually worried a number of the interested unions whose past experience suggested that manufacturing companies would pick up and go when union drives began. As David Sickler says, Although theres a always a lot of rhetoric about itits the first thing you pass a resolution about at any labor conventionthe fear of organizing manufacturing is deep seated. But LAMAP dealt with that by targeting the industries that couldnt and wouldnt move. For instance, auto racing wheels are design-driven and the designers live in LA. Apparel is also design-driven. And the tortilla industry is actually moving to LA from Mexico; and the drivers in that industry are crucialthe tortillas must be fresh.
By 1995 American organized labor had been in decline for nearly 50 years, a fact that often seemed to cause remarkably little concern among the AFL-CIOs leadership. But debate and discussion over how to turn the situation around had steadily grown at the local level to the point where belief in the need for a major change had become commonplace. Enough people holding that view had reached positions of power that they might be able to do something about it, should an opportunity arise. Their chance came with the Democratic defeat in the 1994 Congressional elections. Labor no longer enjoyed Democratic protection in Congress, for whatever it had been worth. Something new had to be done, but AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland appeared to have no interest in doing it and his number two person, Tom Donahue, could not be persuaded to challenge him for the presidency. In February, SEIU President John Sweeney announced that he would make the race. Kirkland resigned. Donahue succeeded him, and a Sweeney-Donahue race was on.
Although LAMAP had no direct relation to either campaign it clearly sprang from the same discontent that created the contest. It was even featured in the opening video of the November convention that would choose the Federations new leadership team. Everyone agreed that LAMAP wasor should bethe wave of the future. However, not all of the unions that had stuck their toes in the water would be plunging into the project. For a number of them the problem was that the money required was more than they felt they could afford for an outside venture. Some decided to stick with organizing campaigns they already had going. Others were willing to provide organizers but not money. But the Steelworkers, Carpenters, Longshoremen, and Teamsters remained interested and a scaled-down plan called for an annual contribution of $250,000 from each, with another million coming from the AFL.
But in the spring of 1996 the west coast Longshoremens Union decided that the money required was just too much for its base of only 40,000 members to support. The Carpenters, meanwhile, were reorganizing under a new president and no longer felt clear about what was in it for them. The Steelworkers opted to concentrate their organizing efforts within the steel industry.
As the individual unions peeled away, the new AFL-CIO leadershipso recently eager to embrace the projectwas not able to make the multi-union effort come together. The AFL argues that it doesnt have the money, according to Olney, that the real money is with the affiliate unions, but to get the affiliates to adopt cutting edge programs youve got to have a dowry. A good example of where Sweeney was able to make things happen was when it was a matter of re-electing Clinton. The AFL has exerted this type of leadership with the United Farm Workers and the building trades in Las Vegas. For whatever reason, they did not do it in the case of LAMAP. David Sickler is more emphatic: If people in the organizing department of the AFL-CIO wanted it to happen it would have happened, but they didnt. Why? Maybe because its Administration was already underway when the new people came in at the AFL-CIO.
Not surprisingly, one of the new people, Sicklers successor as Regional Director, Mark Splain, doesnt see it that way. Splain concedes that, Its always possible that the AFL-CIO could have done something more or something different if the Sweeney administration had been in place earlier, but fundamentally it didnt work out with the affiliates. Bob Calahan, the Steelworkers organizing director at the time, agrees, In retrospect there has to be some compelling logic for unions to combine, such as a joint campaign in the same company. There needs to be one or two unions that drive it, but there was no union that conceived this plan and no union that was going to make it happen. His point about LAMAPs genesis is probably crucialits origin outside any of the national unions was probably its Achilles Heel. Splain also recalls that, Two of the unions were uncomfortable with the fact that the project was free-standing.
Although the LAMAP dream was losing some of its grandeur, it nonetheless still seemed to be coming true. Once conceived of as one big union drive of ten combined unions, it would now be a drive within one big unionthe Teamsters who had always had a go attitude on the project. If the other unions didnt want to do it then they could live with going it alone. The largest private sector union in the country, the Teamsters already had 140,000 members in Southern California. The new presidency of Ron Carey had ended much of the stigma of mob association and brought the union back into the labor mainstream, but its years of isolation from the AFL-CIO had fostered an organizing perspective broader than that of most other unions. The Teamsters had not had to worry about jurisdictional disputes arising from organizing in an area that might be the bailiwick of some other AFL-CIO union and therefore felt free to organize across the Standard Industrial Code. When Ron Carey approved a $200,000 contribution for 1996-97, LAMAP was for real.
The American tortilla business has grown quite a bit bigger than folks in Peoria or New York City might imagine. About 25,000 workers, nearly all immigrants, now produce about $2.5 billion worth of them annually. Twenty-five percent of the industry is located in southern California where Mission Guerrero Mexican Food Products (MG) dominates. An American affiliate of the Grupo MASECA company that utilized its owners lifelong friendship with former Mexican president Carlos Salinas to control 43 percent of the tortilla and 77 percent of the corn flour market in Mexico. MGs 14 U.S. plants provide tortillas for the U.S. Army and chain restaurants like Taco Bell. Its East LA plant, the largest and most technologically advanced in the world, turns out 15 million tortillas a day. Rancho Cucamonga, a town 50 miles east of LA, recently gave the company a grant of over $400,000 to build a 50-assembly-line plant that will employ 1,200.
The tortilla industry was a natural for LAMAP. Teamsters Local 63 had a foothold in MG, or more accurately outside MGit represented the companys 171 drivers who went out on strike in August 1996. At that point, after paying expenses on their trucks the drivers were bringing home only about $180 at the end of a 60 to 80 hour week. By the time the local asked for help LAMAP had already studied the company and formulated an organizing plan that included protests at the Mexican consulate and a strike supporter dressed in a chicken-suit parading outside the Pollo Loco fast food chicken chain where MG tortillas were served. The strike, which included a boycott, went well: drivers received a 28 percent raise on their base pay and a 20 percent increase in commission. This was what LAMAP existed for; it was off and running. Two months after the strikes conclusion Carey (who had appeared at a strike rally) won reelection over James Hoffas challenge and in February 1997 renewed the unions commitment to LAMAP, which now felt confident enough of its future to hire ten staff, including seven organizers whose principal target was MG production workers.
One of them was Adrianna Meneses, a former garment union organizer who came on staff in March. For Meneses, the most attractive aspect of LAMAP was organizing manufacturing. Her assignment was the Rancho Cucamonga MG plant which, she says, wasnt a hot shop. We had underground committees; we werent passing out leaflets. We developed contacts with the drivers, but the company had taken steps to keep the drivers from the production workers. They used to socialize before that. Unfortunately Meneses had but three months to work on the campaign before she would be looking for work again.
Locally the Teamsters were having problems bringing the Hoffa and Carey factions together. When Carey failed to make peace with the areas local leaders he created a new district council, under the direction of one of his running mates, that encompassed 40,000 of the regions 140,000 members. An early 1997 attempt to bring all the southern California and Nevada locals together offered LAMAP as a possible unifying factor, the hope being that organizing new members might heal old wounds. But forces in the older, larger council wanted the newer one abolished as the price of their participation in LAMAP.
On March 16, three days before his second inauguration, Ron Careys campaign returned several contributions that had been determined to be illegal. In order to maintain union independence both Teamster and federal rules prohibit election contributions from employers or their spouses, regardless of whether their business actually has a contract with the union. One of the returned contributions had come from the wife of an employer who did not employ Teamsters, so at first it seemed to represent more of a violation of the letter than the spirit of the law. But further investigation revealed it as part of a convoluted plan to contribute Teamster union funds to outside organizations that then arranged for comparable contributions to be made to Ron Careys reelection campaign. Deeming this nothing but a complicated method of diverting union money into a campaign fund, the Justice Department set aside the election it had overseen and ordered a new one.
All of this had absolutely nothing to do with LAMAP, except for the fact the Teamsters commitment had been on a pay-as-you-go basis. In two months the Carey presidency would be over and with it went LAMAPs long-term funding. Although a Teamster spokesperson considered the topic inappropriate to talk about, it seems clear that in the sudden internal chaos, extreme sensitivity would now surround any outside expenditures. So, although Teamster financial support continued until the fall, money started arriving late. LAMAP missed two payrolls and could no longer confidently keep its staff. It kept going for awhile as best it could, piecing together funding from disparate sources to run a Parking Power campaign organizing parking lot attendants. But this was not a viable long-run arrangement. One of the locals took the project overit continues to this dayand in January 1998 LAMAP ended its run.
The Teamster election-funding scandal certainly created much higher profile casualties than LAMAP. But in terms of long-run impact on the labor movement, the fall of LAMAP may be as significant a loss as any. American unions need to organize 400,000 new members per year just to keep up with the growing work force.
David Sickler feels that the problem for the unions who did not choose to see LAMAP through was that, It required a lot of money and a structure that had not been executed before. We were talking about front-loading and not pay as you go. While Sickler concedes the possibility that From their point of view they may have seen flaws we didnt, it seems more likely that although the project was long overdue it was still, in a sense, ahead of its time.
Is there a positive side to the story? John Barton recently started at the brand new position of organizing director of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor which has targeted 30 percent of its budget to organizinga first in the nation. Although Barton thinks that LAMAP had no bearing on this decision and may even have soured some people on multi-union efforts, he does think the project left behind a lot of good research and some strong and vibrant relationships between labor and the academic community. Mark Splain actually has a more generous assessment: The fact that people saw the value in LAMAP and were disappointed that it did not happen speaks to how well conceived it was. Theres a sense that we need to do big organizing in LA. In some ways, the LA Fed project could be seen as a by-product.
Over the last several years American unionsor at least a significant sector of themhave made a concerted effort to shake off the cobwebs and put the movement back into the labor movement. But LAMAPs failure is a sobering reminder of just how great a gap still separates the desire from the reality. Z
Tom Gallagher is a long-time activist, and freelance writer living in California.