Mujer a Mujer: Firsthand Account of Levi's
From Fuerza Unida, 4 January 1998
Dear Fuerza Unida Supporters,
Here's an article Mujer a Mujer in Canada wrote about Fuerza Unida a few years back that was posted on the Internet. Unfortunately they could not locate the original publication date or place in their records. However, current contact information for the group is: Maquila Soldarity Network/Labour Behind the Label Coalition, Popular Education Research Group, 606 Shaw Street, Toronto, Ontario M6G 3L6, Phone: 1-416-532-8584, Fax: 1-416-532-7688, email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Fuerza Unida can be reached at: 710 New Laredo Hwy., San Antonio, TX 78211, Phone: 210-927-2294, Fax: 210-927-2295
In these last ten years, Latina, Asian, and African American working women have been pioneering new forms of community- labor organizing in low-wage industries, principally beyond the pale of the AFL-CIO--projects rooted in the community, involving women's collective self-leadership and a lived understanding of the necessarily international nature of their struggle.
Powerful examples include: Asian Immigrant Women Advocates (Oakland), Mujer Obrera (El Paso), Chinese Progressive Association (Boston), the Green Giant workers of Watsonville, the North Carolina poultry workers and Fuerza Unida of San Antonio.
Almost all of these organizations are facing industries targeted to be removed from the U.S. in the Free Trade integration of Canada, the U.S. and Mexico. Green Giant has already moved to Irapuato, the clothing industry of El Paso is slipping fast across the border to the maquilas of Ciudad Juarez and points south, Fuerza Unidas' Levi's plant is now making jeans in Costa Rica. As soon as the Free Trade Treaty opens up the U.S. to animal imports, the North Carolina poultry industry could easily jump ship as well.
With 1.1 million workers, the garment industry is the U.S.'s number one industrial employer. Seventy-five percent of its workers are women; 39% are undocumented immigrants; 16% are African-American.
Yet U.S. policies are pushing the industry out--seeing it more useful as a first step in converting Third World economies from a model based on production for local consumption to one based on production for export.
This is the model which was adopted by the newly industrializing countries in Asia some 30 years ago. It was introduced in Latin America in Chile under Pinochet, and is an essential part of Bush's Enterprise for the Americas Initiative.
The garment industry is particularly suited to initiate the transition to production for export: it is highly mobile, requires low capital investment, and depends almost entirely on a cheap and abundant work force.
This model of development, adopted under pressure to generate currency needed for debt service, is a distorted one. Governments open their borders to foreign companies which dictate fabric, style, organization of the workplace, work week, wage levels, and final destination of the product. In contrast to the former "import substitution" model, workers' wages are no longer sufficient to buy the products of their own labor, and the local market crumbles.
The new export-oriented garment industry utilizes and deepens the sexual/international division of labor. Textile production and cutting--the most capital intensive and profitable aspects of the industry--remain in the U.S., in the hands of a predominantly male work force; sewing is passed on to women workers in Third World countries. Even in countries where export-oriented economic growth has taken place, garment salaries remain at subsistence levels.
Currently, Mexico provides only 3% of the U.S.'s garment imports. However, with the Free Trade opening of Mexico's borders, a massive relocation of garment production from Asia to the Americas is expected.
New zero inventory, "just-in-time" production systems are playing a key role in this geographical re-organization of the industry. Bar code scans of items at purchase send order information to relatively nearby supply factories. The efficiency of these systems has cut costs to such an extent that chains such as Walmart are beginning to switch to U.S. instead of Asian suppliers, in spite of higher labor costs. Further changes are expected once Free Trade allows the complete integration of Mexican labor in this process.
As a sign of things to come, the "maquilazation" of Guatemala is already underway, led by Korean firms. In Mexico, garment producers are the first to spread the maquila phenomenon south (to Guadalajara, Monterrey, Tlaxcala, Puebla, Mexico City, and the Yucatan) from its former confinement along the U.S. border.
The nascent and tentative organizing now taking place in the maquiladoras along Mexico's northern border has much in common with the U.S. immigrant women's projects mentioned above. Due to high turnover rates, it is in the neighborhood, rather than the workplace, that working women and their families are beginning to reflect upon and organize to confront the new realities imposed by the maquiladoras.
Meanwhile, women employed by the labor-intensive industries now leaving the United States are holding their organizations together, even after lay-off. "It's even more important to be organized now that we're in danger of losing our homes, now that our very survival is at stake," commented Margarita Castro of Fuerza Unida, in her kitchen one Saturday last month. "We don't know what is going to happen to us now, but we're going to face it together."
The following is a collective interview with Berta Suarez, Virginia Lopez, Margarita Castro, Lupe Galvan, Viola Casares,
Rita Alvarez, Petra Mata, Marta Martinez, and Francis Estrella of Fuerza Unida. They are among the 1150 Levi's workers laid off on January 15, 1990 when the company announced its decision to move to Costa Rica. The majority of these women had come to the U.S. in their youth to support their families. Their families and roots are now in San Antonio.
Fuerza Unida was founded as a result of the closing of their workplace. They now have 650 members, and enjoy broad, solid local and national support. They have filed a class action suit against the company, are leading a boycott against Levi's products, and have initiated a national campaign against U.S. garment plant shut-downs.
"On January 15 they invited us to a meeting at the Downtown Marriot. It was very elegant. We were seated at tables, when all of a sudden secretaries and managers poured in and marched around us like soldiers handing out packets of information. They said that levis had closed 56 plants.
Then the managers began to speak. After they finished talking, we just sat there. Some of us began to cry. They told us that they had assigned each of us a caseworker, and then they called us into little rooms. The caseworkers asked us how we felt. I told mine, "How am i supposed to stay calm if i don't have a job anymore?" All she could say was, "You have the right to say whatever you feel".
We had suspected that the plant was going to close--there were little clues everywhere. A year before, they had started sending pieces to be sewn in the Dominican Republic. We had asked & asked and they had always said no, that our plant would be the last to close. After all, we had won the $200 "miracle worker" bonus, the Best Quality Cup in 1989. After that a lot of people went out and bought cars, made downpayments on houses--we felt secure, we thought we'd be able to retire with Levi's.
If they had just told us we could have been preparing ourselves. I'm not even ashamed to say that if they had offered me the option of accepting $5 an hour instead of $7.30, I would have taken it--just for thx security. There's no work of this sort around here anymore.
The next day, a lot of us went to the plant to pick up our checks and to see what was happening, what we could do. There outside the plant was Ruben Solis, a union organizer with the Southwest Public Workers. He asked us, "Well, aren't you going to do something?" He was provoking us so that we'd react.
And then came the women from Esperanza Peace & Justice Center, lawyers from the National Guild, professors from U Texas San Antonio, all to support us. Seventeen of us showed up at the first meeting. I volunteered to hand out flyers. I would go to the warehouse door and look for women I knew among those who were still working.
The Mexican community will support you, but you have to educate first. Everyone comes here with their eyes on earning dollars and they don't want to hear you. They'll say: Things are better here, why do you want to fight? Especially the young people--they go to college and don't ever plan to work in this kind of job.
At first everyone said, "You all are crazy. How can you win?" But now they see how many of us there are and they say, "I'm with you."
Something that helped us organize is the fact that before Levi's bought the plant, the former owner (Santone) promoted a family atmosphere--we took up collections for women's birthdays. We had community involvement teams made up of representatives from every line. We didn't have a union but we felt represented, even though their response was usually nothing more than "we'll look into it", but that's all you get with unions too.
Of course their "big family" idea was a lot of brain-washing to try to make us feel like we were part of THEIR family: the mariachis on Mother's Day, the Halloween costume contests, the corsages for high production, donuts for no accidents, were just ways of using us.
But we made their plans backfire. They taught us to be a family, but they didn't realize how seriously we took the idea. And Levi's left us another heritage as well: each for her own. That's how it's been for decades in the United States, that's why you never hear of unity. And that's why it's so hard to bring people together in San Antonio, in the whole country, internationally. So when they dropped the bomb, they thought each of us would go home alone. But we've sure turned that one around.
Everything we did for the company--there were days when I would be walking out at 4 am and the manager would call me over and say, "Sweetie could you be back for the morning shift at 6 am?" and I would come back and work straight through til the next afternoon. All of this creates rage against management, you can't imagine.
Everyone was living under a lot of pressure to make our piece rate so that we can pay for our houses and cars. I was one of the few Mexicanas who worked as a supervisor until there was a cut-back, and they demoted me to "trainer", to work with the women who couldn't make 100%. Almost all of them were older women, who couldn't even make 70%.
I remember one woman in particular. When I would stand beside her to time here, she would get so nervous she would shake uncontrollably. She would say, "Leave me be, I just can't do any better than this." She would skip breaks, she wouldn't go to the bathroom. Sometimes I'm even glad the plant closed-- just imagine what would have happened if one of those women had had a heart attack, and we would have been responsible...
We had to learn to live with pain. I had to be operated on when my arm went out of socket. As soon as I got back they put me on "light duty", but it wasn't light at all. I had to lift packets of 60 pairs each. We're finding out now that one of the main reason that the company moved to Costa Rica is to run away from the fact that 15% of their work force in San Antonio had suffered occupational injuries.
We used to only focus on our jobs. Now I look up and realize that I lost 14 years and have nothing to show for it. But I now know what I want. We were used, but we've now drawn the line. If this happened in one factory it can happen in another. We want working people see us as we insist that our rights be respected. We want them to see themselves in our own experiences.
We are Mexican-American women, most of us having come here to work when we were very young women. We've always lived under men's shadows, but as Latinas, Mexicanas, we also carry Adelitas, soldaderas, feministas within us.
Our husbands are surprised by us now, and there are many divorces. Others are accepting it because they know that we're determined to keep on, with our without their permission.
A lot of homes are also breaking up because there's no money. In the 60's we convinced our husbands to let us work because our families needed two incomes. Now the money that we had contributed is gone. We're no longer carrying our share as we had before.
We fight because we can't provide our children with what we could before. I sent one of my daughters to college, but I can't send the rest. That's how the fights start, "But she's your daughter, too..."
The Levi's shut-down has had a tremendous impact. Our 16 and 17 year olds are having to leave school to work now. As parents we have no control, we can't hold them back. We can't even buy them a pair of tennis shoes.
With the organization that we are building, we don't want to repeat the power pyramid of the system: with the executive committee on top, then the council, then the members. The membership comes first for us, that's where decisions are made.
Those of us in leadership have stayed up nights thinking about this-- We've climbed a mountain, and now we have to go back down so that we can all climb back up together. It would be counter-productive if we didn't all go up together.
I remember how at first everything shook--my legs, my voice, my teeth. I wanted to cry. Then the second time, just my tongue shook. By the third time they were having to shout "get her down from there". Diosito santo, there we were in front of important people, in front of our community.
We hold our meetings every Tuesday. We pay annual dues and $2 a month. We have a telephone committee to remind women of meetings. Everywhere we go, we're always looking for ex-co- workers. We try to encourage them. We offer to pick them up if they don't have a ride.
We have a council meetings once a month--at first there were just three members, now there are 15. And we're always inviting more--the council meetings are open to all membership.
We don't have any economic support--everything we do is through our own efforts. One woman sells soft drinks, candies and pickles at our meetings. We raffle donated items. At our hunger strike last Thanksgiving we received 100 turkies which we raffled.
We have lawyers, who are playing an important role, but we don't do what they say, but rather we follow the decisions of the majority. We've found that management is more afraid of a group of women workers than they are of lawyers. You can make quite an impact by getting out into the street--you are showing them that you aren't afraid. The street is free, and people want to hear. They'll say, "Look at them--they aren't ashamed to stand up", and you get a lot of publicity.
We went to the stockholders meeting at Levi's headquarters in San Francisco. We began to chant, hand out flyers and posters. I'm shy myself, but when I saw our plant manager there I got so angry...
We've also visited Levi's other plant here in San Antonio which is still functioning. Management had scared the women, telling them that we were coming to harass them. But we surprised them by bringing them carnations. We told them "We're with you, we don't want your plant to close."
The other Levi's plant has a union, the ILGWU. We went to talk off the record with the union representative. We said to him, "You're not supporting us." He told us what we would have to do so that he would support us--including cancelling our boycott. But we don't want nobody to tell us what to do.
I worked in the other plant for three months, and had contact with the union. I don't have anything against any union, but it doesn't take long to see when "arrangements" have been made. It's the pyramid again--origin of the great corruption of the world. Once you get to the top, you have all the power in your hands...
Meanwhile, we investigated and discovered that federal funds for dislocated workers aren't getting to them. So we've taken the matter to the legislature and city hall demanding access. That's how all of us got scholarships to study for 12 months-- to learn English or get our GED's.
We have agreed that we want Fuerza Unida to become a support and educational institution. We want to open up an office for dislocated workers, to teach them about their rights and how to defend them.
Right now we're supporting the women at San Antonio Dress, and a strike at a factory in New Braunfels. The women there thanked us for what they had learned from us, and told us that Fuerza Unida must continue.
If more working people were awake and aware, and if we could join together not just in the U.S. but all over, we could change things. We are facing an almost impossible situation right now, but hope is always the last thing to die. "