Thursday, November 1, 2018


By David Bacon
The American Prospect, October 31, 2018

Nicolasa Lopez Gonzalez signs a membership card for the union, Familias Unidas por la Justicia.

Workers in the berry fields of the United States and Mexico have the same transnational employers. Now, farmworker unions in those two nations have begun to work together.

Surrounded by blueberry and alfalfa fields near Sumas, Washington, just a few miles from the Canadian border, a group of workers last week stood in a circle behind a trailer, itemizing a long list of complaints about the grower they work for. Lorenzo Sanchez, the oldest, pointed to the trailer his family rents for $800 a month. On one side, the wooden steps and porch have rotted through. "The toilet backs up," he said. "Water leaks in when it rains. The stove doesn't work."

His wife, Felipa Lopez, described mistreatment in the fields. "The old man [the grower] sometimes walks behind us and makes fun of us," she charged. "He yells at us to make us work faster." Other workers in the circle nodded in agreement.

Ramon Torres, president of the farmworker union Familias Unidas por la Justicia, listened and then took union membership cards from the pocket of his jacket. "This is the first step," he said. "Join the union. But you have to agree to support each other in this. If he fires any one of you, the others have to stop work to get the grower to give the job back. If he tries to evict you, you have to act then, too."

Everyone signed the cards. They'd actually gone down to the union office in Bellingham two weeks earlier to ask for help-they'd had plenty of time to think about the consequences. After the cards were signed, they all agreed that the following Monday, instead of going into the field to work, they'd confront the grower and demand changes.

Two days later at sunrise, Torres and Edgar Franks, another union activist, joined the workers at the edge of a highway, next to the field where they'd been pruning blueberry bushes. Soon the grower, Gill Singh, drove up with his two sons. Torres gave him a letter from the union. "You don't have the right to treat people like this," he told the father. One son responded, "That's true, they do have that right. But don't we have the right to require them to work?"

Soon the workers were angrily recounting to Singh and his sons the pressure and the insults they'd endured, adding complaints about low wages and deteriorating housing. In the end, the grower agreed to fix some housing problems, to stop mistreatment in the fields, and not to retaliate against the workers for joining the union or stopping work over the problems. By then it was mid-morning, and the pruners went into the rows to begin their daily labor.

"This is how we're building the union," Torres says. "There are a lot of paros [small work stoppages] here all the time, and we come out to help the workers get organized."

Ramon Torres, president of Familias Unidas por la Justicia, tells the son of the grower, Gill Singh, the reasons why workers are refusing to go into the field.

FAMILIAS UNIDAS POR LA JUSTICIA was born in 2013 out of a work stoppage like this one, when blueberry pickers refused to go into the fields of Sakuma Farms after one of them had been fired for asking for a wage increase. Workers then mounted a series of guerrilla work stoppages over the next four years to raise the piece-rate wages. At the same time, they organized boycott committees in cities up and down the West Coast to pressure Sakuma Farms' main customer, the giant berry distributor Driscoll's Inc. In 2017, Sakuma's owners agreed to an election, which the union easily won. Familias Unidas then negotiated a two-year contract with Sakuma Farms.

Since then, work stoppages have hit many nearby ranches, and workers have successfully used them to win concessions from growers. Most of those workers are Mixtec and Triqui indigenous migrants from Oaxaca and Guerrero in southern Mexico, who now live permanently in rural Washington. In some cases, however, the paros have been organized by H-2A contract workers, brought to the United States under temporary work visas. In 2017, 70 H-2A workers refused to work at Sarbanand Farms after one of the fellow workers collapsed in the field, and later died.

A union contract has given Familias Unidas a support base for helping the workers in these spontaneous outbreaks. And because the piece rates for picking berries at Sakuma Farms has increased dramatically (allowing some workers to earn as much as $30 per hour) farmworkers at other farms have taken action to lift their own wages.

Job actions like these are not unique to U.S. farmworkers. In fact, the pruners' job action seemed very familiar to two farmworker unionists from Mexico, who'd arrived in Bellingham to explore another way to give farmworkers more power: cooperation across the border. Their trip was organized by the Solidarity Center of the AFL-CIO and the UCLA Labor Center.

"We're very similar," says Lorenzo Rodriguez, the general secretary of a Mexican union, the National Independent Democratic Union of Farm Workers (SINDJA in its Spanish initials), "not just in using tactics like stopping work, but in the ways we recruit workers and organize them. The way Ramon and others lead these movements gives workers the message that we can make a change, that together we can organize, together we can walk out. Above all, that we can represent ourselves."

Lorenzo Sanchez denounces the terrible condition of the trailer the grower rents to him.

SINDJA is a new union for farmworkers in the San Quintin Valley, the agricultural center of Baja California. It also was the product of action by workers in the fields. In 2015, thousands of farmworkers in the valley stopped work to demand better wages. Strikers were beaten and even shot by police. In the end, they convinced the government to raise the minimum wage in Baja California for farmworkers.

Out of that upsurge, workers organized SINDJA, and with the help of other progressive Mexican unions successfully pressured the government to give it a "registro"-the legal right to exist and represent workers.

Abelina Ramirez, SINDJA's secretary for gender equality, who accompanied Rodriguez to Washington state, says, "The situation in Washington is very similar to ours, especially for women-to their work and exploitation, and the bad wages. We can identify with what we've seen. The laws here seem a little more fair than they are in Mexico, but in both places we can't hope for the government to come in and solve our problems. As workers, we have to do it ourselves."

Abelina Ramirez talks with Rosalinda Guillen, executive director of Community2Community, a farm worker advocacy organization that helped start Familias Unidas por la Justicia.

ACCORDING TO RODRIGUEZ, the giant ranches of the San Quintin Valley employ 50,000 laborers in over 150 companies. Most of the companies, especially all the biggest ones, have "protection contracts." These are agreements with company-friendly unions that have ties to Baja's conservative state government. Workers have no choice in these arrangements, and often have no knowledge that such unions or their contracts even exist. Instead of helping workers raise wages, these "charro" unions help enforce a low-wage environment designed to encourage foreign investment.

Both in Washington and in Baja California, Familias Unidas and SINDJA have few legal protections, and rely more on action by workers to force changes. The San Quintin union has active workers in many companies, called "delegados." When an incident of abuse takes place, they meet with the union's leaders. If there is enough support in the crews for a job action, then workers stop work to demand changes.

"Our situations in Baja and in Washington are somewhat different," Rodriguez says. "But the most important thing we have in common are the people. The big majority of the people working here come from the same places, the same towns we come from. Even the same families. And wherever we go the exploitation is the same. That's what we have to focus on in order to change things."

To Torres, the leader of the Washington union, the network among indigenous migrants often makes building a union easier. "I think this comes from the culture of their [Mixtec and Triqui] towns, because it's not that difficult to organize the workers in spite of not having laws in our favor. The majority of our members come from Oaxaca and Guerrero-Triquis and Mixtecos. Many of our members have family in San Quintin. When they went on strike there [in 2015], we knew what was happening because there are so many families with relations there, who were participating in their movement."

Lorenzo Rodriguez, general secretary of the Mexican union, the National Independent Union of Farm Workers, talks with Ramon Torres and workers joining the union.

Moreover, workers in Mexico and the United States often have common employers. "The companies are the same," Rodriguez says. "Driscoll's, for example, is here in the U.S. and in San Quintin, as well as other countries. There are a lot of other transnational companies. Because of these similarities, it's important that we form alliances with the workers of different countries to make our struggles stronger. That's the only way we'll be able to face the companies. They are all coordinated. We have to realize this."

The workers involved in the strikes at Sakuma Farms became the core of local groups that picketed the stores selling Driscoll's berries, in the long effort to win the union contract. Strikers also traveled to Oregon and California to set up other boycott committees with students and other unions. At the same time, the fledgling union in San Quintin declared its own Driscoll's boycott. The Reiter family, which owns Driscoll's, also owns the largest berry grower there, MoraMex. Driscoll's distributes MoraMex's berries.

Once the contract was signed at Sakuma Farms, however, Familias Unidas por la Justicia had to agree to end its participation in the Driscoll's boycott. SINDJA continues to support it. "They have a contract with Driscoll's and we are promoting a Driscoll's boycott," Rodriguez says. "But we can compare our experiences in ways of organizing workers. The way they do things here in the U.S. could help us. And some of the things we do in San Quintin could be implemented on this side of the border. So cooperation could benefit us a lot."

Encouraging the participation of women is one area for such cooperation. Both unions have trouble encouraging women, who often make up a majority of the workers, to become active. "Women don't just have a double job," Abelina Ramirez explains. "We have a triple job. We are the first to get up in the morning, and the last to go to bed. We don't just take care of the family-we produce economically for all of society."

Thousands of women participated in the 2015 San Quintin strike, she says, but afterward, when the organization of the union began and leaders were trained, few women participated. "Really, there are only two or three trying to jump over those walls of ignorance, lack of time, and machismo," she says angrily. "Women aren't just good for serving children and husbands. Our world of farmworkers has ignored and failed to recognize what is possible. It has to be everybody's decision, not just women. It's important for the men to offer support and help in the home so that we can participate and get involved in the work of society and in social struggle."

Lorenzo Rodriguez, general secretary of the Mexican union, the National Independent Union of Farm Workers

BOTH SINDJA AND Familias Unidas are worried about the explosive growth of the H-2A temporary work visa program, which creates a pool of workers with virtually no rights. In 2017, Washington growers were given H-2A visas for 18,796 workers, and the number for 2018 will undoubtedly be much higher. Last year, about 200,000 H-2A workers were recruited nationwide and brought to the United States. This year, the number is expected to exceed 230,000.

"Many of our countrymen are coming through this program," Rodriguez says. "Many of them don't have good food. They get abused. The company controls them completely and the workers can't defend their rights. The companies are the ones who get the visas for these workers. The workers can't raise their voices, and if they do, the companies threaten them and blacklist them to prevent them from returning the following year."

Torres and Franks have helped Washington's H-2A workers organize a number of strikes and protests in the last two years, despite the challenges such workers face. Employers, says Torres, "don't tell them where to get medical attention, or even where to get a bus so they can move from one place to another. If there's an emergency, they don't know what to do. So if they can get this knowledge in their hometowns [in Mexico], it will make it easier for them to organize here."

Recruitment from San Quintin is rising quickly, which has an impact on the ability of SINDJA to organize. "Many workers who have participated in the strikes and social movements in Baja have been blacklisted," Rodriguez charges. "No company will give them work. So then they're presented with the possibility, through H-2A, of coming here." The difference in wages between the United States and Mexico is also a factor, particularly for those who can no longer work in San Quintin. "A farmworker with a stable job in Baja earns 1,500 pesos [$77] a week, but that's not enough in Mexico to pay for the most basic needs for a family of four or five people. If they come to the U.S., where the minimum wage is $11 an hour, for them it's better. So of course people take advantage of that opportunity."

Edgar Franks (l), an organizer with Familias Unidas por la Justicia, supports a worker who complains about bad treatment to the grower, Gill Singh, and his son.

That can also be an opportunity, however, for those workers to become part of organizing efforts in the United States. "It would help us to know who's been active in the movement in San Quintin," Torres says. "If we could identify those people, it would be much easier to take action when the workers aren't given breaks or lunch, or if there are other violations." Rodriguez adds: "Many of the people coming are members of our union. Some are even in the union executive committee. It's important to have contact with them. Then when they begin to organize, we will know who will help them and give them support. We should prepare them for what they'll find here, and we should organize these H-2A workers."

"We have basic rights," Ramirez says, "to education, to health care, to the welfare of our children-regardless of what country we live in. We produce what the whole society eats and drinks. So this work should be recognized and well paid. And we've discovered that if we unite and get organized, we can achieve these things."

Torres agrees. "It was very important that Lorenzo and Abelina came. We can accomplish a lot together."

The family of Lorenzo Sanchez and Felipa Lopez, in front of the broken-down trailer the grower rents them for $800 a month.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018


Photo Essay by David Bacon
Truthout, 10/31/18

Striking workers and supporters sit down in Fourth Street in San Francisco in an act of civil disobedience to dramatize the impact of the strike against Marriott hotels.

Three weeks on the picket line will either weaken a strike or make it stronger.  But workers at the Marriott hotels in eight cities around the US show no signs of wanting to go back to work anytime soon, at least not without resolving the reasons why they went on strike to begin with. Instead, the noise on the picket line is getting louder. Workers bang on pots, drums -- even old folding chairs -- making a racket loud enough to penetrate thick walls and double-paned windows. As a result, many hotel guests not dissuaded by their initial encounters with picketing workers are giving up and leaving.

"Over 20 guests have told me they're checking out and moving to the Waterfront Hotel," said Kenneth Walker, the veteran head doorman at the Marriott City Center Hotel in Oakland, California. The Waterfront Hotel, just a dozen blocks down Broadway, is not on strike.

It's not just happening in Oakland. The San Francisco Chronicle's Roland Li reports that organizers of the 2018 ComNet conference (a network of foundations and non-profits discussing better communications), which normally draws 1,000 attendees, moved their events out of the struck St. Francis Hotel. The St. Francis used to be a Westin property, but became part of the 700-hotel Marriott empire when Westin was bought out by what is now the world's largest hotel chain.

Other organizations pulling out of commitments at the Bay Area Marriotts include the Human Rights Campaign, the Shanti Project, the Chicana Latina Foundation and Bay Area Wilderness Training. In response, a huge wave of robocalls is hitting thousands of people in the region, trying to lure them into the Marriotts with offers of special deals.

However, not everyone is avoiding the hotels where workers are on strike. For instance, in Boston, the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers did not cancel hotel reservations for their baseball teams. Instead, ballplayers, themselves members of a union, snuck into the rear entrances of struck hotels as workers yelled questions to them about their apparent lack of solidarity.

Nevertheless, the picket lines and the creative tactics used by the workers and their unions have largely been the reasons hotel customers have turned away. The impact of housekeepers walking picket lines, instead of making beds, has been hard for the company to deny. According to Tonya Lee, a PBX(AYS) operator on the hotel telephone switchboard for the Oakland Marriott for 28 years, "If our manager had to clean seven rooms, he couldn't do it. Right now he just strips the bed, which is the easy part. He doesn't then make it or do what comes next. The managers have told me that the strike has made them respect what we just do every day."

That's also how Walker describes his experience as a member of the negotiating committee of his union, Unite Here Local 2850. "We're going to win," he said. "I feel the people across the table have learned to respect us." 

To get Marriott's directors to pay attention to the union's demands, the picket lines have been augmented by street actions and marches. Forty-one hotel strikers and supporters were arrested on October 12 for sitting on Fourth Street in front of Marriott's San Francisco flagship, the Marquis. In Oakland, on the coordinated national day of marches a week later, hundreds of strikers and supporters took over the intersection of 10th Street and Broadway, outside the hotel entrance. As the police stood without intervening, children painted the strike's slogan in huge letters on the asphalt: "One Job Should be Enough."

The slogan underlines the main demand by Unite Here in negotiations -- enough pay so that workers don't have to work a second job in order to survive. Nicholas Javier, a server at the St. Francis, told the union's organizers, "I'm one rent payment away from living on the street, and I have no real job security, so I feel like I'm living on a razor's edge." The union is also trying to make sure the hotels continue to pay for health benefits, rather than throwing the burden of increasing premiums onto paychecks.

Workers want protection from the increased use of automated equipment for doing jobs from checking in guests to mixing cocktails. The hotel chain has implemented a "green hotel" program, encouraging guests on cards left in the rooms not to ask for new linen and towels.  Although it sounds like an environmentally friendly idea, workers accuse the hotels of using it to reduce the need for housekeepers, speeding up the work and putting their jobs in danger. Instead, the union seeks to reduce a punishing workload, especially for the housekeepers who clean the rooms and make the beds.

While Unite Here locals in each city holds bargaining talks for the hotels located there, the strike has coordinated actions by more than 7,700 workers in San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose, San Diego, Detroit, Boston, Maui and Honolulu. Seattle Marriott workers have also voted to authorize a strike.

At some hotels, workers are veterans of strikes like this. In 2004, a strike by Local 2 in San Francisco became a lockout by the city's swankiest establishments. The struck corporations tried to force workers to return under their terms by ending their health coverage. Even after the union defeated the lockout and the workers returned without a contract, hotels refused to deduct workers' dues payments, thinking this would force the union to agree to concessions. Instead, for two years, the workers paid their dues voluntarily, and at the end, won agreement on the contract they sought.

Since then, what was once a network of large hotels and the companies managing them has become much more of a monopoly. Marriott owns six hotels in San Francisco where workers are striking. At two non-union ones -- Airport Marriott Waterfront near the airport and the downtown JW Marriott -- workers have declared their open support for joining Unite Here Local 2. They are demanding that managers agree to a fair process for recognizing the union.  

Local 2's strategy, helping workers organize in the middle of a strike, contradicts accepted wisdom among some organizers, who fear managers will use strike threats to discourage workers from union support. Local 2 organizers say their experience is the opposite -- that the strike shows that the union is willing and able to fight for improvements against their employer.

In Oakland, Marriott workers are experiencing their first strike. At the beginning, they were unsure if the rest of the workers would support them, even though the strike vote was 98 percent in favor. "We weren't really prepared for this on the first day," said Tony Scott, a bellman for 35 years. Lee adds, "I came to work on Friday [October] 5th, and when it was time, I went in and told my coworkers to come out. I wasn't sure they would. When they all did, I felt I was 10 feet tall."

Strikes are an education in power, and its lessons haven't been lost on the picket lines. "Numbers are always important," Walker explains. "Marriott has used its numbers -- how much money they make and how many hotels they own. Now we're using our numbers to show them they can't do it without us."

"This is my first time being on strike, and I see the union is a very powerful force if we stick together," said Scott. "We have to stand for something. I'll stay on the line until this is over."


Strikers sit in outside the flagship Marriott on Fourth Street in San Francisco.  Anand Singh, president of Unitehere Local 2, is arrested.

Hotel workers picket the six struck San Francisco hotels on the first day of the strike.

Strikers and supporters picket the Oakland City Center Marriott Hotel.

Strikers sit down in the intersection in front of the Oakland City Center Marriott Hotel, whkle children pain the sstrike slogan, One Job Should Be Enough, on the pavement.

Strikers, non-striking hotel workers and members of other unions march through downtown San Francisco in a march of 2000 people.


Strikers at San Francisco's St. Regis and St. Francis bang on metal chairs and lids, and play cymbals to make noise and discourage guests from crossing picket lines to stay in the struck hotels.  

Women bring their children to the picket line at the St. Francis and Oakland City Center Marriott Hotels. 

More photos from the strike are here:

Wednesday, October 24, 2018


By David Bacon
International Union Rights, V. 25, N. 3, 2018

 Children of Versatronex workers on the picket line.

In the valley’s remaining factories, labor contractors have become the formal employers, relieving the big brands of any responsibility for the workers who make the products bearing their labels.

Today Silicon Valley remains the fortress of the country's most anti-union industry.  High tech industry dominates every aspect of life.  Its voice is largely unchallenged on public policy, because the workers who have created the valley's fabulous wealth have no voice of their own.  Corporations like IBM, Hewlett-Packard, Intel and National Semiconductor told their workers and communities for years that healthy bottom lines would guarantee rising living standards and secure jobs.  Economists still paint a picture of the industry as a massive industrial engine fueling economic growth, benefiting workers and communities alike.

The promises are worthless.  Today many giants of industry own no factories at all, having sold them to contract manufacturers who build computers and make chips in locations from China to Hungary.  In the factories that remain in the valley, labor contractors like Manpower have become the formal employers, relieving the big brands of any responsibility for the workers who make the products bearing their labels.  While living standards rise for a privileged elite at the top of the workforce, they’ve dropped for thousands of workers on the production line.  Tens of thousands of workers have been dropped off the lines entirely, as production was moved out of the valley to other states and countries.

Apple Corp. has cash reserves in excess of $1 billion, while San Jose voters are told that there is no money to pay for the pensions of workers who’ve spent their lives in public service. The productivity of industry in the valley went up in the first decade of the current century by 42 percent.  But at the same time, average annual employment went down 16 percent.  The upper income stratum of the valley benefited from this productivity growth, but there was no corresponding growth in jobs.  Fewer people produced wealth for fewer people.  The rich got richer and the poor get poorer.  Between 2000 and 2010 the number of households with incomes under $10,000 more than doubled, from 11,556 to 26,310.

To make the economy serve the needs of working families, they must be organized.  It’s not enough to have a voice or a “place at the table.”   Silicon Valley’s 99% need the organized ability to effectively advocate for their needs, in the face of corporate resistance.  But despite obstacles, for its entire history Silicon Valley has been as much a cauldron of resistance and new strategies for labor and community organizing as it has been for the production of fabulous wealth.  Workers have opposed inhuman conditions.  Community organizations have fought for social justice and equality.  They will keep on doing that.

High-tech builds its anti-union model and workers respond

The anti-communist hysteria of the late 1940s and ‘50s bred a fratricidal struggle in the US labor movement. This led to the expulsion of the union founded to organize workers in the electrical industry—the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE).  While the new high-tech industry was growing in the Santa Clara Valley, the union that could have organized it, had it retained its strength and members won in the 1930s, was severely damaged.  In the rest of the labor movement, support for workers organizing unions in the expanding plants virtually disappeared. 

From the beginning of the electronics industry in the late 1960s, high tech workers faced an industry-wide anti-union policy.. "Remaining non-union is an essential for survival for most of our companies…The great hope for our nation is to avoid those deep, deep divisions between workers and management,” said Robert Noyce, co-founder of Intel Corp. The expanding electronics plants were laboratories for developing personnel-management techniques for maintaining "a union-free environment."  Some of those techniques, like the team-concept method for controlling workers on the plant floor, were later used to weaken unions in other industries, from auto manufacturing to steelmaking. 

A co-inventor of the transistor and founder of an early Silicon Valley laboratory, William Shockley, espoused theories of the genetic inferiority of African-Americans.  As Shockley, Noyce and others guided development in the Valley, they instituted policies that effectively segregated its workforce. 

In electronics plants women were the overwhelming majority, while the engineering and management staff consisted overwhelmingly of men.  Immigrants from Asian and Latin American countries were drawn to the Valley's production lines. Engineering and management jobs went to white employees. African-American workers were frozen out almost entirely.  Although unemployment in the African-American communities of Oakland and East Palo Alto, within easy commuting distance of the plants, has remained at depression levels, African-Americans are still not above 7.5 percent of the workforce in any category, and below 3 percent in management and engineering. 

Starting in the early 1970s, workers began to form organizing committees affiliated to the UE in plants belonging to National Semiconductor, Siltec, Fairchild, Siliconix, Semimetals, and others.  Most of these were semiconductor manufacturing plants, or factories that supplied raw materials to those plants.

"It was very hard organizing a union in those plants, because the feeling of powerlessness among the workers was so difficult to overcome ... It seems obvious that there has to be a long term effort and commitment, with a movement among workers in the industry as a whole, and in the communities in which they live," said Amy Newell, who helped start a rank-and-file organizing committee at Siliconix, and later headed the AFL-CIO’s Central Labor Council in Monterey County, just south of Silicon Valley.  .

By the early 1980's, the UE Electronics Organizing Committee had grown to over 500 workers.  Romie Manan, who organized Filipino immigrant workers on the production lines at National Semiconductor, remembers that the union published 5000 copies a month of a newsletter, “The Union Voice,” in three languages—English, Spanish and Tagalog.  Workers handed it out in front of their own plants, or in front of other plants if they were afraid to make their union sympathies known to their coworkers.  "A few of us were aboveground, to give workers the idea that the union was an open and legitimate organization, but most workers were not publicly identified with the union," Manan recalled.

Committee members challenged the companies and won cost-of-living raises, held public hearings on racism and firings in the plants, and campaigned to expose the dangers of working with numerous toxic chemicals—all without a formal union contract.

Eventually the semiconductor manufacturers, especially National Semiconductor, fired many of the leading union activists, and the committee gradually dispersed as its members sought work wherever they could find it.  The main strategic question, which the committee sought to answer, remains unresolved.  In large electronics manufacturing plants, union-minded workers are a minority for a long period of time.  Their organization has to be active on the plant floor to win over the majority of workers by fighting around the basic conditions that affect them.  But it has to be able to help its members survive in an extreme anti-union climate. 

This long-term perspective is very different from the organizing style of most unions today.  Many view union organizing as a process of winning union representation elections administered by the National Labor Relations Board.  Others try to use outside leverage to force management to remain neutral while workers sign union cards, and eventually negotiate a contract.  In high tech, however, huge corporations insulate themselves from their production workforce so well that outside pressure has little effect on them.  Most unions have simply abandoned the idea of helping workers in those plants to organize at all, saying that they are "unorganizable."

Despite its lack of success in organizing permanent unions, the UE Electronics Organizing Committee was a nexus of activity from which other organizations developed.  The Santa Clara Committee on Occupational Safety and Health (SCCOSH), originally founded by health and safety activists in the late 1970s, fought successfully for the elimination of such carcinogenic chemicals as trichloroethylene, and for the right of electronics workers to know the hazards of toxics in the workplace.  SCCOSH sponsored the formation of the Injured Workers Group, which organized workers suffering from chemically induced industrial illness.  The group's lawyer Amanda Hawes (also the lawyer for the Cannery Workers Committee) is still filing suits against the electronics giants.

"When we talk about organizing," explained Flora Chu, then the director of SCCOSH's Asian Workers' Program, "we have to talk in a new way.  Many immigrants, for instance, aren't used to organizing in groups at work.  SCCOSH helps to introduce them to the concept of acting collectively.  The organization of unions in the plants will benefit from this, if unions are sensitive to the needs and culture of immigrants."   
The Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition also grew out of the health and safety campaigns that ripped apart the image of the "clean industry," exposing large-scale contamination of the water by electronics manufacturers.  Coalition activists forced the Environmental Protection Agency to add a number of sites to the Superfund cleanup list. 

In 1982 the UE committee tried to mobilize opposition to the industry's policy of moving production out of Silicon Valley.  In 1983 the plants employed 102,200 workers; they employed only 73,700 people ten years later.  While the number of engineers and managers increased slightly, job losses fell much more heavily on operators and technicians.  "What this really meant," said Romie Manan, "was that Filipino workers in particular lost their jobs by the thousands, more than any other national group."  Manan lost his job as National closed its last mass production wafer fabrication line in the Valley in 1994.

Employers turn to contractors, unions to new tactics

In 1993 Intel built a new $1 billion plant in Rio Rancho, New Mexico, instead of California, because New Mexico offered $1 billion to help finance construction.  Lower wages were another determining factor. In Silicon Valley, the more permanent jobs in the large manufacturing plants began disappearing.  But contractors who provided services to large companies, from janitorial and foodservices to the assembly of circuit boards, employed more workers every year.

Workers losing jobs in the semiconductor plants made as much as $11-14/hour for operators, even in the early 1990s when the minimum wage hovered just above $4/hour.  Companies provided medical insurance, sick leave, vacations and other benefits. 

By contrast, because contractors compete to win orders by cutting their prices, and workers' wages, to the lowest level possible, contract assemblers and non-union janitors got close to the minimum wage, had no medical insurance, and often no benefits at all.   The decline in living standards made the service and sweatshop economy in Silicon Valley the subsequent focus for workers' organizing activity.
In Fall 1990 more than 130 janitors joined Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1877 during an organizing drive at Shine Maintenance Co., a contractor hired by Apple Computer Corp. to clean its huge Silicon Valley headquarters.  When Shine became aware that its workers had organized, it suddenly told them they had to present verification of their legal immigration status in order to keep their jobs. Shine's actions ignited a yearlong campaign, which culminated in a contract for Apple janitors in 1992.

Other employers in the Valley closely watched the campaign at Shine and Apple.  Using the same strategy, SEIU went on to win a contract for janitors at Hewlett-Packard Corp., an even larger group than those at Apple.  The momentum created in those campaigns convinced other non-union janitorial contractors to actively seek agreements with Local 1877, and over 1500 new members streamed into the union.
In September 1992, electronics assembly workers at Versatronex Corp. used a similar strategy to organize against the sweatshop conditions prevalent in contract assembly factories.  The starting wage at the plant was $4.25 per hour, the minimum wage at the time.  There was no medical insurance.  Sergio Mendoza worked in the "coil room," making electrical coils for IBM computers for seven years.  "Sometimes the vapors were so strong that our noses would begin to bleed," he said.  The conditions in the "coil room" were very different from those at the facilities IBM had at the time in South San Jose, which it referred to as a "campus." 

Contract assembly provides a number of benefits for large manufacturers.  Contractors compete to win orders by cutting their prices, and workers' wages, to the lowest level possible.  Today the contract assembly system, then in its infancy, has come to dominate high tech industry.  Corporations like Hewlett-Packard and Apple have no factories at all.  Their entire production is carried out by contract manufacturers in plants around the world.   

Workers at Versatronex workers went on strike after the company fired one of their leaders, and later launched a hunger strike and Occupy-style encampment, or planton."It is not uncommon for Mexican workers to fast and set up plantons—tent encampments where workers live for the strike's duration," said Maria Pantoja, a UE organizer from Mexico City.  "Even striking over the firing of another worker is a reflection of our culture of mutual support, which workers bring with them to this country.  Our culture is our source of strength."

Tactics like those used at Apple, USM and Versatronex have been at the cutting edge of the labor movement's search for new ways to organize.  They rely on alliances between workers, unions and communities to offset the power exercised by employers.   Often they use organizing tactics based on direct action by workers and supporters, like civil disobedience, rather than a high-pressure election campaign that companies frequently win.  As workers organized around conditions they faced on the job, they learned to deal with issues of immigration, discrimination in the schools, police misconduct, and other aspects of daily life in immigrant communities.

Electronics manufacturers have been forced over the years to permit outside contract services, like janitorial services and in-plant construction, to be performed by union contractors.  Nevertheless, the industry has drawn a line between outside services and the assembly contractors who are part of the industry's basic production process.  In one section, unions can be grudgingly recognized; in the other, they will not be.  Workers, communities and unions need a higher level of unity to win the right for workers to organize effectively in the plants themselves. 

In the heyday of the UE Electronics Organizing Committee, the National Semiconductor plant had almost ten thousand workers, working directly for the company.  By the time Romie Manan was laid off, employment had fallen to 7000.  Over half worked for temporary employment agencies, including almost all production workers.  Manpower, the temp agency, had an office on the plant floor.  According to Mike Garcia, the late president of SEIU Local 1877,  "high technology manufacturing doesn’t create high-wage, high-skill jobs.  It patterns itself after the service sector.  Contractors in manufacturing compete over who can drives wages and benefits the lowest." 

DAVID BACON  is a journalist and photographer in San Francisco. He is a member of the Editorial Board of International Union Rights.  He was chairperson of the UE Electronics Organizing Committee in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and an organizer for the UE at Versatronex.

Versatronex workers on strike.

Mexican and Korean workers march together in downtown San Jose to demand their labor rights.

Lino Pedres, an organizer for the janitors' union, came to the picketline to support the workers.  His bullhorn was confiscated by the police, who arrested him.

Maria Pantoja, UE organizer, helps workers set up their strike committee on the picketline.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018


Looking at the Root Causes of Migration
By David Bacon
Dollars and Sense | September/October 2018

Sammy Gutierrez and Filipino community activists join 3000 people outside the West County Detention Center on a national day of protest, called Families Belong Together - Let Our People Go

For eight years at the West County Detention Center in Richmond, Calif., monthly vigils were organized by faith communities and immigrant rights organizations to support those inside. These protests, and the testimony of detainees' families, were so powerful that the county sheriff in July announced he was canceling the contract he signed long ago with the federal government to house the prisoners.

While that was a victory, it did not lead to freedom for most of them, however, who were transferred to other detention centers. Instead, it has forced us to examine deeper questions. In those vigils we heard the living experiences of people who have had no alternative to leaving their homes and countries to escape violence, war, and poverty, who now find themselves imprisoned in the detention center. We have to ask, who is responsible? Where did the violence and poverty come from that forced people to leave home, to cross the border with Mexico, and then to be picked up and incarcerated here? Whatever the immediate circumstances, there is one main cause for the misery that has led migrants to the United States: the actions of the government of this country, and the wealthy elites that the government has defended.

Taking Responsibility
I went to Guatemala several times over the last two decades with my friend Sergio Sosa. Sergio was brought up in the church. As a young man he was on his way to becoming a priest. Then he became a combatiente (a participant in the social struggle and war in Guatemala from the late '70s to the early '90s), but he remained a friend of Bishop Bobadilla in Huehuetenango, a disciple of Archbishop Romero in El Salvador (who was assassinated at the beginning of El Salvador's insurrection and war of the same period). One evening Bobadilla, Sergio, and I spent a long time talking with about the civil war of the 1980s, and the fact that the massacres of tens of thousands of indigenous inhabitants of the mountains above Huehuetenango were carried out with guns that came from the United States, by soldiers whose officers had gone to the School of the Americas in Georgia.

Liliana comforts her niece, crying after a visit with her mother, who has been detained for 8 months in the West County Detention Center.  The children were unable to see their mom for 8 months because they lack California ID.  On this occasion, because the sherriff announced he's closing this immigrant detention center, they were allowed to see her.  They came all the way from Fresno, a four hour drive.

Yet in all the talk I felt no anger from the bishop toward me as someone from the United States. "Why not?" I asked. "Because we know you have as little control over your government as we do over ours, probably less," Bishop Bobadilla answered. "But you're interested in us. You want to hear about what happened, you know it was wrong, and you want to take some responsibility for it." Today when I read about the women and children from Guatemala in detention, when we hear their voices and see their photographs, I think about what Bobadilla said. It sounds so unbelievably hopeful-this idea that as people here in this country we want to take responsibility, and recognize the history of all that's happened between us and the people of Central America.

How did these children come to be here? And what does taking responsibility mean? It's not enough to believe that all children should be valued and cared for with the greatest tenderness and love. We need to know why they're here, in such an obviously dangerous and painful situation, enduring separation from their families and the adults in their lives.

You don't hear much discussion of responsibility or acknowledgement of history in the discourse of our national leaders. And it's not just the racist slurs of Trump.

To Sergio, migration is not just a journey from one point to another. Migration is a form of resistance to empire. "People from Europe and the U.S. crossed borders to come to us, and took over our land and economy," he points out. "Now it's our turn to cross borders. Migration is a form of fighting back."

U.S.-Sponsored Wars
Migration from Central America has been happening for very long time, but modern migration began with the wars. Refugees fled El Salvador and Guatemala because of massacres. Sergio says, "Our army was trained at the School of the Americas, and they would come back afterwards and kill our own people. The United States used its power, and we buried the dead."

This means we have had separated families for at least 35 years. When families settled in U.S. cities, many lived in the MacArthur Park neighborhood in downtown Los Angeles. In the 1990s this neighborhood was the focus of the Ramparts scandal, which exposed massive corruption in the Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums (or C*R*A*S*H) anti-gang unit of the Los Angeles Police Department.

In the name of combating gang activity among young immigrants from Central America, cops dished out unprovoked shootings and beatings, planted false evidence, framed suspects, stole and dealt narcotics themselves, robbed banks, lied in court, and covered up evidence of their crimes. It was one of the most extensive cases of police misconduct in U.S. history. The young people they targeted were imprisoned and then deported. The names of their gangs in Central America refer to Los Angeles streets.

Some 129,726 people convicted of crimes were deported to Central America from 2000 to 2010. With the deportations, the two most prominent Los Angeles gangs-the Mara Salvatrucha 13 and the Barrio 18-quickly became the two largest transnational gangs. In El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, U.S. law enforcement assistance pressured local police to adopt a mano dura or hardline approach to gang members. Many young people deported from the United States were incarcerated almost as soon as they arrived. Prisons became schools for gang recruitment.

A mother and daughter protest the separation of immigrant mothers and children, and the detention of immigrants in centers like that in Richmond.

U.S. funding for law enforcement and the military still flows, two decades after the wars ended, through the Central America Regional Security Initiative. Marine Corps General John Kelly, when he was commander of the U.S. Southern Command, said that migration was a national security threat, calling it a "crime-terror convergence." Today he's Trump's chief of staff in the White House.

Imposing Economics
During and after the war, the United States imposed an economic model on Central American countries based on producing for export, in "export processing zones" where companies could operate without complying with normal taxes, environmental regulations, and labor standards. San Pedro Sula in Honduras, called a "murder capital" by the New York Times, is not just a city of gangs. It's a factory town.

One of San Pedro Sula's working women, Claudia Molina, described the conditions there: "Our work day is from 7:30 AM to 8:30 PM," Molina told me, "sometimes until 10:30, from Monday to Friday. On Saturday we start at 7:30 AM. We get an hour for lunch, and work until 6:30 PM. We take a half hour again to eat, and then we work from 7 PM until midnight. We take another half hour rest, and then go until 6 on Sunday morning. Working like this I earned 270 lempiras per week [about $30 at the time]." When Molina and her coworkers tried to organize a union, 600 women were fired.

Over 95% of the women in the Honduran plants are younger than 30, and half younger than 20. To keep women from getting pregnant and leaving the factory to have children, USAID funded contraceptive distribution posts staffed by nurses in EPZ factories, including Osh Kosh B'Gosh. You can make the clothes for U.S. babies, but don't have any of your own.

And kids themselves are workers. Girls between 10 and 14 make up 16% of the women in the factories.

Griselda, Adriana and Hulissa called for their family members to be released from the West County Detention Center, after the Contra Costa Sheriff announced he was canceling the contract with Federal authorities under which the jail has housed immigration detainees.  Families feared that the detainees would be transferred to facilites far away where they will no longer be able to visit them.

The U.S. government promoted policies providing low-cost labor to U.S. corporations, promoting economic development that tied the economies of Central American countries to U.S. corporate investment. By the end of the 1990s, the number of Salvadorans in the United States had reached two million. And U.S. taxes didn't just pay for war and maquiladoras; they funded an even larger strategy of encouraging foreign investment through privatizing state utilities, services, and assets, and of negotiating "free-trade" agreements with Mexico (the North American Free Trade Agreement-NAFTA) and with Central American countries (the Central American Free Trade Agreement-CAFTA).

Policy as Leverage
The United States used immigration as a lever to force governments to go along. In 2004 Deputy Secretary of State for Latin America Otto Reich threatened to cut remittances if people voted for the left-wing Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) in El Salvador. After the FMLN lost, CAFTA was signed and implemented in 2005 by the government that Reich supported.

In Honduras, the congress had to ratify CAFTA in a secret meeting at midnight, when no opposition parties were present. Then, in 2009 a tiny wealthy elite overthrew Honduran President Manuel Zelaya because he raised the country's minimum wage, gave subsidies to small farmers, cut interest rates, and instituted free education. Raising living standards would have given people a future at home. Nevertheless, after a weak protest, the Obama administration gave de facto approval to the coup regime that followed. If social and political change had taken place in Honduras, we would see far fewer Hondurans trying to come to the United States.

Many of the children and families coming from Central America to the United States today are therefore coming to reunite with their families, who were divided by war and earlier migration. They are responding to the threat of violence caused by criminalization and deportations. They are looking for economic survival in countries tied to the neoliberal economic model.

A daughter thinking about her father, imprisoned inside the detention center

These are the real causes. There is no lax enforcement, and the claim that kids are coming because they think they'll be allowed to stay is a myth. Around 400,000 people are still deported every year, and 350,000 people spend some time in an immigrant detention center. The Border Patrol has 20,000 agents, and the United States spends more on immigration enforcement than the FBI and DEA budgets combined.

The migration of Central Americans, including children, has been used by Tea Party and Border Patrol to push to expand that budget, to build more private detention centers, to increase funding for CARSI and the military, and to kill the DACA program (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the Obama-era order that allowed young people brought to the United States without documents as children to stay). The hysteria played a big part in electing President Trump, with chants at his rallies of "Build the Wall!"

But children will keep coming so long as we don't take responsibility for dealing with causes of migration. Knowing where the violence and poverty are coming from, and who benefits from this system, is one step toward ending it. But we also have to know what we want in its place. What is our alternative to the detention centers, and the imprisonment of the people inside? To the hundreds of people who still die on the border every year?

What's the Alternative?
We have had alternative proposals for many years. One set of alternatives was called the Dignity Campaign. The American Friends Service Committee had another. They all had certain commonsense ideas in common:

An end to mass detention and deportations, and the closing of the detention centers.
An end to the militarization of the border.
An end to the idea that working without papers should be a crime.

These proposals also tried to deal with the root causes by calling for:

An end to the trade agreements and economic reforms that force people into poverty and make migration the only means to survive.
An end to military intervention, to military aid to right-wing governments, and to U.S. support for the repression of the movements fighting for change.

Hulissa Aguilar came to a vigil to ask for help to get her father Hugo released.  After raising the bond and getting him out, the family was reunited at the last vigil, together with Hugo's sister Isela and brother Gonzalo.

The migration of Central Americans has benefited our labor and social justice movements. One big example was Justice for Janitors in Los Angeles, where Central American janitors defied the police and were beaten up in Century City, but finally won a contract.

It is a powerful combination-workers on the bottom with not much to lose in minimum wage jobs, and politically sophisticated organizers hardened in a war zone.
That should inspire progressive movements in the United States to look at immigration in a different way. Simply being an immigrant may not bend a person politically to the left. But many immigrants bring organizing skills and working-class political consciousness with them, depending on where they come from, and their previous experiences.

The Right to Stay Home
Mixtec professor Gaspar Rivera Salgado says, "The right to stay home, to not migrate, has to mean more than the right to be poor, or the right to go hungry. Choosing whether to stay home or leave only has meaning if each choice can provide a meaningful future, in which we are all respected as human beings."

That right can't be achieved in Central America alone. The policies pursued by our government, whether through war and military aid, or through trade agreements and pressure to keep wages low, all produce migration. When we look at the families in detention centers today, we have the responsibility to give them a world in which the choice to leave Guatemala or El Salvador or Honduras is truly voluntary-where they have a future with dignity if they choose to stay. The ability to stay home is as important as the ability and right to migrate.

If you think this is just a dream, remember that a decade after Emmett Till was lynched in Mississippi, the U.S. Congress passed the Civil Rights Act. That same year, 1965, Congress put the family preference immigration system into law, the only pro-immigrant legislation we've had for a hundred years.

That was no gift. A civil rights movement made Congress pass that law. When that law was passed we had no private immigrant detention centers. There were no walls on our border with Mexico, and no one died crossing it, like the hundreds who now perish in the desert every year. There is nothing permanent or unchangeable about these institutions of oppression. We have changed our world before, and our movements here can do that again.

Hulissa Aguilar and Victor Hernandez, along with many vigil participants, tied ribbons to the fence after writing messages on them expressing support for the families of other detainees.

Saturday, October 6, 2018


By David Bacon

Workers in seven San Francisco Marriott hotels, and the San Jose Marriott, went on strike on Thursday, October 4.  Workers at the Oakland Marriott walked out the next day.  These are the faces of the workers on the lines.  If you're in the Bay Area, you'd be welcome to walk with them as they tell the hotels "One Job Should Be Enough!"

You can see the full selection of images on these webpages:
San Francisco Marriott Strike - Day 1
Evening on the SF Marriott Picketline
Oakland Marriott Workers Walk Out
San Jose Hotel Workers Strike Marriott

San Francisco


San Jose