Worker Solidarity After the Work is Gone: The Story of Fuerza Unida
Alyson Lie is a freelance writer and editor, and a former Peacework volunteer.
Fuerza Unida is many things -- a sewing cooperative, a food pantry, a women's learning center, a community center -- but most of all, it's a focal point of activism in San Antonio, Texas. Almost every vigil, protest, and march in San Antonio over the past 19 years has had the involvement of Fuerza Unida. The group's members have traveled the world telling their story and the stories of other garment workers.
Sparked by the abrupt closure of a Levi's plant, 17 Latina workers took their outrage, and with the support of local labor and justice organizations, turned it into a righteous grassroots campaign against Levi's lack of corporate responsibility.
On January 16, 1990, Levi Strauss and Co. closed the doors of its South Zarzamora Street plant in San Antonio without notice, leaving 1150 seamstresses out of work with a meager severance package.
Two days after the plant closing, the New York Times ran a short article, reporting that Levi's was closing the Zarzamora Street plant because the company "had decided to use less expensive contract labor in the Caribbean trade zone." The article also stated the plant was due to close in April -- giving the appearance that Levi's was complying with the law requiring a 90-day notice.
Petra Mata, current co-director of Fuerza Unida and former Levi's employee, described the scene in Hilo de la Justicia, the organization's newsletter: "People screamed, cried, fainted. When you lose your job you feel like nothing but trash, a remnant, a machine to be thrown out." Some of the workers had been at the plant 20-30 years. These women had found security, however modest. Some had been able to buy a home, a second car, and send their kids off to college. Now, with few jobs in San Antonio, no retraining, and no cushion of a just severance package, they were about to lose it all.
Levi's, once the US's largest garment manufacturer, began off-shoring its plants in the 1980s. By the 1990s it had reduced its US manufacturing by half, laying off tens of thousands of workers. In 2004 it closed its last US plant. Levi's contractors are scattered across the globe in over 50 countries. The Zarzamora Street operation was being relocated to Costa Rica, where workers earned as little as six dollars a day. Many Levi's contractors have been cited for violations of workers' rights. A plant in Mexico was found employing child labor. In Saipan, Chinese workers (all women) were housed in locked barracks as virtual slaves.
Organizing on the outside
When Ruben Solis of the Southwest Workers Union heard about the Levi's plant closing, he says he got pissed off. "Here it was January. They'd all spent their money on Christmas presents and they were being told to go home. Their jobs were gone."
The next day, Ruben and others from SWU went to the Levi's plant with picket signs. As the women came for their last checks they spoke with the picketers, who urged them to do something.
A meeting was held at a local church. Seventeen women came to the first meeting and agreed to meet weekly to plan their response to Levi Strauss & Co. On February 6, the women formed Fuerza Unida and took their banner and newly organized boycott to the streets, picketing at the other Levi's plant in San Antonio and at local malls. Their call was for a just severance package and an end to off-shoring.
Viola Casares, co-director of Fuerza Unida: "This was very new to us. We didn't know anything about organizing. I remember when we had our first protests we used to hide our faces behind the poster boards because we were nervous and embarrassed. But we were learning how to protest, how to speak out."
While the SWU worked with the Fuerza Unida on the picket lines, lawyers were brought in to file a class action lawsuit against Levi's.
In April of 1990 Fuerza Unida, now 600 strong, joined the Southwest Network for Environmental and Economic Justice (SNEEJ), a network of 50 grassroots organizations. By joining SNEEJ, Fuerza Unida was not only able to rely on the support of thousands for its boycott, but able, as well, to see how its struggle tied in with other social and environmental justice issues.
"I remember one of the first conferences I attended with Southwest Network in Albuquerque," Casares says. "It was all about the environment and I remember thinking: ëWhat does the environment have to do with garment workers?' But then I learned it did connect with garment workers because we found out about all the chemicals Levi's was using. It really opened our eyes to the connection we had with the environment and with other garment workers. We're all connected together."
In 1992, with the help of SWU and Southwest Network, Fuerza Unida took its campaign to Levi's headquarters in San Francisco. For over a year, working in three-week shifts, the women kept a permanent force of protest at the Levi's headquarters while maintaining pressure at the remaining Levi's plant in San Antonio.
On Their Own
Three years after forming their organization, two of the women took over the leadership and the SWU pulled away, though it continued to support Fuerza Unida's campaign.
In October of 1994, Fuerza Unida waged a 21-day "Fast for Justice" at Levi's headquarters in San Francisco. At one point during the protest, Rubin Solis of the SWU and Viola Casares gained entry into the Levi's building and ran through the halls shouting "Levi's is unfair." They were caught on the top floor of the building trying to enter CEO Robert Haas' office.
Casares laughs, remembering the moment. "I was scared and excited at the same time. There we were running through the halls of Levi's yelling through the bull horn and security was chasing us. I couldn't believe it was happening." The November National Catholic Reporter reported that solidarity fasts had occurred in 15 cities in the US and Mexico.
Though Fuerza Unida eventually lost its legal case against Levi's, it shared in the victory for other workers when the company adopted a more generous severance policy, citing the San Antonio workers' campaign as one of the motivating factors.
Though fully supported by grassroots labor and social justice organizations, Fuerza Unida got little support from traditional US labor unions. UNITE and the International Ladies Garment Workers Union refused to endorse the boycott because the women hadn't been unionized. UNITE had also entered into a labor-management agreement with Levi's and wasn't about to jeopardize its gains by supporting the boycott.
While continuing with their efforts on a national scale, the women of Fuerza Unida focused locally on establishing a sewing cooperative in 1996, both to generate income and to provide jobs and training for displaced garment workers and elderly women.
Soon the Fuerza Unida became a drop-in community center, offering information on labor and immigrant rights. Responding to the increasing poverty in the barrios of San Antonio, Fuerza Unida established a food pantry as well.
In 1997 Levi's announced it was closing 11 US factories, laying off 6400 garment workers. For the women at Fuerza Unida this was both a poignant reminder and another call to action. The January 1998 Labor Notes headline read: "Fuerza Unida Renews Call for Solidarity Against Levi's."
On college campuses across the US, a Day of Action in support of Fuerza Unida was called on November 5, 1998. The UC Berkeley University Newswire reported: "Students have been raising awareness on campuses in a nationwide Fuerza Unida Support campaign. We as students at UC Berkeley find ourselves in a unique position to demand justice for workers who have been unfairly treated."
At the height of their public exposure, the women of Fuerza Unida traveled the globe to Canada, Brazil, Cuba, and South Africa, telling their story and arguing against NAFTA.
"I got a powerful lot of faith," says Casares, "learning about workers in other countries and how we are all together in our struggles."
Changing with the Times
The Levi's boycott was never formally called off, but once the last plant in the US was closed Fuerza Unida stopped its protests. Since then, members have remained active participants in the fight for social justice, immigrant rights, and workers' rights.
In 2003 Fuerza Unida was called to testify in a congressional briefing on the impact of free trade on America's working poor. In 2007 Fuerza Unida attended the World Social Forum.
The San Antonio News reported in May 2008 that Fuerza Unida and Southwestern Workers Union marched with approximately 300 other protesters across the Gateway International Bridge linking Brownsville, Texas with Tamaulipus, Mexico. The crowd stopped traffic for nearly half an hour while protesting the Bush administration's immigration policies. Both Petra Mata and Ruben Solis were there.
Currently, Fuerza Unida is working with other organizations to pass a sweatfree ordinance in San Antonio.
Petra Mata and Viola Casares, now in their 60s, are excited to
be working with the Southwest Network on a summer youth program,
training young activists and organizers throughout the southwest.
In April of 2009, two of their former students approached Fuerza
Unida for help on a protest at the San Antonio Hyatt Regency where
an employee was fired for trying to organize. They were more than
happy to oblige, joining them on the picket line.