Everybody Loved It, But…


 

Everyone was telling us, ‘You’re 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
LAMAP’s campaign to organize southern California’s 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 1998—a 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 Germany’s Ruhr Valley. In 1994 Los Angeles
County led the nation with 638,700 manufacturing jobs—42 percent more than runner-up
Chicago’s 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
nation’s 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
area’s 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 area’s 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 county’s 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.

Immigration

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 County’s population. New immigrants have filled three-quarters of the
county’s 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 file—142 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, “You’ve got a situation out there
now where people have demonstrated an ability to organize. The question is how do
we—the unions—fit in? I’ve become convinced that union organizers
can’t be of the motel school. You can’t 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. It’s just not working. It’s not how the CIO happened in
the 1930s—unionization 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 OCAW’s aegis.)

              
LAMAP was organized around four principles reflecting the emerging viewpoint among
labor activists about what must be done to end labor’s 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 Board’s 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 wasn’t even assured by the Supreme Court until the spring of 1937
and its administrative machinery wasn’t 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
LAMAP’s principles—attempting to organize whole industries rather than isolated
companies—“an 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 it—an early indication of troubles to come.

              
But it was the fourth principle—LAMAP’s belief that in order to be
successful its campaign had to be based in the community—that brought the project
interest well beyond the network of labor’s usual friends.

The Community

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 LAMAP’s 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 Clubs—but 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 movement’s usual circuit, like the foundation world that Henry
Allen of the Boston’s Hyams Foundation characterizes as “generally either
hostile or indifferent to organized labor.” Although Allen thinks LAMAP “had
only limited success in the foundation world—if 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 UCLA’s 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 LAMAP’s target areas. UCLA’s 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 wouldn’t 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 public’s image of unions is primarily blue collar manufacturing,
LAMAP’s 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 there’s a always a lot of
rhetoric about it—it’s the first thing you pass a resolution about at any labor
convention—the fear of organizing manufacturing is deep seated. But LAMAP dealt with
that by targeting the industries that couldn’t and wouldn’t 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 crucial—the tortillas must be fresh.”

The AFL-CIO

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-CIO’s 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 Federation’s new leadership team. Everyone
agreed that LAMAP was—or should be—the 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 Longshoremen’s 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 leadership—so recently
eager to embrace the project—was not able to make the multi-union effort come
together. “The AFL argues that it doesn’t 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 you’ve 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 didn’t. 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,” Sickler’s successor as
Regional Director, Mark Splain, doesn’t see it that way. Splain concedes that,
“It’s 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 didn’t 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
LAMAP’s genesis is probably crucial—its 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 union—the Teamsters who had always had a
“go” attitude on the project. If the other unions didn’t 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.

Tortillas

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
owner’s 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. MG’s 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 MG—it represented the company’s 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 strike’s conclusion
Carey (who had appeared at a strike rally) won reelection over James Hoffa’s
challenge and in February 1997 renewed the union’s 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,
“wasn’t a ‘hot shop.’ We had underground committees; we weren’t
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 area’s local leaders he created a
new district council, under the direction of one of his running mates, that encompassed
40,000 of the region’s 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 Carey’s 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
Carey’s 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 LAMAP’s 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 over—it continues to this day—and 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 didn’t,” 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 organizing—a 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. There’s 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 unions—or at least a significant sector
of them—have made a concerted effort to shake off the cobwebs and put the
“movement” back into the labor movement. But LAMAP’s 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.