Despite an adverse economic and political landscape, immigrant and low-income workers celebrated victories this past week.
In California, labor and community activists announced the winning of two new union contracts for car washers, or carwasheros, as they are called locally. The agreements with the Vermont Car Wash and Nava’s Car Wash in the south Los Angeles area were the latest in a campaign uniting the Community Labor Environmental Action Network with allies in organized labor. Last September, workers at Santa Monica’s Bonus Car Wash were the first shop unit to gain union recognition.
Edwin Leones, Nava’s Car Wash employee, said his fellow workers were “excited” to be union members. The victory, Leones said, now ensures that workers will have a “voice on the job and a say in our conditions.” In addition to a pay increase, the contracts will provide for extra safety equipment and on-the-job occupational health and safety training.
The car washers will be represented by the United Steelworkers, an affiliate of the AFL-CIO. According to the national labor federation, the workers employed at the three southern California businesses are the only car washers nationwide to enjoy union representation in an industry that depends heavily on immigrant workers.
Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa hailed the union agreements, saying the contracts represented an improvement in the lives of “some of our city’s most exploited workers…”
The car washers’ movement and related struggles were on the agenda of AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, who visited California last week. In a speech to the annual convention of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON), Trumka heartily endorsed the struggles of immigrant workers. He also blasted “armed vigilantes like the Minutemen,” and lashed out against “terrible, inhuman” state immigration laws in Arizona, Georgia, Alabama and elsewhere.
Inspired by immigrant workers, the US labor movement will continue pressing for the legalization of undocumented workers, Trumka said in a Los Angeles speech. To reclaim and honor the history of all workers, organized labor will celebrate May Day 2012, he added. The national union leader also contended that anti-immigrant and anti-labor forces constituted the same adversary.
“And let me tell you, it’s no coincidence that rogue state officials, like those in Arizona and Alabama who passed America’s worst anti-immigration laws,” have also targeted unions,” Trumka said.
Trumka’s words were delivered as the NDLON, a network of worker centers spread across the United States, marked its tenth anniversary fighting for the rights of immigrant and low-paid who make a living on unpredictable, temporary work.
The contemporary victories of immigrant workers were celebrated as Chicano and labor activists remembered the 60th anniversary victory of the epic Empire Zinc Strike in southwestern New Mexico. The conflict erupted after Mexican and Mexican-American miners, many of whom were World War Two vets, rebelled against local segregation in housing and other services as well as discriminatory company employment policies .
The strike was notable for the participation of miners’ wives, who assumed picket-line duty after a judge slapped an injunction against their husbands that prohibited the men from picketing the company’s gates.
According to New Mexico labor activist and historian Hueteotl Lopez of Juntos en La Union, the women “persisted and proved to be strong and brave fighters even when they were thrown into jail and threatened.”
The long strike was depicted in the film Salt of the Earth, which included many of the original strikers in the cast. The film’s producers and actors faced blacklisting in the anti-communist atmosphere of the McCarthy Era, FBI investigations and other forms of harassment. Leading actress Rosaura Revueltas was deported to Mexico. Much later, Salt of the Earth was inducted into the Library of Congress as one of the top 100 films representative of the United States, according to Lopez.
In an essay circulated on the Internet, Lopez took the occasion of the Empire Zinc anniversary to analyze the history of the strike and its long-term significance. Wrote Lopez :
“It is one magnificent example out of many in U.S. history that set a precedent for the rest of the country and for the world to follow-that struggle and sacrifice in the name of humane and equal treatment is not in vain and that standing together in the face of adversity, persecution, incarceration and isolation for your belief in change is a testament to the power of right to win out over wrong.”
Frontera NorteSur: on-line, U.S.-Mexico border news
Center for Latin American and Border Studies
New Mexico State University
Las Cruces, New Mexico