Illegal Alien Issue Raised in East L.A. Dispute

Probably not one member of Congress is aware of it, but there is a nasty little labor dispute going on in East Los Angeles that is symbolic of the critical questions currently being raised in Congress’ highly emotional debate over illegal aliens.

On the surface, the dispute itself doesn’t seem to have far-reaching implications. Last year, the approximately 200 workers at Angel Echevarria Co., manufacturer of the nationally distributed Somma water beds, voted overwhelmingly in a secret-ballot, government-conducted election to be represented by the International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union.

The company subsequently fired more than 30 of the workers, and the regional office of the National Labor Relations Board here ruled that the workers were fired simply because they had supported the union.

The company is appealing the decision to the NLRB in Washington, and it is also trying to get Washington to overrule another local NLRB decision dismissing the company’s charge that the election was unfairly conducted.

The case could drag on for months--and even years--in the appeals process after the NLRB in Washington makes its final determinations. In other words, at first glance, the labor-managment struggle in East Los Angeles doesn’t seem unusual in light of the increasing number of anti-union actions by corporations, large and small.


But, while not unique, it is different than most such disputes because many of the workers employed by this company are illegal aliens. Most have slipped into the United States from Mexico, but a number are from El Salvador, Guatemala and other Central American countries.

But there is no law that prohibits a company from hiring such workers. And the heart of the current congressional debate on illegal aliens is whether to punish employers who knowingly hire illegal aliens.

The millions of workers who are in this country illegally seldom join unions, and they almost never go on strike or otherwise complain about their wages or working conditions because they fear deportation and the return to the poverty in their homeland.

Former Labor Secretary Ray Marshall said nearly a decade ago that the fear of deportation makes most illegal aliens work “cheap, hard and scared,” and therefore makes them attractive to exploitative employers.

But the workers at the water bed factory defied custom. They apparently work hard, but they didn’t want to continue working “cheap and scared,” and so they joined the union. They even went on strike for a few days. But they were easily and quickly replaced, apparently by other illegal aliens.

Because the strike action failed, the union launched a boycott of Somma water beds. While management says that action is ineffective, union organizer Peter Olney says the boycott has already had an impact on Somma sales.

The Somma labor dispute is symbolic because, in microcosm, it dramatizes the problems of the illegal alien and therefore could be useful to Congress as it debates the issue. Ultimately, Congress should pass a law that will punish employers who knowingly hire illegal aliens.

There is a local dimension to the dispute. The company president, Angel Echevarria, is a strong financial supporter of Mayor Tom Bradley. In fact, last January, during the middle of the labor dispute, Bradley appointed Echevarria to the influential Water and Power Commission.

The union has asked that Bradley both intercede with Echevarria and insist that the company begin contract negotiations at once with the union, especially in view of the overwhelming pro-union vote by the workers.

Bradley doesn’t want to get involved--at least not yet--and he notes correctly that the case is still pending before the NLRB in Washington. Thus, he contends, it would be improper for him to take sides at this point when the company is both challenging the legality of the union election and fighting the charge that it fired many workers because they supported the union.

Some of the union officials, including Olney, warn that if Bradley does not support the union in its fight with Echevarria, the mayor should not assume that organized labor will automatically support him if, as expected, he runs for governor again next year.

William R. Robertson, head of the Los Angeles County Labor Federation, says that he expects Bradley to back the union if it wins its legal battle. In any event, Robertson says he doubts that the dispute will play a role in labor’s decision to back Bradley in another campaign for governor.

Unions have been battling furiously over almost every labor issue with Gov. George Deukmejian, and Bradley has had labor support for many years. Thus, Bradley is virtually assured of labor’s endorsement if he runs against Deukmejian again. But, if the mayor remains entirely aloof from the little labor dispute in East Los Angeles, he could diminish some of the enthusiasm he needs from his longtime political allies.

Farm Union Fight

A disturbing but perhaps inevitable dimension has been added to the often furious battles between Cesar Chavez’s United Farm Workers and David Stirling, Gov. George Deukmejian’s appointee as general counsel of the California Agricultural Labor Relations Board.

Until the other day, Stirling had, for the most part, only responded to charges that he and the governor are biased in favor of the growers and against the workers; Stirling and the governor have repeatedly insisted that they have incurred the wrath of Chavez and the UFW simply by making the agency neutral in the legal fights between growers and the union.

But after the union announced recently that a focal point of its worldwide boycott of California table grapes is the longstanding allegation that grape growers use dangerous pesticides on grapes, Stirling countered with bitter denunciations of Chavez and the union.

This time, Stirling is not responding to an attack on the fairness or competency of his administration of the farm labor law. By denouncing Chavez’s complaints about the dangers of pesticide contamination as “utterly contemptible . . . vicious . . . (and) callously distorted,” Stirling may have made his administration of the farm labor law more difficult than ever.

Here’s why: Nearly 95% of the charges of unfair labor practices made to the agency are made by workers against growers, and the charges are almost always made through the union. And, as long as Stirling was defending his own conduct against attacks by the union, he could argue that his only goal was neutrality.

But Jerome Waldie, one of the five members of the farm labor board, which rules on cases brought before it by Stirling, says Stirling has now “poisoned his capacity to fairly judge charges brought to him by the union on behalf of workers.”

Waldie, whose term expires Dec. 31, said Stirling’s “public statement of contempt for the union and its officers on issues unrelated to the agency make ludicrous his contention that he is just carrying out the mandate given him by the governor to make the agency ‘balanced, even-handed and professional.”

When Waldie leaves, his successor will be appointed by Deukmejian, who will then have named a majority of the board’s five members. Waldie says that neither members of the board nor its general counsel, Stirling, should take a position on the propriety of the union’s boycott of California table grapes.

Waldie adds that Stirling, by his latest attack on the union and its use of the boycott, “has succeeded beyond any grower’s wildest expectation in closing down the ALRB as an effective instrument for helping to bring peace and stability to farm labor disputes.”

In a news release last week, Stirling said Chavez has “hit an all-time low by utilizing scare tactics on the consumers in a back-door attempt to damage California’s table-grape industry.”

Stirling charged that the boycott was initially called because “under my administration of the ALRB he (Chavez) no longer dictates the policies, personnel or outcome of cases at this state agency.”

Now, Stirling says, the initial goal of the boycott--to control the agency--has failed, and Chavez has switched tactics in an attempt to “revitalize his boycott by frightening consumers with unsupportable allegations that table grapes are contaminated with pesticides.”

In a telephone interview, Stirling insisted that his latest public attacks on the union and Chavez will not diminish his ability to fairly judge charges brought against growers by the union.

“They (Chavez and the union) started this fight by their attacks on me as general counsel, and I have no difficulty now with my decision to expose his latest desperate attempt to damage California agriculture by playing on the fears (about pesticides) in the minds of consumers.”

Actually, the union’s charges that pesticides harm workers in the field and can damage consumers of farm products are not new; they have been the subject of numerous state and federal investigations and legislative hearings for decades.

But, even if Stirling is correct in alleging that the union is exaggerating the pesticide problem, the fury of his latest attacks on the union and Chavez will surely raise new questions about the credibility of Stirling’s role as a neutral party in disputes between the union and growers.