California Union to Aid Textile Workers’ Strike in El Salvador
In a highly unusual move, the California board of the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union has adopted the Salvadoran Textile Workers as a “sister union” and has promised to assist a group of workers who are on strike at a San Salvador factory where Levi’s jeans are made.
Richard Rothstein, California director of ACTWU, said the union will start raising funds and engaging in other support activities for the Salvadoran textile workers who are on strike.
“Members of our union have a strong community of interest with Salvadoran textile workers” because American companies, like Levi Strauss, are shifting production to Third World countries where workers are paid much less and have considerably fewer rights, Rothstein said in an interview Saturday at ACTWU headquarters on South Hill Street in the heart of Los Angeles’ garment district.
Cheered by Decision
Francisco Acosta, the U.S. representative of the National Federation of Salvadoran Workers (FENASTRAS), a left-of-center organization with whom the Salvadoran Textile Workers are affiliated, said he was very cheered by the California union’s decision. He came from Washington to tell the union’s board about the strike. It involves about 250 Salvadoran workers, mostly women, who have occupied the jeans factory for three weeks, halting production.
Acosta called ACTWU’s action “historic.” He and Rothstein both said it was the first instance they knew of where an individual U.S. union was coming to the assistance of a particular Salvadoran union. Normally, international union liaisons exist only between large labor federations.
The move might create some controversy in the 13.5-million member AFL-CIO, the large American labor federation of which ACTWU is one of 96 affiliated unions.
The American Institute for Free Labor Development, the wing of the AFL-CIO dealing with labor matters in Central and South America, has urged U.S. unionists not to deal with FENASTRAS. The institute alleges that FENASTRAS is dominated by Marxist-Leninist guerrillas. Acosta denied that charge.
Rothstein made a sharp response when asked about the Institute for Free Labor Development’s allegations. “I don’t know about their affiliations,” he said, referring to the Salvadoran union. “What I know is that they represent exploited workers at textile and apparel plants in El Salvador. As long as they’re doing that, they’re allies of ours.”
Measure Vetoed by Reagan
Rothstein said California ACTWU had decided to link up with the Salvadoran workers now both because of the strike and as part of its efforts to stem the loss of jobs in the United States. “The big fight for our union this year was the attempt to pass the textile and apparel trade enforcement measure,” Rothstein said. The measure, which would have restricted apparel and textile imports, was vetoed by President Reagan earlier this year and Congress failed to override the veto in August.
Rothstein said that in the past few years Levi Strauss & Co. had closed several southwestern plants where ACTWU represented the workers. He said the union is considering sending a delegation to Levi Strauss headquarters in San Francisco in an attempt to help resolve the strike at the Circas factory in San Salvador.
Acosta said the strikers, who are paid $4 a day, want a $20-a-month pay raise, and are seeking the reinstatement of five workers who were fired and the dismissal of two supervisors who they contend are anti-union.
Paid Above Minimum Wage
Acosta acknowledged that the workers are paid above the Salvadoran minimum wage, which is $2.60 a day, but said they are still hard-pressed to feed their families. “By your standards $20 a month is nothing, but to us it means a lot,” Acosta said.
David Logan, special programs director for Levi Strauss, said he believes the strike is part of a broad wave of labor unrest that has swept El Salvador since President Jose Napoleon Duarte declared a series of austerity measures in late January. Duarte has declared the strike at the jeans factory illegal.
Logan said Levi Strauss is not directly involved in strike negotiations because it does not own the factory, which also produces jeans for other companies. He said Levi Strauss has a production contract with the factory, which is headed by Enrique Batarse, a Salvadoran businessman now living in Miami.
“This is not a labor problem; it is a political problem,” Batarse said in a telephone interview. “I can not make any comments about the labor problem because there are many companies and government institutions that are in the same problem.” He said he had asked the union leaders to end their occupation of the factory and they had refused.
FENASTRAS representative Acosta said he has been negotiating with Batarse on behalf of the Salvadoran workers. He said their most recent discussion last week had been unfruitful.
Acosta took issue with the Levi Strauss contention that the firm does not have a direct role in the negotiations.
“I think they have a responsibility,” Acosta said. “They use their label on the jeans that are made there, plus the United States sends lots of weapons to El Salvador to protect American interests there.”