Union Hall Struggles to Be Neighborly in Commerce

Times Staff Writer

The people who live in the small houses surrounding Ironworkers Local 433 say they have had enough of the drunken tirades, the men who spend the night in their cars and others who defecate in public.

And then there was the scare when one of the out-of-work union members reportedly brandished a gun.

"Before they weren't fighting, but now they're more aggressive," said Jose Torres, 43, who has lived seven years with his wife, three sons and mother on Astor Avenue behind the union hall. "What scares me is when they draw arms. If they fire they could hit us."

It is a story of frustration and want of a better way of life for both the residents and the hundreds of California and out-of-state ironworkers who depend on the union local for their next job. The parking lot behind the union office has become a temporary home for some.

Some Are Homeless

"They're unemployed. They're getting to the point where they're homeless," said Joe Ward, business manager of Local 433. "Some of these guys are coming across (the) country."

The problem was brought to the city's attention anew when Torres and two other residents appeared before the Planning Commission last month.

Torres complained of men sleeping in their cars in the local's parking lot, of being drunk and disorderly in public, of defecating and urinating in public. He also complained that some cars were parked in an alley or in the same spot for more than three days, and of an ironworker who brandished a gun during a fight with three other men several months ago.

"Everybody knows the problem exists," Planning Commission Chairman Leonard Mendoza said earlier this week. "The problem is we have never been able to catch the people."

The Union's Largest Local

Local 433, in the 2000 block of Atlantic Boulevard, is the largest local of the International Assn. of Bridge, Structural and Ornamental Iron Workers, Ward said. The 4,300-member local has jurisdiction over an area stretching from Santa Maria to San Clemente, and from the coast into southern Nevada.

Currently, 400 members of the local are unemployed, which Ward blamed on increased use of non-union employees and the weather. Unemployment among ironworkers traditionally is high during the winter months.

A journeyman ironworker earns $21.73 an hour to put up the steel beams in buildings and other structures.

When union members finish a job, they report to the union hall for reassignment. Recently, the local has been asked to find work for ironworkers from Texas, where a depressed oil industry has left construction sluggish, and eastern states, where construction has been hampered by winter storms, Ward said.

The local has been a source of problems for Commerce area residents for years.

In July, 1984, former Mayor Robert (Bob) Eula wrote Ward to alert him to complaints that gunshots may have been fired, of public drunkenness and other disorderly conduct. City Councilman Michael V. Guerra issued a similar warning in January, 1985, when he was mayor.

"We will no longer tolerate any violations of local and state laws," Guerra wrote.

Ward said he has told the union members not to congregate in the parking lot, but there is little he can do if they don't break the law. And if they do, it is the concern of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, he said.

The union office, which has been there since the late 1950s, is open from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday.

"We've done everything to clean it up," Ward said. "I have (cars) towed out if they're abandoned. I encourage the guys to leave there. They're hungry. They're looking for a job. When I have an unemployment situation, it's worse out there."

Some Get Boisterous

On an afternoon last week, about 10 union members talked in the parking lot behind Local 433, against the backdrop of several campers and vans. The sun was bright and some of the men had been drinking beer, but there was no loud behavior.

The union members acknowledged that some members drink and become boisterous, and that workers between jobs often sleep in cars in the lot. But they said they had not witnessed the other allegations.

"If you have half a tank of gas left to you, you might sleep in the parking lot so you can drive once you find a job," said Chris Logan, 34, of Whittier. Logan, who has been out of work since December, went to Local 433 earlier in the day looking for a job. "There haven't been that many people sleeping here, and if they do they need to. They're not transients or bums. They're working men."

Family Lives in Camper

Carl Johnston, 40, had been staying with his wife and 3-year-old son in their camper at the parking lot since Christmas. But they moved to a local campground last week when sheriff's deputies and the city's traffic enforcement officer began patrolling the union office more regularly.

Johnston, whose home local is in Lubbock, Tex., has been moving up the California coast as construction jobs dry up.

"My rig's self-contained. It's got a shower and everything," Johnston said. "It's not old. It's a 1980. It's not an eyesore."

Johnston downplayed the complaints. "There's going to be a small amount of rowdiness whenever you get five guys together," he said. "(The neighbors) get as rowdy, if not more rowdy, than we do."

Not Against the Law

In response to Torres' complaints, the city contacted the sheriff's substation in East Los Angeles only to find that the city has no ordinance banning sleeping in vehicles.

But sheriff's Capt. Lynn Poos assured the city that he had alerted deputies in Commerce about the complaints.

"The fact of the matter is that nobody has ever called us to report what was going on," Poos said. "If they would call us when there's some activity going on we can take some action on it."

Torres said he calls the Sheriff's Department almost every week. "I don't know what to do with these people," he said. "Every day it's getting worse. There are more people."

Poos said that to his knowledge there has been no serious crime in the area. "There have been some drinking bouts there but that hasn't occurred for some time," he said.

Residents Urged to Report

The city's parking control officer also has been directed to patrol the area as much as possible for any violations.

The city this week mailed letters to residents within 300 feet of the union hall, urging them to report violations of the law to the Sheriff's Department. About 190 people who live on Astor and Cowlin avenues, and Como and Farrar streets, were to receive the notices.

The commission has invited Ward, Poos and area residents to attend its meeting Wednesday, when the issue will be discussed. In a Jan. 29 memorandum, John Perez, city director of community services, mentioned the possibility of an ordinance that would make it illegal to spend the night in a car in Commerce.

Ira Gwin, the city's director of community development, said such an ordinance was unlikely citywide, but it may be a last resort tactic in the area surrounding Local 433.

"If the parking lot of the ironworkers turns into a KOA campground, that's a real concern of the public," he said.

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