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COLUMN ONE : Courting Workers They Once Shunned : Unions are reaching out to Asian Americans to bolster declining numbers. Recruiters must try to overcome labor’s years of bias and neglect.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a Santa Ana garment maker’s parking lot, lunch provides daily relief from the drudgery of minimum wage jobs for scores of Vietnamese workers. As music and cigarette smoke rise from their open car doors, some of them kick a soccer ball around. Others play cards across a strawberry carton.

Mingling discreetly among them is Ho Lai, listening, comforting, offering hope--and a union card to sign.

As a labor organizer, Lai is trying to enlist hundreds of Southeast Asians workers--here and at a nearby electronics assembly plant. He also recruits at supermarkets and high-tech plants in Westminster’s Little Saigon and in Northern California.

Lai is part of a drive in which unions--long notorious for excluding or ignoring Asians--are trying to bolster their declining membership by reaching out to the large Asian immigrant work force.

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“We are a labor movement in dire need of new blood,” said Michael Byrne, a spokesman for the AFL-CIO in Washington. “The fact that we have a large pool of Asian workers, and many of them in primitive working conditions, that’s a great potential for growth for us.”

Nowhere is that potential as big as in California, home to more than a third of the nation’s 3.5 million Asian American workers.

But research suggests that a smaller percentage of Asian Americans--and Latinos--are unionized compared to whites and blacks, who together make up 96% of the nation’s union membership.

The low unionization rate partly reflects recent immigration, coupled with organized labor’s own economic troubles and waning influence. Also, unions have a history of excluding Asians, who have been seen as threats to jobs.

“American unions were built on a foundation of anti-Asian racism,” said Glenn Omatsu, an instructor at the Asian American Studies Center at UCLA. Omatsu notes that in today’s union halls, perceptions persist that Asians are harder to organize because they are clannish, they do not work well with workers of other races, they come from cultures that stress respect for authority and they aspire to be business owners.

“When I was a rank-and-file Teamster member, I remember union officials would say, ‘It’s impossible to organize immigrants,’ ” Omatsu said.

Lai and other Asians now emerging in unions also face obstacles common to all labor organizers: aggressive anti-union campaigns by companies, frightened workers and a political and social climate unsympathetic to unions.

But the soft-spoken Lai, 44, is undeterred. He says he gains workers’ trust by talking about his own odyssey: how the fall of Saigon in 1975 led him to Nebraska; his “Norma Rae” story at a chicken soup plant there; months in the wheat lands of Kansas, where thugs in pickups tried to drive him away while he was organizing Asian refugees working in a meatpacking plant.

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“I tell them it’s not like Vietnam, a worker has a right here,” said Lai, an international representative of the United Food and Commercial Workers since 1987.

As one of the few Asians in such a high-ranking labor position, Lai is a pioneer. More recently, the United Food Workers, the Service Employees Union, the Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union and others have been grooming Asian organizers, business agents and local leaders.

“A new generation of Asian labor activists is emerging,” said Kent Wong, director of UCLA’s Labor Center and president of the Asian and Pacific American Labor Assn. The 3-year-old labor group is supported by the AFL-CIO and is training Asian organizers, forging ties with community coalitions and acting as an advocate for Asian American workers.

So far, unions have had little success in Asian immigrant workplaces. Some analysts question organized labor’s commitment to building a multicultural membership and leadership among their ranks.

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“Today the unions will say we’re 100% for you,” said Ling-chi Wang, a historian at UC Berkeley’s Asian American Studies Center who has studied Asians in the labor movement. “But it’s not a proactive one--always very passive.”

Dave Sickler, head of the AFL-CIO’s western region, admits that labor has not done a good job with Asians, saying areas such as Koreatown should have been tackled years ago. But he also says many unions, battered by the recession and tough employers, have had few resources to hire bilingual staff who know the culture and can effectively organize these workers. That is why people such as Ho Lai have been so critical, Sicker said. “We’d like to clone him.”

At 5-foot-1 and 125 pounds, Lai belies the image of the tough-talking, brawny union man. Even with a mustache and ridges at the edge of his eyes, his boyish face hides his age and painful past.

Lai grew up in a village near Saigon, one of four children. His father was a tailor. Like so many other Vietnamese in the United States, Lai fled when Saigon fell in 1975. But he left behind his wife and three young children--whom he did not see for nearly 20 years.

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Within a year of his arrival in America, Lai took a job at the Campbell’s Soup plant in Fremont, Neb., where he stood on an assembly line tearing bones out of chicken meat rattling by on a chain. “It was not that hard a work,” said Lai, who bicycled to the factory, even in the frigid winters. Then one day, his life changed.

“I’m working on the line and across there my friend was standing, and I tried to talk to him about something,” Lai said. “And the supervisor came to me and said, ‘Ho, if you speak Vietnamese, go back to Vietnam.’

“It really shocked me. I leave my family behind to get freedom and I cannot speak my own language.” Lai brooded for two days. But a week later, in the factory’s nurse’s station, he again encountered his supervisor, who shouted, “If you can’t work, just go home!”

This time, Lai retorted: “ ‘Sir, I cut my hand because I am working here. I’m trying to stop the bleeding so I can go back to the line. . . .’ He looked at me and walked away.”

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From that point on, Lai spoke out for himself, the dozen Vietnamese at the factory and others who increasingly turned to him for advice. He memorized all 75 rules in the employee handbook and he studied labor laws, visiting the public library frequently. Later that year, workers at the overwhelmingly white factory chose Lai to be their union steward. And he held that job until 1987 when the United Food Workers recruited him as their first Asian American international representative.

Lai, who knew nothing of organized labor before his factory job, says he joined the union because he wanted to help his compatriots.

His first test came immediately. Dispatched to Garden City, Kan., Lai was assigned to reach the hundreds of Southeast Asian immigrants and refugees who had been recruited by IBP, the world’s biggest beef packing plant.

These new arrivals--many lured to Kansas from California by company-paid moving expenses--worked in punishing jobs, as tail rippers, flankers, gutters and sawers. They earned $6 an hour and lived in company trailers.

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Lai camped out at a hotel in Garden City and ate fast food. To talk to workers, he stood at dawn outside the factory gate, knocked on trailers on weekends and caught workers at a local Vietnamese market and social service offices.

“I tried to give them the idea that in this country, a worker has a right to work in a safe area,” Lai said. “But they’re afraid. They don’t understand the system in this country. . . . They think if an owner has money, he can do anything.”

Lai made the rounds by foot and in his first car, a $175 tank of a Pontiac, where he sat on pillows to rise above the dashboard.

After two years, Lai succeeded in getting a majority of the workers at the plant, Vietnamese and others, to sign union cards. But then 17 of 22 workers on Lai’s organizing committee lost their jobs. Lai’s union accused the company of firing those workers because of their union activities; the company denied the charges. The campaign began to fizzle. Scores of Vietnamese workers started to flee, many for Hawaii to try their luck as fishermen. In 1989, after 2 1/2 years of work, Lai and his union abandoned the campaign.

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“Oh, God, I did my best,” Lai said. “I feel so sorry for the workers, after going through all that.”

He admits that he lacked experience. Choosing his words carefully, he added: “I was a little disappointed with the response from the union. . . . I needed help.”

Labor leaders acknowledge their past failings but see hope in new organizing efforts, at places such as Lion’s supermarket, an Asian grocery in San Jose, the New Otani hotel in Los Angeles, and Clothes Connection, a big Orange County garment manufacturer. Nationwide, union membership has been falling since the mid-1950s, and it slipped again last year to 15.5% of the work force, down from more than 20% a decade ago. About 42% of the nation’s 16.7 million union members last year were government workers.

Even though Asian Americans are concentrated in urban areas and industries that are considered union strongholds, such as government and health care, research shows that they are much less likely to be unionized.

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They make up 3% of the U.S. work force, but account for 1.4% of union members, according to an analysis prepared for The Times by Florida State University economists. Nationwide, 15.5% of U.S. workers belonged to unions last year, but only 10.8% of Asian American workers.

Unions have been targeting Latinos for years, especially hotel and restaurant workers.

In California, union membership among Asian Americans has fallen more sharply in recent years than for all union members, dropping to 82,000 last year from 104,000 in 1990, according to estimates by Barry Hirsch and David Macpherson at Florida State.

Recent immigration plays a role: most Korean and Southeast Asian immigrants arrived in the past two decades. Similarly, the Asian and Pacific American Labor Assn.--the major support group at the AFL-CIO--is 3 years old, an infant compared to similar advocacy coalitions for blacks, Latinos and women in labor.

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But Asian American unionists and scholars also point to organized labor’s legacy of anti-Asian practices, which date back to the late 19th Century. Although there were exceptions--such as the International Longshoreman’s Union, which embraced Asians in Hawaii as early as the 1920s--most other trade unions stood at the forefront of anti-immigrant campaigns. Indeed, America’s preeminent labor leader, Samuel Gompers, was a lifelong opponent of Asian immigration. During World War II, union leaders were among the most vociferous agitators for the internment of Japanese Americans.

Although most union leaders today know little of that legacy, it has had a lasting influence, many believe.

Art Takei, 71, a third-generation Japanese American who was interned in Arkansas, said he thought deeply before joining the United Food Workers in Los Angeles a decade after the war. But he still remembers his father’s puzzled reaction: “Why are you in the labor movement?”

Takei, who until his retirement a few years ago was an assistant to the president at the United Food Workers Local 770, one of the largest unions in Los Angeles, says his mother eventually understood why he took up the labor cause. “Some of the negative attitude about the labor movement is passed on from generation to generation,” he said. “It’s a long process of education.”

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Wang, the UC Berkeley educator, says organized labor’s record with Asian Americans in the post-World War II era isn’t much better. Until recently, most unions were dormant as far as organizing Asian Americans, while others made only halfhearted attempts. Wang remembers how during the 1960s and 1970s, the International Ladies Garment Workers Union leader in San Francisco hired a Latino to organize Chinatown’s 3,000 Chinese garment workers, who could not speak English or Spanish. That campaign failed.

The union has since recruited a Chinese American woman to work with garment workers in San Francisco. She has had some success in recent years. But, Wang says, “she is working against history, a historical mistrust that is exceedingly difficult to win over.”

Today, signs are emerging that some unions are putting in more effort and money to overcome these obstacles. Sumi Haru, a Japanese American director of the national Screen Actors Guild, and Virgil Magday, the Filipino American head of the Oil and Chemical Workers local in Carson, represent some of the new faces of the labor movement.

Edna Bonacich, a professor of sociology and ethnic studies at UC Riverside, observes that there is multicultural worker support for the labor movement. But it is unclear whether organized labor has made the commitment to make good on the opportunity, she says.

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For three years, Lai has been laying the groundwork for organizing in California, researching the work force and making ties with community leaders. His influence recently led the United Food Workers local in Buena Park to hire Chuyen Nguyen, a publisher of a Vietnamese newspaper in Little Saigon, as an organizer.

Lai has a home in Hemet with his wife, Kathryn Jean--whom he met on the factory line in Nebraska--and an unadorned office in Buena Park. But he is seldom at either place.

Lai, who earns $50,000 a year, admits his work is grueling; he is often on the road and at the center of nasty campaigns or racially divisive issues. He has been called to mediate disputes in places such as Atlanta, where Asian American workers have clashed with African Americans, and to help unions win elections and ward off anti-union campaigns in Asian-dominated plants. In Kentucky, he once squared off with a union buster--who was Vietnamese.

Lai has won several campaigns, including a fight at an aluminum factory in Colton and a recent victory at a Louisville, Ky., food plant.

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“I don’t know whether the labor movement has a commitment to Asian community,” Lai said, but he added: “We have to be able to push them, to point out the need for labor to organize Asian workers.”

Lai has not been back to Vietnam, but he dreams of taking his labor struggles there. Two years ago, he helped his daughter come to the United States. And last year, his 24-year-old son arrived. Lai promptly sent him to Nebraska, to a job at a food plant.

“I want him to learn how hard a worker has to work to live in this country,” Lai said. “I really want him to learn the ropes.”


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