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SUNDAY PROFILE : Labor of Love : A Passionate Yanira Merino Refuses to Let Fatigue or Threats Stop Her Push to Empower Workers

TIMES STAFF WRITER

‘Yani! Te busca!” Yanira Merino’s sister calls from the front door of the aging wood-frame house they share with their kids in an old part of Pasadena.

It’s not yet 10:30 on a chilly Sunday morning, and the first appointment of the day is waiting on the porch. Merino was up very late and must leave for a business meeting soon, but she wouldn’t think of canceling a date for something as selfish as more rest.

Fatigue, like the other opponents in her lifelong fight for the rights of working people, can be overcome through hard work, dedication, intelligence--or tenaciousness, should it come to that. So she appears quickly, wearing a wide smile despite only four hours’ sleep.

This, then, is the new face of organized labor: a bleary-eyed, college-educated, 31-year-old bilingual mother of two who enjoys watching Spanish-language soap operas and reading books by Che Guevara and Maxim Gorky. Merino has the presence of a politician, the fervor of a Southern preacher and the passion of a poet.

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And pretty good timing too. At its convention last fall, the labor confederation AFL-CIO elected a new president who promised to aggressively organize low-paid workers, many of whom are women and minorities. To make good on that pledge, unions have turned to the likes of Merino, who has risen in less than 10 months from the processing floor of a local shrimp-packing plant to a post as an organizer for Labors’ International, one of the nation’s largest unions.

She has so far directed two successful campaigns for Laborers’ International. Just weeks ago, workers at a Morganton, N.C., poultry processing plant voted to join.

“What happened was extremely spontaneous,” says Father Kenneth Whittington of St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church in Morganton, where many of the workers, most of them newcomers from the Guatemala highlands, worship. “She just went to work. Not so much in a bossy way of saying, ‘This is the way we’re going to do it.’ But just doing it. I think her leadership came about by way of example.”

The company, Case Farms, is contesting the election, so Merino makes frequent trips east to keep the 550 workers united. On one visit the tires on her rental car were slashed. On another, a death threat, written in Spanish, was left on her car. The union responded by assigning her a bodyguard, but Merino quickly dismissed the attempts at intimidation.

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“They think just because I’m a woman, I’m going to be scared,” she says.

Not likely. During the 1980s, Merino shuttled between Los Angeles and El Salvador in her work on behalf of human rights and women’s groups affiliated with the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), which was fighting a guerrilla war against the U.S.-supported government. So, Merino says, in the spring of 1987 she became the target of threatening phone calls and letters, including one sent to her father in El Salvador demanding that he put an end to his daughter’s political work in Los Angeles. That June, a stranger ran her car off the road, dragged her from the front seat and tried to force her into his vehicle. A passerby intervened, however, and the stranger fled with her purse, leaving a badly bruised Merino and her then-3-year-old son behind.

Still, Merino refused to back down. If anything, the harassment motivated her. A month later, as she was leaving the offices of a U.S.-based solidarity group, two men who spoke with Salvadoran accents forced her, at knifepoint, into a van. After blindfolding her, they interrogated her while driving around Los Angeles for six hours.

They cut her tongue and her hands, carving the initials “E” and “M” (Spanish for escuadores de la muerte or “death squads”) into her palms. They beat her, burned her with cigarettes and raped her with a stick before dumping her, naked, down a freeway embankment.

Within days, she was back at work.

“I told her not to give in, to go back, that she had to continue, because of what was going on at that moment in our country,” says Merino’s mother, Leticia, who was visiting her daughter at the time of the attacks. “It was painful for me, but at no time did I let her see my fear.”

Merino reported the assault, and the LAPD and the FBI investigated, but no suspects have been identified. Today, she and her mother, hardened by the unspeakable horrors they have witnessed in El Salvador, almost shrug off the incident.

“They’ve done the same thing to hundreds and hundreds of mothers in El Salvador,” Leticia says stoically. “For everything, well, there is a sacrifice. No matter what you do there is always going to be some kind of danger. And sometimes you have to pay with your life.”

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Ironically, Merino’s father, Israel, had sent his daughter to Los Angeles to escape the kind of violence that tormented her here. A chauffeur who circulated among military officers in El Salvador, he has long been at odds with the politics of his wife and children. He and his daughter once went five years without speaking.

Yet she may not be the most militant member of the family. An older brother is an advisor to the FMLN, which carried its fight to the ballot box as part of the 1992 peace accord that ended El Salvador’s 12-year civil war. One of four siblings (an older sister died of cancer last year), he introduced Yanira, at age 12, to the works of Gorky. The Russian novelist and playwright had a deep affection for the downtrodden, and his 1907 novel “Mother” proved especially inspirational to Merino. So did the writings of Ernesto “Che” Guevara.

“I’ve read everything by him. I think he’s a good guide,” says Merino, who named her son, 12-year-old Mario Ernesto, for the martyred hero of the Cuban revolution. “Che really goes very deep into his theory about what we have to do as individuals. . . . After reading some of the writings of Che, of course, it helped me to understand more my point of view. It gave me more political background, more argument about it.”

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A mix of that political theory and personal experience has influenced many of the immigrants, like Merino, who fled wars in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala in the ‘80s. Most settled in Southern California and went to work at low-paying jobs, sometimes under deplorable conditions. Today, they are reinvigorating the local labor movement.

“The Central Americans, they do definitely represent a positive influence,” says Joel Ochoa, an organizer with the Los Angeles Manufacturing Action Project. “More than particular ideas, immigrants are coming with experience. And that experience [with] labor organizing and political participation in general translates in many cases into action.”

Many participants in the successful Justice for Janitors campaign, which used civil disobedience as a key strategy, were recent arrivals from Central America. They have also played roles in fighting for the rights of street vendors and workers in the garment industry, among other places.

Fred Lowe, a veteran union representative and the man who brought Merino to Laborers’ International, says the simple right to organize motivates many immigrants to agitate for better wages and working conditions.

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"[Merino] said to me, ‘In this country, they fire you. But they don’t take you out in the middle of the night and disappear you,’ ” Lowe says. “The worse case is you’re fired. It’s very different than worrying about being murdered.”

But for Merino, security has a price. While much of her political work could be done clandestinely, labor organizing requires an uncomfortably high profile. After she had been with Laborers’ International for less than seven months, for example, the Wall Street Journal did a front-page story about her life and work, embarrassing Merino and provoking jealousy among her co-workers.

“She’s really been unsettled by the publicity,” says Paul Baker, a political activist and former Trappist monk who spent nearly eight years as an unpaid live-in guard for Merino and her family in Southern California.

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Despite her militant background, labor activism came slowly for Merino. She worked at such odd jobs as cleaning houses and answering telephones during her years as a political organizer. During that time she taught herself English, and although she has an impressive vocabulary in her second language, Merino clearly prefers speaking in Spanish. In either language, she is a powerfully persuasive public speaker. In private, she is remarkably unguarded--until the subject turns to her wartime activities in El Salvador.

Shortly after the war ended in January 1992, many of the groups Merino had worked with either curtailed their activities or disbanded. So that September, she took a $5-an-hour job as a packer at Ore-Cal, a shrimp-packing plant located just off Skid Row.

Her work quickly earned the attention of supervisors, who promoted her to quality inspector and upped her pay to $6.65 an hour. Still, Merino grew increasingly disenchanted with cutbacks in benefits, among other complaints.

“She talked about the problems and I said, ‘Why don’t we try to organize?’ ” recalls Lowe, who knew Merino from his own involvement in the movement against the war in El Salvador. “I saw her commitment and tenacity. I watched her as it evolved. And I watched her in meetings. She would get up and talk and when she would talk, there was real silence. People really listened.”

They not only listened, they obeyed. In November 1994, the nearly 100 workers voted overwhelmingly to join Laborers’ International, one of the nation’s 10 largest unions with 425,000 members, and six months later the organization hired Merino as a full-time organizer. Her annual salary is about $30,000.

“I see her as really making a major contribution, over a long period to time, to the labor movement,” Lowe says. “The work, you’ve got to be a bit crazy; it’s like a fine madness. And she’s obviously infected with it.

“She has the political framework. She has the vision and understanding. And she has a real good understanding of people. She’s just lacking some of the technical skills and she’s picking up those rapidly.”

For Merino, the work has proven remarkably similar to political organizing. “It’s equal because it’s empowering people,” she says. But the travel and odd hours have taken a toll on her family. Her companero, David, spends most of his time with relatives in South-Central Los Angeles, though he and Merino are working to patch things up. In the meantime, her two children, Mario and 3-year-old Ileana, are frequently left in the care of others.

“With the family, I think, yes, you do miss a lot not being here,” she says. “I don’t feel guilty though. Since I began organizing in El Salvador, I always see whatever work I do as an extension of my family. I have a good job right now but there’s a lot of Latinas, single mothers, that are not able to be with their children. And I think, well, maybe if we can work and have a better situation . . . these women, and men, will have more time to be with their children and have a better life.

“For me, that’s the union: Something that will provide a path for the workers to have a better life, which at the same time will better their children’s life for the future.”

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Yanira Merino

Background: Age 31. Born in Santa Tecla, El Salvador. First came to Los Angeles in 1979 and has lived in the city since 1989.

Family: Resides in Pasadena with her 12-year-old son, Mario Ernesto, and her 3-year-old daughter, Ileana. Her companero, David, lives in South-Central Los Angeles.

Likes: Politics and Spanish-language telenovelas.

Dislikes: Cooking. “If I opened a restaurant, I’d probably be arrested,” she says.

On organizing workers: “I would not be an effective organizer if I had a job from 9 to 5. I don’t think you can be an organizer behind a desk. You have to be out there relating yourself to the people so that you will learn. It’s not having a theoretical understanding of what they’re going through, but it’s knowing what they’re going through.”

On immigration: “Everything is related, really. All these Salvadorans that you have here, you have them for a reason: Because we had a war that was supported by the U.S. government. . . . We’re being judged by people who were involved in what happened in our country and now they want us out of here.”

On leading an organizing campaign: “The strength of the union does not lay in being the leader. You are not a leader if you don’t have the followers. And the followers are only going to be there if you are really trying to help them.”


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