Women at Farah: An Unfinished Story
WHEN FOUR thousand garment workers at Farah Manufacturing Company in El Paso, Texas, went out on strike for the right to be represented by a union, many observers characterized the conflict as “a classic organizing battle.”1 The two-year strike, which began in May 1972 and was settled in March 1974, was similar in many ways to earlier, bloodier labor wars.
There was a virulently antiunion employer, Willie Farah, who swore in the time-honored manner that he would rather be dead than union. There was a company that paid low wages, pressured its employees to work faster and faster, consistently ignored health and safety conditions, and swiftly fired all those who complained. There was a local power structure that harassed the strikers with police dogs and antipicket ordinances, denied them public aid whenever possible, and smothered their strike and boycott activities with press silence for as long as it could. There were strikebreakers, and sporadic violence was directed at the striking workers. On the side of the strikers there was a union, the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, which mustered national support for the strikers and organized a boycott of Farah pants. There was support from organized workers and sympathizers throughout the United States. Finally, there was a victory—an end to the strike and a union contract.
However, any account of the Farah strike that focuses exclusively on its “classic” characteristics misses most of the issues that make it an important and unfinished story. The Farah strikers were virtually all Chicanas. They were on strike in a town whose economy is profoundly affected by proximity to the Mexican border, in a period when border tensions were on the rise. They were workers in an industry plagued by instability and runaway shops. They were represented by a national union committed to “organizing the unorganized,” but which often resorted to tactics that undermined efforts to build a strong, democratic local union at Farah.
Perhaps most important, 85 percent of the strikers were women. Their experiences during and since the strike changed the way they looked at themselves—as Chicanas, as wives, and as workers—and the way they looked at their fellow workers, their supervisors, their families, and their community.
The following account does not focus on Willie Farah’s flamboyant antiunion activities. Instead, it attempts to explore the effect of the strike on the women who initiated and sustained it. In extensive interviews (approximately seventy hours) conducted during the summer of 1977, the women described their working conditions, events leading to the strike, the strike itself, the development of the union, and their lives as Mexican-American women in the Southwest. In an effort to accurately place the Farah strike in perspective, this chapter also deals with the social and economic context in which the strike took place. The account appears here primarily as it was told by the Farah strikers themselves—eloquently, sometimes angrily, and always with humor.
BEFORE THE STRIKE
The history of the Farah Manufacturing Company exemplifies the myth and reality of the American success story. Unlike many other southwest garment plants that ran away from the unionized Northeast, Farah got its start in El Paso. During the depression, Mansour Farah, a Lebanese immigrant, arrived in El Paso and set up a tiny shop on the South Side. Farah, together with his wife and two sons, James and Willie, and a half-dozen Mexican seamstresses, began to turn out the chambray shirts and denim pants that were the uniform of the working West.
When Mansour died in 1937, James was twenty-one and Willie only eighteen, but they were well on the way to becoming kingpins of the needle trade. Winning government contracts for military pants during the war mobilization effort enabled the company to expand, and it emerged from World War II in the top ranks of the garment industry. In the postwar period, the rapid expansion of the garment industry transformed the South into the largest apparel-producing region of the United States. The Farah brothers shifted production to meet the growing demands of the consumer trade, and sold their product to the major chain stores, J. C. Penney, Sears, and Montgomery Ward, for retail under the store names. In 1950 the Farah brothers began marketing pants under their own name, and built a loyal and growing clientele in men’s casual and dress slacks. The company expanded until it employed 9,500 workers in Texas and New Mexico.2 Before the strike, it was the second largest employer in El Paso.
Farah’s major role in developing El Paso’s industry and expanding the employment ranks made the family prominent in town. At least among some sectors of the population, Farah had the reputation of being a generous boss who lavished bonuses on his workers, gave them turkey at Thanksgiving, bankrolled an elaborate party each Christmas, and provided health care and refreshments on the job. The company’s hourly wages, however low they were, seemed generous in comparison to the piece rates that were standard in the garment world. Farah was the only garment plant in El Paso which would hire the inexperienced. In a town where the overwhelming number of unskilled Chicanas had to find work in retail or as domestic servants, many women considered themselves fortunate to work at Farah.
After the sudden death of James Farah in 1964, Willie undertook a major expansion of the company, constructing or acquiring a plant in Belgium, one in Hong Kong, and five in El Paso—the Gateway, Paisano, Northwest, Clark Street and Third Street plants. Within ten years, from 1960 to 1970, Farah’s share of the market for men’s casual and dress slacks rose from 3.3 percent to 11 percent.3 In 1967, the company went public and qualified for the New York Stock Exchange. The booming growth, new capital investment, and increased planning and control of marketing resulted in major changes within the plant, including increased pressure on workers to produce more and make higher quotas, and greater impersonality on the job.
Many workers felt that the expansion ruined what had been warm relations between management and employees. One woman remarked on the changes: “In 1960, there were only two plants. They had time for you. But it started growing and they didn’t give a damn about you, your health, or anything. They just kept pushing.”
While some workers saw these changes as significant departures from happier days, many felt that the public image of Farah as one big happy family had never accorded with the reality on the shop floor. Willie ran his business like a classic patron, conducting unannounced plant inspections and instructing women in how best to do their jobs. The most minute aspects of production, down to a seamstress’s technique for turning corners, were matters of near fanatical personal concern for Farah. His overbearing presence led many workers to feel that he assumed responsibility for work problems.
In fact, he would shower the workers with promises of liberal pay raises which never materialized. One woman who began working in 1953 recollected:
I used to tell my kids, work hard and your boss will love you and treat you well. So years and years passed, and though I was one of the fastest seamstresses, nothing was repaid, neither to me nor to the other workers. One day before the organizing drive began, I met Willie Farah and I asked him why he worked us so hard and never gave us a raise. He told me to come along to the office, and when we got there he said, “Listen, I don’t know a thing about what happens to the workers on the floor. If it will make you happy, I will go myself to your supervisor and check to see if you are getting your due.” Well, great, I thought, being sure of the quality of my work. Time went on and nothing happened. Seven months passed and no Willie. I asked, what happened, Willie doesn’t want to give me my due?
For many, wages were never raised above the legal minimum, and workers were often misled to believe that legislated increases in the minimum wage were raises granted by management. Wages remained low under the quota system; since pay increases were based upon higher and higher production rates, workers’ wages continually lagged behind spiraling quotas. Women were pitted against one another in the scramble to meet management demands and protect their jobs. As one woman observed:
They would threaten to fire you if you didn’t make a quota. They would go to a worker and say, “This girl is making very high quotas. It’s easy, and I don’t know why you can’t do it. And if you can’t do it, we’ll have to fire you.” So this girl would work really fast and if she got it up higher, they’d go to the other people and say, “She’s making more. You’ll get a ten cent raise if you make a higher quota than she.” They would make people compete against each other. No one would gain a thing—the girl with the highest quota would make a dime, but a month later the minimum wage would come up. I knew a girl who’d been there for sixteen years, and they fired her, and another who was there for sixteen years and still making the minimum.
In the garment industry, where labor comprises a major portion of a firm’s expenditures, southwestern companies like Farah keep their competitive edge over unionized plants in the Northeast by these cutthroat pay practices.
Many women who were pretty and willing to date their supervisors received preferential treatment. One seamstress, who had worked on a particular job operation for twenty years, received less than the attractive young woman who had begun the operation only a year before. The less favored women were subjected to constant harassment:
Every day they would come around to your machine to see how much you’d make. If you didn’t make your [quota of] 300, they would hurl things at us, yell at us like, “You don’t do nothing, you don’t do your job, I’m gonna fire you.” Embarrass me in front of all those guys pressing seams next to me. I was so embarrassed, but I said nothing. I got to the point where I dreaded going to work.
Rather than hire Chicanos who had worked on the shop floor, it was standard practice for the company to hire Anglo males as supervisors. Their treatment of Chicana workers was frequently hostile and racist. Women were humiliated for speaking Spanish. When they could not understand a supervisor’s orders, he would snap his fingers, hurl insults, bang the machines, and push them. One worker remembered:
In my department, the cafeteria, there was a supervisor. . . . This man didn’t like Latinos—he had a very brusque manner when talking to us. He wasn’t a supervisor; he was an interrogator! He would talk to me in English, which I can’t speak, and insist upon it, even though he knew I didn’t understand. The others would tell me what he said—things that offended, hurt me. But I couldn’t defend myself.
Workers who challenged arbitrary decisions were dismissed on the spot. “When I was just learning to sew,” a striker remembered, “I made a mistake on three pieces and the supervisor threw them in my face.”
I couldn’t say anything, being new there. But an old man who worked with the seamstresses defended me, saying that I wasn’t trained yet and there was no reason to throw them at me because everyone made mistakes at the start. They fired him for that, because he wasn’t supposed to meddle in those things. He’d been there for fifteen years.
All of these racist and abusive practices played a role in helping to control the work force.
Health problems in the plant were numerous. Some workers contracted bronchitis from working directly under huge air conditioners, while others suffered from a lack of ventilation. The pressure to produce was so great that women were reluctant to take time to go to the bathroom or get drinks of water. As a result, many workers developed serious kidney and bladder infections after several years of work. Equipment was faulty and safety devices were inadequate. Needles often snapped off machines and pierced the fingers and eyes of the seamstresses. Company negligence resulted in many accidents; such negligence was reflected in the care received by workers at the plant clinic:
One time I felt sick. I knew I wasn’t pregnant. He [the doctor] gave me a checkup, checked my blood and said I was pregnant. I knew I wasn’t pregnant. “Yes, you are.” Two weeks later I got really sick. You know what it was? It was my appendix, about to erupt. I went to [the] emergency [room].
Once, a needle broke on my little finger. The nurse said there was nothing wrong with it. I said it hurt, but she just put a tape on it. The next day it was that big. The nurse was very mean—didn’t know how to get along with people. I went to the clinic downstairs. I said, “Look, I cut my finger yesterday. I feel something in it.” They took some X-rays. I had the needle point stuck in my bone. They should have taken X-rays or told the supervisor to go check the needle to see if it was complete.
Several workers were fired after having been injured on the job. Others had their injuries and illnesses misdiagnosed and were sent back to work without proper treatment, sometimes with serious consequences:
I saw several times people fainting. There was this time the doctor told this guy there was nothing wrong with him and kept giving him pain killers. In the afternoon, he was the guy who did cleanup and sweeping, he just bent over—he couldn’t stand the pain anymore. They took him to the hospital and at the hospital he went into a coma. He was in a coma and they couldn’t operate on him. I think it was his gall bladder.
The doctors were not only incompetent, but they were also unsympathetic and insensitive to workers’ feelings. Many workers felt that the company doctors and nurses were there primarily to keep them at their machines, rather than to provide them with health care:
The plant doctor gave the same medicine to everyone in the factory and sent you back to work. I remember I’d been working there for three years and had heard a lot of stories about what was going on. I never went there. I took my own aspirins to work.
One day I was really sick and wanted to go home. I could hardly walk. I was almost fainting and had chills. But I walked to the clinic, and the first thing the nurse told me (she got my chart—it wasn’t mine, it belonged to somebody else and had my name. She didn’t see my badge), and said to the other nurse, “I think somebody just doesn’t want to work.” It kind of made me feel bad because I’d never stepped into the office before. So I told her it wasn’t my chart, that I’d never been in before, and she said, “Oh, I don’t know.” When I went in to see the doctor he didn’t even tell me what was wrong with me, he was already writing the prescription. So I said, “Doctor, I want to go home.” And he answered, “Why didn’t you tell me that in the first place?” as if I were wasting his time.
When I walked out of their clinic I was sicker than when I walked in, because I thought they thought I was a pretender. After three years of not being sick.
If people had to go outside for additional medical care, the company would not assume financial responsibility.
In addition to “free medical care,” company benefits included bus transportation to and from work and Christmas presents and bonuses. Since company expenditures for these “extras” were paid for in part by the interest on workers’ savings in a company-controlled account, the “benefits” were more illusory than real. Real benefits such as maternity and sick leave, seniority, and a pension plan were absent from the company package. Women who took maternity leaves without compensation returned to the factory to find that they had been switched to new operations and that their wages had been cut. Pregnant women underwent substantial hardships in order to avoid the consequences of these practices. One woman recalled:
When I was pregnant with my youngest, I was working there and my husband was also working there. But what he was making wasn’t enough. I worked up to the eighth month. And let me tell you, it was pretty bad because they take no consideration; even if you’re pregnant you still have to do the same thing, the same quota. They don’t even take you down [from the machine] to rest your legs. If you’re standing up you have to stand all day. Then after the baby is born you just take a month off, and that’s it. You have to go back to work. If you didn’t go back to work exactly a month after, you would just lose your whole seniority. That was another reason we decided we needed a union and we should organize.
The denial of maternity benefits caused a great deal of anger among the workers, the majority of whom were women.
Few Farah workers ever retired from the company. Usually workers were shoved out just before retirement age, so that Farah was not obliged to pay their pensions. Older workers were frequently the lowest paid and the least likely to be promoted despite their extensive work experience. Instead, they were expected to work long hours at the most demanding operations. Their health ruined by this ordeal, many workers quit prematurely. Farah absorbed new employees continually, and had little consideration for the needs of aging workers. Many women were bitter about the treatment of the older workers, and realized that their “benefits” were only guaranteed by their own wits, resilience, and ability to make the grade:
They could keep their turkey. We didn’t need their cake. We needed better conditions, better safety. Only the favorite people there could talk. Especially the older people were the people they tried to get rid of so they wouldn’t reach retirement. They had a retirement plan, but only two people have reached it—the nurse and one other. At the Coliseum, there were twenty people who were going to retire [after twenty years of work]. They never did retire. They [the company] changed their quota and got them out.
The factory conditions described by women workers were by no means unique to Farah. Exploitation, low wages, no security, and minimal employer liability were the lot of working people whether they grew up in El Paso’s barrios or across the Rio Grande in El Paso’s sister-city, Juarez.
FAMILY BACKGROUND: MEXICO AND EL PASO
The border economy affected the lives of women at Farah even before they entered the work force, shaping their family backgrounds and presenting them with enormous obstacles when they tried to act on their own behalf.
Since the Spanish Conquest, El Paso has served as a major passageway for commerce and migration between north and south. The 1848 United States acquisition of the entire Mexican territory north of the Rio Grande River established an artificial division of a land that was one, geographically, economically, and culturally. This allowed for the increased penetration of both sides of the new border by United States capital. In the early twentieth century, the railroad drew large numbers of campesinos to the El Paso region from the interior of Mexico to lay the basis for agribusiness and industrial expansion in the area.
The boundaries policed by the border patrol scarcely disguise the historic integration and interdependency of the Mexico-Texas region. The border itself is marked by the Rio Grande River, which is a mere thirty feet wide and four feet deep on the outskirts of El Paso and Juarez. Today, more than ever, the United States economy depends on cheap labor from the Mexican side of the river to harvest its seasonal crops, replenish its industrial workforce, and maintain profits in its labor-intensive industries.
The close cooperation of authorities on both sides of the border, as well as the special privileges granted to twin plants, allows for the optimum flow of labor and goods between El Paso and Juarez. The state of Texas has protected these privileges by establishing the right-to-work law. This law stipulates that no worker in a plant be required to join a union, and furthermore that all workers, whether they are union members or not, are entitled to the benefits provided by a union contract. Collective bargaining efforts have frequently been undermined by this law, and El Paso remains a largely nonunion town.
The availability of unorganized workers on the El Paso side, many of whom are Mexican nationals without rights of permanent residence, and many others who are unskilled Chicanos, has created an ideal situation for companies investing in labor-intensive operations such as electronics and garments. El Paso has become the last frontier of United States industry on the move south and out of the United States. “Runaways?” asked one Farah worker incredulously. “Industries in El Paso don’t need to move. They have the advantage that they can get people from Juarez to work for less.”
The United States government participates actively in depressing wages by manipulating the migrant work force to meet the needs of industry. The issuance of green cards, which are temporary permits for Mexicans to work in the United States, guarantees business an abundant supply of labor which can be curtailed or expanded when necessary. In addition, the H-2 program of the United States Department of Labor allows an individual employer to bring in a specified number of workers from Mexico if he can prove that a labor shortage exists. This program has been used to strikebreak in the cotton industry in the South, and more recently, against onion pickers in Texas. The Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) also plays a role in regulating the presence of Mexican workers without documents. It allows them to enter during critical harvest periods or when there are labor disputes, and at the same time deports those undocumented workers who have joined strikes. “The INS knows that there are illegals,” one Farah worker complained, “because when they need them, they send them in by the hundreds to the U.S. When they need them they look the other way. But when they don’t need them, they get them out of there fast. They know they’re there.”
Even in normal times, and particularly in the last eight years with unemployment on the rise, there is intense competition for jobs in the El Paso area. The complexity of the El Paso labor market has the built-in potential for conflicts among United States-born Mexicans and Mexican nationals with or without documents. Employers in El Paso use the competition for jobs to create and exacerbate conflict among these groups whenever labor troubles arise.
Many Farah strikers maintained close ties with friends and family in Juarez. Women who had extensive personal contact with life in Mexico, either because their parents had crossed the Rio Grande or because they themselves had grown up there and come to the United States as adults, tended to see the Mexicans and Chicanos as one people. When they looked at the undocumented workers of today, they saw the experiences of their own parents. “I was born over there and raised here,” one striker recalled.
I was seven when we came here. I remember, when we were living in Juarez my father had to come back and forth every fifteen days. He used to live on a farm in the U.S. I don’t have any grudges against wetbacks. I do support the Texas Farmworkers. If they want to sign up the whole border I don’t mind. I understand how it is over there. I understand what it is to have a father as a wetback. I understand what people are trying to do with the border situation.
Many workers at Farah, as children, took part in the pilgrimage north to find work. Some of their families crossed the border illegally, “My father was a laborer,” one woman recollected. “There was no work in Mexico. My parents were having a picnic one day, and zoom—they came across.” Families contracted to work seasonally, harvesting cotton and pecans. Some never intended to make the United States their home, but they became permanent residents when they found that the money they earned during temporary work visits to the United States could not sustain them when they returned to the increasingly constricted economy of rural Mexico.
Other women at Farah came north as adults to seek work. Even when they succeeded in finding a stable job, the relocation entailed severe hardship and demanded major readjustments. Most of the women had grown up in the poverty-striken rural areas of northern Mexico. They had almost no formal education, and many married very early in life. While the daily struggle to survive prepared them for the grinding labor of the factory, nothing in their backgrounds had prepared them to assume roles traditionally restricted to male heads-of-household: to leave the home, enter the industrial workforce, and, for some, become the major breadwinner of the family. That the move was a radical departure from their upbringing can best be understood from the childhood recollections of the women who experienced these changes. “My childhood?” a striker reminisced:
I was born in a village where they mine silver, Cusihuiriachi. My father worked there, as did his father and his grandfather. It was a company town. The company was American and there was a union. My family helped build the union. My father wanted to have schools, to have benefits. My father spoke to me often about how the company was very rich and that we were all making the company rich and it was just that the company give us a part for our children. My father talked a lot about this, and sometimes they would throw him out of the mine. After great fights, my father would be back in the mine.
He was a product of his times. He thought that only men should go to school, that we women should only learn to write. Men are the ones who support the family, and so the women don’t need anything more.
My father named me after his mother, and even though I had two brothers and three sisters, I was my father’s favorite. I was the only child until age four, when my brother arrived. Everything was for me. They took me to work, to the mines, to visit my father. He had a little office where they kept records of people injured on the job, etc. And they took me to the paymaster. In those days they paid cash. I went everywhere with my father and uncles, to union meetings where everyone didn’t stop talking and shouting and discussing their problems. A child learns when it is born. When a child begins to breathe a child begins to learn.
Thus I spent all my time with my father and uncles, but when I’d learned to read and write at nine years, I was not sent to school any more. “No, Papa,” I began to cry and shout. When he saw me sitting with a long face and asked me why, I said, “Why can’t I go to school anymore?” So he said to go ahead. So they cut my hair and I went. I finished elementary.
Afterwards, I would look up at the mountains, so high. The mines were in the mountains. What more is there? I was dying to know. What’s beyond the mountains? What are the people like? Of course my father wouldn’t consider my leaving home. He wanted me to get married and have children.
One day my cousin went to the city of Chihuahua. When he returned, I asked him, “What is it like there?” “Oh, the buildings are tall, very tall, and the streets—some of them are paved.” Here they were made of dirt. “Imagine! The streets are wide—wide as from here to the next village.” The more he said, the more I wanted to know.
I thought and thought and one day I asked my father, “Don’t we have any relatives in Chihuahua?” He answered that my godfather was there. I told him, “Father, I want to meet him. Maybe I can write.” “Go ahead, write him,” he agreed. I wrote the letter and asked my father, “Papa, isn’t it true that the mail is sacred? You can’t open a sealed envelope? Right?” “Yes,” he answered. So I said, “Here’s the letter for my godfather,” and sealed it. He could do nothing but send it. In the letter I told my godfather that I wanted to come and meet him and his wife. He wrote back saying that he’d love to have me come and visit for a while. “My wife is expecting a baby and it would be fine.” I wrote again asking him to ask my father for his permission to come if possible. He arrived. “How long it has been since we’ve seen each other, how great, couldn’t she go with me for a while. My wife is having a baby, and it would be great if your daughter would accompany her.” Since he was my godfather, my father accepted.
This woman came to the city, finished her studies, and became a teacher. She married, had a family, and decided once again to leave her home—this time for the United States. Hardship in Mexico pushed her, and promises of a better future for herself and her children drew her. Upon arriving in El Paso, she had to give up her teaching and enter Farah’s factory. This was an immense shock to her hopes; the hardships continued. In making all of these decisions she made a radical departure from her upbringing and grew stronger as a woman. Part of this strength was her intense attachment to her origins.
Of course I still go back to Mexico frequently to see my parents in Cuahtemoc. My father can no longer get papers to come here, but when he comes to Juarez, to visit my brother, I go to see him. My children go all the time. They love the ambiente there. I believe that this is a good country, but I don’t want them to become Americanized so that they don’t want to see their own people. Our roots are there. I became an American citizen by my own choice. This was my decision, but I don’t want to negate my roots, or say that I don’t want to be there [Mexico]. I love this country as much as I love my own [Mexico]. For that reason I live here. But my children should love both equally: the land is one and the same.
A major change for those who came from Mexico involved no longer being a “native” but being stigmatized as an “alien.” This identification was applied to all Mexican people regardless of citizenship, and included a population indigenous to the region and more “native” than the later white settlement.
The pride of many Farah workers in their Mexican heritage—a pride often fostered by their parents—protected them somewhat from this hostility and enabled them to stand up to it. “For not having much of an education my father was a pretty smart man,” one striker remembered.
I wish I was like him. He kept up in his history. He used to say, “Americanos? We are the Americanos, we’re the Indians, we were the first ones here.” He was an Indian. He always argued about people calling an Anglo “Americano” and a Mexican “Mexicano.” That really got him mad. He’d say, “We are Americanos; they are Anglos.” That was one thing he always argued about.
Like their sisters in Mexico, Chicanas growing up in El Paso were expected to share responsibility for la familia at an early age. They were raised in poverty, received little formal education, began working when they were still children, married young, and spent their working lives in low status, low paying jobs.
Most of the Chicana workers at Farah had grown up in the barrio in south El Paso’s Second Ward. Squeezed between the downtown area and the border, residents of “El Segundo” faced street violence, police indifference, or brutality, rip-offs from slumlords, and racism from uptown whites.
The violence in the streets was inescapable. “When I grew up,” one woman recalled,
Life was a lot different at that time. Everything was harder. At that time there were no youth centers. There was nothing to do for the kids, no recreation or things like that. So they would hang around on the corners, they would have gangs and fight against each other. You know it became a barrio where policemen were there all the time. That kind of reputation. I guess that’s one reason why the police didn’t care what happened to them because they had that reputation. So they [the police] would beat them up and a lot of times they would just be sitting there with a quart of beer and the [police] would break it and kick them and take them to jail for nothing.
The unrelieved poverty operated as brutally on residents as attacks by the police. Many a childhood ended prematurely as young girls quit school to help support their families.
I grew up in the Second Ward. It was a poor neighborhood. We used to live in the projects. Some Mexican Americans try to help each other; others are selfish. My mother used to have three jobs: at Newark Hospital, at night, and at Levi’s. After school I worked at Newberry’s, babysitting, and as a maid when I was nine. With three young children and myself, I had to help my mother. It was a hard childhood. I didn’t have a father. My mother had to work day and night. I told her to let me work for her at the Newark Hospital—so I cleaned the beds and floors.
While many quit school because of economic necessity, even more were driven out by systematic discrimination. They were penalized for being brown-skinned and Spanish-speaking. Like the Anglo supervisors at Farah, Anglo teachers in El Paso schools instilled deepseated feelings of inadequacy, humiliation, and disaffection in their Chicano students. Chicanos were discouraged from finishing high school, and the strict tracking system prohibited college and career aspirations. “To me it was hard in school,” one woman recalled.
People making fun of you, especially the way you talked. Your English or your understanding [of English]. I believe my older brothers and sisters had the most difficulty getting adjusted here because they couldn’t speak any English. Neither could I, but I was put in kindergarten so it didn’t matter to me. People in that small village [outside of El Paso] didn’t know how to speak English so we talked Spanish, but it was very difficult for them because they were put in the fourth or fifth grade and they were fourteen. People were making fun of them. I just went to eighth grade, then I quit and got married. I was sixteen and I’m still married to the same man. I was sixteen and I was still in eighth grade. I used to get very disappointed that most of my friends were fourteen or thirteen in the same grade. I was supposed to be in tenth grade at the age of sixteen. That used to bother me a lot. Because of the language problem I had when I came across the border [sic].
Whether at home, in the streets, at school, or on the job, there was no refuge from personal hostility or institutionalized discrimination. Mature women workers are still nursing their childhood wounds, looking back on childhood dreams that were crushed and scorned whichever way they turned.
Yet growing up Chicana in El Paso also provided these women with sources of strength, pride, and courage. They drew strength from El Segundo’s sense of community, which was formed in response to confrontations with the Anglo power structure of El Paso. Their families transmitted to them pride in Mexican culture, as well as countless individual examples of courage in difficult circumstances.
Whether they were raised in the United States or Mexico, these women by no means suffered passively. To survive they had to struggle. They responsed with anger to the racism, deprivation, and systematic oppression which they experienced as Raza women. While this anger was seldom expressed openly, it was always present and potentially explosive. The advent of a unionization campaign helped to give organized expression to this anger.
Despite most workers in the El Paso region not being organized into unions, some women had been exposed to labor-organizing drives. Women from Mexico had parents who had fled to the United States after their attempts to organize workers in Mexico had failed. They had lost everything in the process. Some women, as children, had witnessed bloody strikes in the textile mills and mines of northern Mexico. Among those women, some had even worked as children in these industries. Others had undergone the dislocation and hardship of migrant life in the United States.
Among Chicanas at Farah, some had fathers, mothers, brothers, and husbands who belonged to unions in El Paso’s smelting and packing plants. There was the example of the prolonged and successful strike of garment workers for union recognition at the Top Notch clothing plant in the 1960s. But experience with organized labor was by no means widespread among workers at Farah. The overwhelming majority of the women in the plant during the late sixties and early seventies had little or no idea about the day-to-day activities of a union, and virtually no examples of working women’s struggles in unions to guide them. Yet, Farah workers from both sides of the border had grown up in working class families, and many had had tragic personal experiences that dramatized for them the need for unionization. One woman recalled the early death of her father from lung cancer.
He died when he was young, only forty-four years old. Because where he was working, they didn’t have no union and he was doing dirty work, smashing cans and bumpers. When you smash them, smoke comes up and he inhaled it and that’s what killed him. He didn’t have no protection; they didn’t even give him a mask. He put only a handkerchief to cover his face. He died of cancer because of all the things he was inhaling. That’s what the doctor told us. He died before I was seventeen. They operated and said he had only half a lung and wasn’t going to live long. He lasted three weeks. I’d do anything for him, I was very close to him. He told me it was too late to have another job. I couldn’t stand it and would go into the next room to cry so that he wouldn’t hear me. He was so husky until the sickness are him away.
This woman never lost the conviction that her father’s life could have been prolonged if he’d had a union’s protection on the job. “When I started to know about the union,” she concluded grimly, “I joined right away because of my father.”
The earliest attempt by workers at Farah to present an organized response to management attacks was a brief petition campaign among markers at the Gateway plant in 1968. A more systematic effort to address workers’ grievances began in 1969 when male workers from the cutting and shipping departments contacted organizers from the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America (ACWA).4 They acted in spite of Farah’s repeated violent tirades against unions. Farah presented films about union corruption on company time and pronounced to his workers, “See what a union does? You don’t want anything to do with that!” But Farah overestimated the impact of his blitz on organizing. He was sufficiently confident of union defeat in an upcoming election that he urged cutters to vote, insisting that not to vote was to vote for the union. The cutters turned out in force for the election, and on October 14, 1970, they voted overwhelmingly to affiliate themselves with the union. Not about to accept the unexpected turn of events, Farah immediately appealed the election result with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). The cutting-room election was tied up in court until 1972, when the election victory was set aside on grounds that the cutting room was not an appropriate bargaining unit. But by that time, organizing had long since spread to the rest of the plant.
Soon after this first election, a handful of cutters began attempts to sign up workers in other departments. Reactions to the organizing drive varied. Most women had little idea of what the activists hoped to gain from union recognition. Others were fearful—with good cause—of supervisors’ retaliation. Furthermore, many workers believed what Willie Farah said about labor unions taking their money and benefits.
Even so, some women were moved by their fellow workers’ persistence in the face of personal harassment and threats to their jobs. Several workers signed cards and began to talk to their coworkers about the new organizing drive. Efforts to sign up workers took place clandestinely because of the virulence of management tactics against the organizers. Women hid union cards in their purses, met hurriedly in the bathrooms, and whispered in the halls to persuade the indifferent. The cafeteria was the heart of the organizing efforts. During lunchtime, workers circulated among the tables to sound out each other’s sentiments about the union. The first union meetings in people’s homes were a completely new experience. “Oh, I did like them,” a striker reminisced. “There was a lot of—you know, talking about new things, about the union. And especially, I felt that somebody was talking for us.”
Management responded to organizing activities with a series of repressive measures. Supervisors were stationed in the halls to monitor sympathizers and interrogate employees concerning their union loyalties. “They would say, ‘What are they saying in there?’ and I would respond, ‘Who? I don’t know what they’re saying,’” a striker recalled.
They’d say, “Don’t believe about the union, the union’s a bunch of bullshit. They only want to take your money away.” That’s what they’d say. And I just heard them, and I didn’t say anything. But once they knew you were involved with the union, they’d start pressuring you. Some of us just quit, some were fired.
All personal conversations were restricted during work time, and conditions worsened even for those not involved in organizing. “When we began organizing,” one woman recalled, “[the company] put even harsher supervisors who tried to humiliate people more. If there was a shortage of work on a line, they made me sweep. I refused, but other workers were afraid of being fired and obeyed. They did it to humiliate us and to assure that no organization would succeed.”
Company intimidation frightened many people away. Workers treated union organizers as if they had some kind of disease. Union sympathizers were fired, among them four women. One woman described her firing, saying, “My supervisor sent me to another line because my line had no work.”
After lunch, he told me to go back to my machine because now there was work, and I worked at the machine the rest of the afternoon. About half an hour before quitting time, another foreman asked me what I was doing at my machine since I had been told to work in the other line. I told him that I was only following orders. Without another word he sent me to the office where they asked me to turn in my badge and scissors. I still did not know what was going on but the bell rang and I went home. The following day when I returned to work, the supervisor did not let me punch in and told me I was fired. Farah says I was fired for disobedience. Some people have spread the rumor that I was fired because I was lazy or that I quit to go to work for the union. But none of this is true. I was fired to stop me from organizing and to scare other people.
The firings intimidated workers, but also angered them. As one of the women who was fired observed, “It did give them some courage. They wanted to know why I was fired after all these years, with no earlier work problems.” Few workers were willing to openly confront their supervisors, but as their anger grew they discussed the union among themselves more frequently.
Organizing continued at the Gateway plant, though there were no immediate plans to take action. The activists who were fired went down to the union office and vowed to continue the struggle. One woman organized a group of students from a nearby high school to distribute leaflets in front of the Gateway, Paisano, and Third Street plants. They were insulted, their leaflets were torn up and thrown in their faces, and some of them were assaulted. But the woman came every day at 6:00 A.M. and stood her ground until the day of the walkout.
The campaign to unionize the Farah plants intensified in the spring of 1972. In March, twenty-six workers were fired when they attempted a walkout at the Northwest plant in El Paso. But it was a series of events in San Antonio that triggered the large-scale strike in El Paso.
One weekend, members of the union organizing committee in El Paso sponsored a march. Farah workers from San Antonio made the twelve-hour drive between the two cities to join the demonstration. Some of them did not return to San Antonio in time for work on Monday morning. On Tuesday, a supervisor confronted a worker with pictures of him marching under union banners in El Paso and then promptly fired him. Workers who objected to his dismissal were also fired. More than 500 San Antonio Farah workers walked out in protest.
Six days later, when El Paso Farah workers learned of the San Antonio strike, their frustration with working conditions and with Farah’s continued suppression of union activity exploded into a spontaneous strike. On May 9, the machinists, shippers, cutters, and some of the seamstresses walked out. The walkout, which continued for almost a month, initially took the company by surprise. Women who had worked docilely at their machines for years, women who had been reduced to tears by a supervisor’s reprimand, women who had never openly spoken a word in favor of the union, suddenly began to speak up.
That day that we walked out, the supervisor saw that I had a little flag on. He went over and he looked at me, sort of startled, and he said, “You?” And I said,"Yes!” And he said, “What have we done to you?” I said, “Oh, I wouldn’t know where to begin.” He said, “We haven’t done anything to you.” I said, “But you have done a lot to all of the people around me. I’ve seen it going on.”
The startled management soon rallied with a skillful combination of promises and threats. On the first day of the walkout, as activists walked through the factory urging the workers to join them, supervisors followed them, telling the workers to let the dissidents go out on strike and suffer and lose their jobs. The loudspeaker system broadcasted “La Golondrina,” a Mexican song of farewell, in a sardonic gesture to the strikers. The shop floor and the cafeteria were full of people shouting, arguing, or quietly trying to decide what to do. For many women, the decision was a difficult one that took several days to make, while the management did its best to frighten or cajole the women who were still undecided. For all of the strikers, the day on which they decided to walk out remains a vivid and memorable one:
I remember the first time of the walkout we were all in break, eating, having some coffee. And then suddenly there was a whole bunch in the cutting room—the girls and everything. They went over to my table and said, “Alma, you’ve got to come out with us!” And I just looked at them. I was so scared I didn’t even know what to do. What if I go and lose my thirteen years? So long, having seniority and everything. I just looked at them and said, “Yeah, yeah, I’ll go.” That’s all I said. And I had a whole bunch of people sitting there with me and I said, “Let’s go!” And one of them said, “Well, if you go, we’ll go.”
So the next day I went and put pants on. I always wear dresses. I used to love to wear dresses. So I put some pants on and said, “I don’t know what’s going to happen. Maybe there’s going to be fighting or something.” You know, we were scared. We were scared maybe they would beat us and everything.
But I remember that day. When I was passing, the girls started yelling at me, “Alma, you’d better go out! We need you out here!” And I said, “Yeah, yeah, yeah. Wait, wait.” “No, you’re happy. That’s what’s the matter with you. You’re just a happy one. The way they treat you in there, and you’re still in there.”
So around nine o’clock I started gathering everybody. “We’re going out! Right now! When you see me get off my machine.” So you should have seen all those supervisors around me. Somebody pinched a finger on me and told them I was going to go out. You should have seen them all around me. They said, “Alma, you’re a good worker. We’ll pay you what you want. Alma, the way you sew, the way you work, the way you help us.”’ And I would just say, “Yeah, I know. I know.” They thought I was going to stay there.
At nine o’clock I got off [the machine]. I went to the restroom and I started telling everybody, “Let’s go!” So some of them just didn’t go. I took a lot of people out with me.
Then I started walking through the middle of the—where all the people were working—they thought I was very happy [with work at Farah]. And they started, “Alma! Alma!” And everybody started getting off the machines. I couldn’t believe it. It was something so beautiful. So exciting.
And then suddenly a supervisor got a hold of me on my shoulder, and he says, “Alma, we need you! Don’t go!” So everybody started. . . . I took a lot of people that were real good. I took them all out with me.
When I started walking outside, all the strikers that were out there, yelling, they saw me, and golly, I felt so proud, ‘cause they all went and hugged me. And they said, “We never thought you were one of us.” And I said, “What do you think? Just because I’m a quiet person?"
But it was beautiful! I really knew we were going to do something. That we were really going to fight for our rights.
As the walkout continued and spread beyond the shipping and cutting rooms, it began to include a wide variety of women. Some came from families with histories of union involvement, while others had no previous contact or experience with unions. Some who walked out had taken an active role in the union organizing campaign leading up to the strike, while others had never even signed a union card. For all of them, however, the act of walking out began a process of change in the way they looked at themselves and their work. “For me,” one striker recalled, “[the day of the walkout] was something out of this world. I was pleased with myself, but at the same time I was afraid. That night I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t see myself out of Farah. So many years.”
The Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America quickly moved to support the Farah workers; the strike was declared an unfair labor practice strike. One month later a national boycott of Farah products was begun, endorsed by the AFL-CIO. In El Paso the strikers began to picket the Farah plants and local stores that carried Farah products. But in a town where many regarded Willie Farah as a folk hero, the strikers found that public reaction to the walkout was often hostile. One woman remembers:
People were just very cruel. Everybody thought that Farah was a god or something. I swear, they’d even turn around and spit on you if they could. There was one lady, I was handing out some papers downtown and she got her purse and started striking me. When she started hitting me, she said, “Ah, you people, a bunch of dumb this and that! Farah’s a great man!"
Passers-by told the picketers that they were lazy bums who just wanted welfare and food stamps. The strikers were repeatedly reminded that Farah was a major employer in an area where unemployment was high, and that they should be grateful to him for giving them jobs.
Antiunion sentiment was not limited to random comments on the street. It was also expressed in a virtual blackout in the local media. A reporter for the El Paso Times who wanted to write a series of feature articles on the strikers was told that the strike was a “private affair” between Farah and his workers. The editor added, “Maybe if we let Willie Farah run his business he’ll let us run our newspaper.” It wasn’t necessary for Farah himself to exercise direct censorship. His importance in the El Paso business community ensured that no newspaper would print material that was damaging to him. A striker describing the extent of his informal influence wryly observed, “Willie Farah conquered El Paso.”
There was also considerable racism in the antiunion sentiment. Some members of the Anglo community felt that Mexican-Americans were “aliens” and that Mexican-American strikers were ungrateful troublemakers who should be dealt with severely. One woman angrily remembers:
When we were on strike there was a program on TV and anybody could call up. You know, one man called the TV station and told them why didn’t they send all the Mexicans back to Mexico? How ignorant! Here I was born in the United States and this stupid man has the nerve to say to send them all back to Mexico because we were on strike!
Racial tensions between Anglos and Chicanos, an ever-present feature of life in El Paso, were exacerbated by the strike and the political mobilization of Chicana workers that accompanied it.
However, opinions about the strike did not simply divide along racial or ethnic lines. The strike split the Chicano community. Many workers at Farah crossed picket lines and continued to keep the plant operating. They were known as the “happies” because they wore buttons which featured a smiling face and the slogan, “I’m happy at Farah.” Especially at Farah’s Third Street plant, where many of the people had worked for Farah since World War II, vehement opposition to the strike was expressed.
They used to call us a lot of names. “You should be ashamed after so many years that Willie has been supporting you with work.” “Why don’t you start working? All you want is to be loafing around. At your age!"
The strike divided families. Several women told of walking out while their sisters remained inside the plant. There was even one family where the husband was on strike and his wife was continuing to work at Farah. “He’d drive his wife up to the door,” one striker recalled, “and get out of there as fast as he could. Now this was ridiculous!"
Striking workers were quickly replaced by strikebreakers from El Paso and . . . Juarez. There was no lack of applicants for the jobs: El Paso unemployment figures have soared as high as 14 percent in recent years, while Juarez, like much of Mexico, has a current unemployment rate of 40 percent.
Until shortly before the strike, Willie Farah, who liked to style himself as a superpatriot, had refused to hire Mexicans to work in his plant even if they had green cards. But when the strike began and he needed workers, he abruptly changed his policy, and willingly hired Mexican nationals. Large numbers of green-carders appeared in the plant. Farah’s hiring practices were partly successful in pitting workers against each other. Some Chicano strikers blamed Mexican workers for being hired by Farah, rather than blaming Farah and other employers along the border for using job competition to divide workers. However, many of the strikers recognized that the economic situation in Juarez forced people to find work wherever they could. And in spite of the economic squeeze, a small number of Juarez residents joined the strikers.
People on the picket lines faced continuing harassment from company personnel. Farah hired guards to patrol the picket line with unmuzzled police dogs. Several strikers were hit by Farah trucks, and one woman was struck by a car driven by Willie Farah’s mother. Farah obtained an injunction limiting pickets to one every fifty feet; 1,008 workers were cited for violations, and many were ordered to report to the police station in the middle of the night and required to post four-hundred-dollar bonds. One woman was jailed six times. (The Texas law which permitted such injunctions was later declared unconstitutional, and all charges were dropped.)
Although the strikers suffered physical and psychological harassment from opponents of the strike, they also discovered new sources of support. The ACWA sent organizers to El Paso, gave weekly payments of thirty dollars to each striker, administered a Farah Relief Fund, and sponsored classes for the strikers on labor history and union procedures. For many workers, the films shown by the union were their first exposure to the history of labor struggles in the United States. One woman was deeply moved by a film about a strike in Chicago; another striker especially liked the movie “Salt of the Earth,” because it showed the role of Chicanas in a strike in New Mexico.
Immediately after the strike began, the union organized a national boycott of Farah pants which became a crucial factor in the success of the strike. By January 1974, forty union representatives were working on boycott campaigns in more than sixty cities.5 The ACWA issued leaflets, posters, and public relations kits, and worked closely with other unions and church and student groups to implement the boycott. Many Farah workers went on speaking tours to promote the boycott. All these efforts transformed the Farah strike from an isolated local struggle to a national campaign with widespread support.
The Catholic Church was another source of help for the strikers. Father Jesse Muñoz, a priest at Our Lady of the Light Church, made church facilities available for union meetings and participated in several national speaking tours to promote the boycott of Farah products. He also came to the picket line at the Gateway plant to bless the strikers on Ash Wednesday. Bishop Sidney Metzger of El Paso publicly endorsed the boycott in a letter to his fellow bishops. Metzger said, “The fact that today over 3,000 workers are on strike is evidence that both grievances and resentment are real. And by listening to the people over the years one gradually became aware that things at Farah were not actually as they were made to appear.”6
In El Paso, a town with a large and devout Catholic population, the approval of the church was a source of emotional as well as organizational support for the strikers and a setback for their opponents. Muñoz received threatening letters from unknown sources, and he contends that Farah hired someone to put LSD in his Coca-Cola at a union dinner.
When a group of happies announced that they planned to picket the church, the strikers quickly organized a counteraction. The happies arrived to find the church surrounded by strikers. One striker spotted the black ribbons worn by the protesters and called out, “What happened, did Willie die already?” The happies took stock of the situation and retreated.
Father Muñoz suggests that there were many reasons why the church chose to back the strikers in spite of the continuing controversy. He points out that the church has a commitment to social justice, which he personally had supported by joining the southern civil rights protests of the 1960s. “So when I came here and there was a roaring tiger in my backyard, I wasn’t going to ignore it.” Muñoz was also concerned that the strikers would be incited to violence by “Communists from Red China, Cuba, and Berkeley,” whom he charges came to town to disrupt the strike. By inviting the strikers to use church facilities, he hoped to isolate them from what he viewed as dangerous influences.
Workers at Asarco and the few other union plants in town also expressed their support for the strikers. Even more surprising to the strikers, given the prevailing mood of hostility, was the support given them by some local businesses.
We got on that truck and we went to ask everybody if they could give us some food. That was when, I tell you, my life started changing. There you know who your good friends are and who cares about people. We went to that fruit stand on Alameda. He gave us, I guess, about twenty bags of potatoes. Then we went to that Payton [meat] packing company, and they gave us wienies. Mostly we went to the stores to ask for baby food. Then we went to the tortilleria in Ysleta [east of El Paso] and that man gave us about twenty dozens of tortillas and tamales, and some juice. Then we went back to report to the people, to tell them that we had support.
The strikers were also encouraged by messages of solidarity and financial support from other unions around the country. Particularly important to them was the visit to El Paso of Cesar Chavez. In addition, a variety of Chicano, student, and leftist organizations in El Paso and around the country supported the strike by publicizing the boycott and the conditions at Farah.
But the most profound changes among the Farah strikers began when they took on new responsibilities for organizing strike activities. Some women went to work for the union on a volunteer basis, writing strike relief checks, keeping records, and distributing the goods that arrived from outside El Paso. Almost immediately they began to realize that their capabilities were not as limited as they had been taught to believe. One striker asserted, “If I had not walked out, I would not have been able to realize all those things about myself.”
You know, when we used to register the people from the strike, would you believe that we organized all those cards, all those people on strike? And you know, not realizing, here you can do this anywhere! You know, you think to yourself, “How in the world did I ever think I couldn’t do anything?” This is one of the things that’s held us back. We didn’t think we could do it. Until you actually get there and sit down and do it, and you find out, “I’m not so dumb after all!"
Other strikers went on speaking tours organized by the union or by strike support groups to publicize the boycott and raise funds.
I had never travelled as much as I did when I was on strike. The only place I had gone was to L.A., one time, but that was about all. But I never thought that I could go to New York, or Seattle, or all these places. To me it was just like a dream, something that was just happening and I was going through, but I couldn’t stop to think about it. I just had to go and talk to those people about the strike. The first week it was hard [to get used to talking to groups of people]. Because over here I just used to talk to one or two persons when I was working—they hardly let you talk at all. Sometimes I would try to talk just as though I was talking to the strikers right here. I just didn’t think that they were people that I didn’t know.
One woman observed that antiunion harassment took similar forms all over the country; when she stopped to talk to workers at a nonunion plant, a supervisor appeared and shooed the workers back inside. When she spoke on the East Coast she noticed that racial and ethnic differences often kept workers isolated from one another. She returned to El Paso with a heightened perception of the difficulties involved in building a strong union.
As the months wore on, strikers faced increasing financial hardship. The union strike relief payments of thirty dollars a week were inadequate for many families. In one household both husband and wife were on strike, and there were eight children to feed and clothe. Unable to handle their house payments, the family moved in with the husband’s mother. The uncertainties of the strike, the financial troubles, and the change in living arrangements were a strain on the marriage:
My husband was worried too, because of the financial [situation], and he would start to drinking to take it off his mind. I even told him to go to the hospital, because he was getting awful. And I had an operation too at that time. And he did, he went to the hospital and he got cured. . . .
[Drinking was a big problem among the strikers] because there was nothing for them to do. He had to be there [on the picket line] from 7:30 until 4:30 in the afternoon, because he was the [picket] captain. Mostly the kids wouldn’t see him at all, and neither did I, until two in the morning when he got home.
For single women workers living with their parents, the situation was somewhat easier. Their parents supported them, and working brothers and sisters often helped with car payments and other bills. But many single women were themselves working to support widowed parents and younger siblings. For them the strike meant financial desperation.
Women who could find work in other clothing factories did so, continuing to picket at Farah before and after work and on Saturdays. Only the small number of unionized plants in El Paso were willing to hire Farah strikers. At nonunion plants, however, the jobs only lasted as long as the striker’s identity was unknown.
On my application I lied. I said I had worked at Farah and then I had gotten married and I had left. I had an interview with this man. He was real nice about it. He said, “How come you didn’t go back to Farah?” I said, “Oh, my husband says they’re having a lot of trouble in there.” [laughs] So he said, “I might as well put you as an inspector on the lines.”
It was a very good job, better than being an operator. He called me in when I had about two months there, and he says, “I like your work. You’re going to get a raise, but don’t tell anybody about it.” About four months later he called me in again. “Listen,” he says, “I’m thinking of giving you a bigger raise.” Well, finally what I earned there in six months I didn’t earn in those seven or eight years that I had in Farah!
But there were some of the girls in the plant that had brothers and sisters that were happies and they would say, “She’s the striker from Farah, and doesn’t anybody know about it?” “No, but she’s an inspector and she got a better job than I did!"
The third time they called me into the office and he also had a tape recorder there. And then they got my application out and he said, “You know what’s going to happen, don’t you?” And I said, “Yeah, I guess you’re going to fire me. Tell me, why am I getting fired? It couldn’t be about my work—you just gave me two raises!” And he [pointed at the tape recorder and snapped at the other man in the office], “Turn it off!"
For strikers who could not find other work and for those who had to meet unexpected expenses, getting food stamps and other forms of aid was crucial. After a lengthy delay some strikers were declared eligible for food stamps. Unemployment benefits, of course, were unavailable to strikers. When one woman began work at another factory and was laid off after a year, she found that she could not collect unemployment benefits because she was a Farah striker.
Because of these problems, it was imperative that strikers obtain contributions and money from other unions across the country. They staffed an emergency committee which dispensed funds to strikers who could not meet medical and other payments. They formed a Farah Distress Fund to supplement the fund-raising efforts of the union-sponsored Farah Relief Fund. They helped to arrange their own speaking tours in addition to speaking on the union tours. Strikers who did not need the groceries distributed by the union passed them on to those who did. But in spite of all these measures, their financial situation continued to decline. One ex-striker comments tersely, “A lot of people lost their homes, cars—you name it, they lost it.”
If the strike created new pressures and anxieties, it also cemented new relationships. “The good thing about the strike,” recalls one woman, “is that we started knowing a lot of people—what they felt, who they were, what their problems were.” Women who had been too busy or too shy even to speak to their fellow workers found themselves involved in discussions and arguments.
I never used to come and talk to people about their beliefs. I never used to go and tell someone “do this” or “do that” or “this is good for you” or “bad for you.” But everyone was so enthusiastic that I started [saying to the nonstrikers], “Come on, girls! It’s for your own good!"
Picket duty and strike support activities brought new groups of people together.
People made a lot of friends. Some of us know each other by nicknames, that’s all. Believe it or not, I have a whole bunch of friends at Farah, and they call me up, and they have to tell me their nicknames, because I won’t know them by their first name or their last name.
The difficulties of being a striker in an antiunion town also inspired camaraderie. When groups of women were arrested for mass picketing and ordered to report to the police station, they took advantage of the inexperience of the police in dealing with female detainees, and created havoc.
We got on the scale and they weighed us, and then they got our fingerprints, and they asked us how old we were, and then we used to say, “You really want to know?” And then they said, “What’s your phone number?” “Ai, you really want to know!” We were just playing around. The jailman was going all kinds of colors, because he was an old man.
In working-class areas, particularly in the sprawling eastern end of town, many workers felt a sense of solidarity with their neighbors.
Here the whole neighborhood, you know, the majority of us were on strike! The guy on the corner was on strike, the girl across the street, the one on the corner over there, then there was Virgie and all her sisters, and then we had one lady down the other corner that was working. My neighbors in front—her father’s always been fighting for unions. A lot of these things, I think, kind of made you feel good.
As women became more and more involved in running strike support activities, and as they developed new friendships among the strikers, they began to spend more time outside the home. This was a source of tension in many households.
I was so involved that I was forgetting everything. My husband started getting very angry at me, and I was giving him a hard time. You know, at that time I didn’t realize that I was hurting my kids and my husband. At the time I just felt that this was something I had to do, and if my husband liked it or didn’t like it he was going to have to accept it. Lucky that he was able to accept [it], because this went on and on during the strike. Now I stop to think, and I tell myself, good grief, he really did put up with a lot! How would I like it if he was gone every day of the week! So I’m just glad that he was able to stand behind me, and it didn’t destroy our marriage, but it did destroy a lot of marriages.
In some cases, differences of opinion about the merits of the walkout were fueled by financial insecurity. In other homes the husbands did not think that attending public meetings was an appropriate way for their wives to spend their time.
Well, at the beginning they didn’t like it. They thought [the women] should be at home, because here they were kind of old-fashioned, the women were always supposed to be home. The only time she’d be working was if she had to work to keep up with the bills, and both wife and husband had to work. Otherwise there was no way that the man himself could support the house. But that’s about all they thought about, just for them to work—they didn’t think they could go to meetings.
But the women felt strongly enough about their involvement in the strike to put up a spirited defense of their activities.
My ex-husband told me, “You’re not gonna make it, and I’m not gonna help you!” And I said, “If God made it, and his followers made it, like Peter, he left his boat behind, all his belongings to follow God, yet he didn’t die! Right now he’s in better shape than we are. He’s in heaven, holding that door—isn’t that true!"
For many women the changes in their marriages were more profound than a few disagreements over meetings or money. The strike made them more confident of their ability to make decisions, and they began to question their own attitudes toward their husbands.
Maybe it’s just the Mexican woman, maybe it’s just that the Mexican woman has been brought up always to do what somebody tells you, you know, your father, your mother. And as you grow up, you’re used to always being told what to do.
For years I wouldn’t do anything without asking my husband’s permission. I’ve been married nineteen years, and I was always, “Hey, can I?” or “Should I?” I see myself now and I think, good grief, having to ask to buy a pair of underwear! Of course, I don’t do this anymore. [The time of the strike was] when it started changing. All of it. I was able to begin to stand up for myself, and I began to feel that I should be accepted for the person that I am.
Most marriages survived the ordeals of the strike, and many women feel that their growth as individuals has strengthened their relationships with their husbands. But it was also not uncommon for husbands threatened by the new eloquence, assertiveness, and political awareness of their wives simply to walk out.
The strike also transformed the relationship of women workers to their children. Many brought their children to meetings and to the picket line. “My little boy was only three months, and you should have seen me, I had him always in my arms, going everywhere,” remembers one striker. Children who were slightly older took an active part in strike support work, and formed their own opinions about unionization.
See my little boy? I used to take him with me to go picket. We [adults] used to go give people papers, and they would hold their papers, or throw them at us right in the face, or say “Shove it down your you-know-what.” He would get them—you know, he’s a small boy. People would not pay attention to him. So he would say, “Here, sir!” “OK!” He would put it in his pocket, or read it. He was always out with me, always out picketing. He was about seven or eight. Anybody talks about unions, he’ll tell you, “Go out there and join the union.” Tell him, “Unions are no good.” “They’re good. They educate. They educated my mother.”
One teenager commented, “Mom used to be a slave. But since the strike she thinks for herself. It’s a lot better.”
Women also consciously reevaluated their ideas about child rearing and their hopes for their children.
I used to be a very nervous person when my kids were little. I almost had a nervous breakdown. My husband used to drive me batty, you know. The kid couldn’t be bawling over there in the other room—I had to get up and run and see what’s the matter with the kid! Because my husband was an overly protective person with his children . . . So here’s the idiot wife, running like crazy to look after these kids, and it was driving me batty!
These are the things that I was able to begin to stand up for. It was crazy, you couldn’t watch the kid constantly. And I’ve come to where now I don’t feel this pressure. I don’t feel this anymore. I’ll look out for my kids the best I can.
My ideas are a whole lot different than they used to be. I want my kids to be free. I never want them to feel oppressed. I want them to treat everybody as an equal. I don’t think they should slight someone because he’s black or he’s any different than they are. And this is what I want—I want them to be free people. And to be good people.
I want my daughter to be able to do what she’s gotta do, and not always comply to whatever her boyfriend or her husband [wants] . . . that she should be the person that she is. And I want my boys to be the person that they are.
You know, it’s very funny, when my daughter and my son were little, you know my husband wouldn’t let my boy wash dishes? So he grows up never washing a dish! And I tell my husband, “I think it’s your fault that he doesn’t know how to wash dishes!"
You know, I think it [the strike] has made my kids more outspoken. Maybe some people would call it disrespect. I don’t. I think that being outspoken is not harmful if you do it in the right way. Like my son—if someboy, if an adult, gives him a hard time, I expect him to stand up and speak for his rights.
Unidad Para Siempre
Women strikers turned a critical eye on their personal lives and their home; as they became more experienced they developed criticisms of the union campaign as well. Some women felt that the ACWA was not promoting the strike and boycott actively enough, particularly in El Paso.
The union, hard-pressed to pay each striker thirty dollars a week, stopped encouraging more workers to come out on strike. (The union organizers felt that the strike could not be won unless there was a successful national boycott, and that funds should be channeled into boycott organizing rather than support of additional strikers.) There were squabbles about eligibility for emergency funds and relief payments. More important, many strikers felt that they were not being encouraged to take independent action to raise funds or publicize the strike. They wanted the process of education which had begun with the walkout to continue. One woman remembers that she and her fellow activists “were trying to get those people to reorganize—not only the union, but actually to really try to stand on their own two feet . . . trying to talk things out for yourself without having somebody else talk them out.”
Some strikers began to meet independently of the union, in a group which was known simply as the rank-and-file committee. (This group took the name Unidad Para Siempre—Unity Forever—when it was reactivated after the strike.) The members of the group—about forty—shared a strong sense of themselves as workers and a desire to build a strong and democratic union. They put out their own leaflets, participated in marches and rallies, helped to found the Farah Distress Fund, and talked to other strikers about the need for a strong union. “We wanted a union with action, not just words. That’s why we were having meetings and going out, really doing more, making our own papers.”
Politicization of Women
For the women on strike at Farah there was no artificial separation between personal and political change. Their experiences during the strike altered the way they looked at themselves as women and as workers.
Of course, we never did anything wrong, really. What we were fighting for was our rights, because we were very oppressed. For one thing, I was a very insecure person way back then. I felt that I was inferior to my supervisors, who were at the time only Anglo. None of this affects me anymore. I have learned that I am an equal. I have all the rights they have. I may not have the education they have, and I may not earn the money they earn. But I am their equal regardless. And it’s done a lot for me, it’s changed a lot for me. It made me into a better person.
It used to be if a supervisor got after me for anything I’d sit there and cry. Well, they don’t do this to me anymore. They don’t frighten me anymore. Two of them can take me into the office—it does not affect me at all. I have my say, and if they like it or not, I’m going to say so. . . . Before I wouldn’t say anything. I would just hold it in and cry it out, and stay and stay.
And I believe very much in fighting for your rights, and for women’s rights. I don’t believe in burning your bra, but I do believe in our having our rights, that even if you’re married you can make your marriage work. I know that sometimes we have to put up with a little bit more, but it has changed a lot of things for me.
Maybe the company doesn’t feel this way, but it’s done a lot for us.
The strike made women more conscious of political and social movements that they had regarded as “outside” and irrelevant to their own lives. These ranged from the support of local union struggles to the struggles of the United Farm Workers (UFW) and Texas Farmworkers to the women’s movement.
“During the strike,” says one woman, “every place I turned around there’d be a strike. They [other strikers] used to go to the stores where they were selling Farah pants, and they used to picket at the stores, and in return we used to go and help them picket.” Farah workers have supported recent strikes at a local cannery and the municipal bus lines. Some of them joined the picket lines when Asarco, a nearby smelting plant, went on strike in the summer of 1977.
Recently, ex-strikers have also been involved in other unionizing drives. One woman who now works in a hospital is contemplating an organizing campaign among health-care workers. Another has helped her father and uncles to begin signing up people at a bread factory. Several other women have joined a Texas Farmworkers support committee, which publicizes the working conditions of the farm workers and tries to raise funds for their unionizing campaigns.
People have also begun to discuss the women’s movement in their homes. Although it is still perceived as a movement that is taking place somewhere outside of El Paso, it evokes both sympathy and support:
Well, all of us women, we like it. And we sure would like to join them. Some of the husbands they don’t like it at all. They’re not happy about it. [My husband] doesn’t like it. Sometimes [we argue] and my daughters help me, my daughters back me up. [My sons] like it too.
For all of the women, the strike made them more conscious of themselves as working people with interests distinct from other classes. One woman began to argue with her dentist, who complained to her that her strike was causing him to lose money he had invested in Farah Manufacturing Company. She commented that he could afford to lose money, and added,
It’s like I tell him, “Just because you happen to be one Mexican out of many that made it to the top—and I bet you worked your butt off to get up there. I’ll respect you for your ideas as long as you respect me for mine. I happen to be of the working class, and I happen to be one of the minority (i.e. Chicana), that I feel work at the lowest type of job there is, and I feel that we have a right to fight.
For others the strike altered the way they looked at their jobs, and for the first time made them feel that their workplace was the site of an important struggle:
For myself, I would like to continue working where I am. I think about going to school and getting a secretarial job, and I think it would be a boring thing. I like to be where the action is. For my kids, if they want a college education, I expect to give it to them. I’d rather have them have a better job than me.
But I like being there. I like the challenge. You don’t know what the next day’s going to bring you. You might get fired! I don’t think I could see myself sitting there in back of a desk, answering phones. When you could be fighting somewhere else, in a grievance, fighting with your supervisors, giving them hell.
[Before the strike] it was just a job to go to. Now it is kind of challenging, you know, you can never tell what’s going to happen.
Inside the Plant: The Pressure Builds
By the beginning of 1974, the nationwide boycott organized by the ACWA was having a noticeable effect on Farah’s business. Sales, which were $156 million in 1972, dropped to $126 million in 1974.7 By the end of 1973 four Farah plants outside of El Paso had been closed, and the El Paso plants had been put on a four-day week.
The five El Paso plants, which had been operating with “scab” labor throughout the strike, began to resemble ghost towns. One striker who maintained a close friendship with a strikebreaker recalls:
She told me all the things that happened in there. That sometimes there wasn’t even work and they would send them home. She said sometimes they would just play tic-tac-toe for hours. She said she used to get tired of staying waiting hours in there for material. And they would just sit down and talk, or go into a bathroom and spend thirty minutes in there. I think that their orders weren’t coming in [because of] the boycott.
Even among the business community in El Paso, there was concern that the city was acquiring a reputation as a bad place to invest, and there was embarrassment at the outrageous and frequently racist statements that Farah periodically made to the press. When Farah publicly blamed the Catholic Church for his problems with the union, national press coverage was not sympathetic.
The final blow came at the end of January 1974, when an administrative judge of the National Labor Relations Board issued a decision which accused Farah of “flouting the (National Labor Relations) Act and trampling on the rights of its employees as if there were no Act, no Board, and no Ten Commandments.” Farah was ordered to offer reinstatement to the strikers (whom the company asserted had voluntarily quit), to reinstate with back pay several workers who had been fired for union activity, and to allow the union access to company bulletin boards and employee lists.
Farah initially indicated that he would appeal the decision, but several weeks later he abruptly changed course. On February 23, apparently after preliminary discussion with union officials, he recognized the ACWA as the bargaining agent for Farah employees. The union simultaneously announced that it would terminate the boycott.
The strikers, exultant and relieved, celebrated that fact that they had outlasted El Paso’s major business figure.
It’s like Rome. Remember, at that time, Caesar and all of them, he had a big throne. He said, “I am a god. I make these people do that and and I make these people do this.” Yet his throne, his empire, crumbled down. That’s what happened to Farah. It was an empire. And yet, his empire came down. Farah’s empire came down.
However, for many strikers the feeling of triumph was marred by confusion about who had decided to end the strike. They resented not being involved in the discussions which preceded Farah’s capitulation. Many people first heard the news on the picket line.
All of a sudden the strike was over. [We heard about it] the day before, because they said, “Nobody’s gonna picket tomorrow.” After I got out of the check committee I went out picketing. [The picket captain] knew, I’m pretty sure he did, because he’s working now as a business agent.
We really didn’t know what was going on. “We don’t picket tomorrow.” “Why don’t we picket?” “I don’t know. The strike is over, I guess.” “Oh, really?” And then the newspaper, the headlines. . . . I didn’t like it, because I thought it was something they had already made up their minds to it, you know. We were not involved. I wasn’t really pleased about it, but I said, “Well, at least we got the union in.”
Most strikers believed that the decision to end the strike had been made in New York.
When the negotiating committee for the first contract was elected, strikers discovered to their dismay that happies were to be represented on the committee. In the few weeks before Farah recognized the union, his supervisors had been ordering people to sign union cards, telling them that if they didn’t comply the factory would close. As nominal union members, these people had the right to participate in contract negotiations. The committee was thus badly split.
You know, we were strikers, and they told us we were going to have a committee for the negotiations as strikers. And I believe that as long as you’re on strike, that you have the right to decide what contract you want. They [the union officials] decided that it was only fair that the people that were inside [should] have another committee.
So there was the table, this side were happies, and this side was strikers. We wanted something, they voted against us. We wanted thirty cents, they wanted five cents. That’s where I believe we got screwed. If we had the chance, not having that committee there, I believe we would have gotten a better contract.
Other strikers on the negotiating committee felt that they were powerless, that the union officials had decided what they wanted before they held meetings with the workers. “The negotiating committee never really had much to say. . . . [The officials] say they know what is right and what isn’t.” If a member of the negotiating committee raised a question about a specific contract provision in negotiations, recalls one committee member, the senior union official would say: “Well, let’s have a little break now.” And he would talk to the people and say, “You shouldn’t do that, you know. They know how much they can give you.”
The final contract included pay increases of fifty-five cents an hour over three years, a medical insurance plan financed by the company, job security and seniority rights, and a grievance procedure. It also gave union representatives the right to challenge production quotas for individual operations. It was ratified at a meeting of employees on March 7.
Many workers were angry that there was little time taken to explain the contract or hear people’s questions and objections.
They put us all in the cafeteria of one of the factories. And we were in there along with all the people. There was a lot of people, a lot of noise. Some of the clauses that were in there, we didn’t even get to understand them very well. He [a union official] would explain it in English, and the ACWA Joint Board Manager would just translate it. But he was going so fast with it that we didn’t have a chance to really understand it. But then they said that we had to take that contract regardless because Mr. Farah had said that if that contract was not signed he wasn’t about to change his mind and go for another contract. That contract had to be taken or else he would just close down the factory and that was that. . . .
So he read the contract real fast and then he asked, “Does anybody disapprove?” and then a few of the people raised their hands and they were ignored. He said, “OK, this means we go back to work.” We didn’t vote on it.
Strikers felt that two years of suffering entitled them to a stronger contract. But Farah was in financial trouble as a result of the boycott and a series of management mistakes, and his threat to close the factory was a real one. The strikers, inexperienced at contract negotiations, felt outmaneuvered by a process in which the company set the terms and the union lawyers made most of the decisions.
In spite of their misgivings about the contract, and a pervasive feeling that the situation was no longer under their control, most strikers concluded that the contract was “all right for a first try,” and that it was “a beginning.” They realized that their fight for better working conditions was by no means over, but at least they now had the protection of a union and a grievance procedure. They were determined that they would no longer be intimidated by supervisors; if they were mistreated they were going to climb off their machines and protest. “I’m going to say something if I have to say it,” one striker insisted. “And I’ll be nice if they’re nice. If they’re not very nice I can also be very unnice.”
When they returned to work in the spring of 1974, the strikers faced tremendous obstacles. Texas was (and still is) a right-to-work state, so workers were not required to join the union. If enough workers took the benefits without joining the union, the company could move to have the union decertified. This made the task of organizing the unorganized at Farah both very necessary and immensely difficult. It was complicated by the fact that the conclusion of the strike did not dilute Willie Farah’s antiunion sentiment. He had recognized the union with great reluctance, and was determined to break it. Finally, there were serious divisions among the workers in the plant. Strikers determined to build a strong union would have to overcome tensions between themselves and the happies, as well as divisions between Chicanas and Mexicanas which had been created during the strike.
When the strikers returned to the factory, they found that the organization of production had changed dramatically during the two years of the strike. In an attempt to keep up with the changing men’s clothing market, Farah was diversifying production to include men’s leisure suits and jackets. Workers were placed in new production lines without adequate retraining. Women who had been sewing straight seams for ten years were suddenly expected to set sleeves. One woman said, “They just sat me on the machine and said, ‘Try to do this.’ That was my training.”
Workers who previously had been working with a six-piece pattern for pants were now working with a thirty-piece pattern for jackets. Seamstresses accustomed to sewing cotton fabric suddenly had to adjust to sewing brushed denim, plaids, and double-knits—fabrics which were much more difficult to handle. In addition, sewing collars and cuffs of jackets was much more delicate and time-consuming work than most operations involved in the production of pants.
These changes in materials, patterns, and techniques were not taken into account when new production quotas were established. Women whose wages had been based on their ability to produce a certain number of pieces at one operation were expected to produce just as many at a new operation. As a result, quotas were often impossibly high. Unable to meet their new quotas within the prescribed time limit, many women suffered wage reductions and eventually were fired for low production. Some ex-strikers believe that by selectively assigning them to the most difficult new operations and establishing high quotas, the company hoped gradually to weed them out of the plant.
At the same time that Farah was changing production, the company plunged into a serious financial disaster. The recession of 1974–1975 hurt the company, and in addition, Willie Farah made major miscalculations in production and marketing.8 He had always been able to stockpile his most dependable styles and sell them on a stable market year after year. Lightning changes in styles meant that Farah could no longer predict the market. For example, one year he would corner the market in leisure suits, stockpile thousands of them, and then find that the next year no one was wearing leisure suits. In 1974 Farah decided he wanted to produce his own fabrics, and opened a textile mill in El Paso. The venture was a six-million-dollar flop.
Farah’s financial predicament was exacerbated by marketing problems. In the past, Farah had been known for the high quality of its merchandise. But under severe pressure to meet quotas on new operations, workers were simply unable to concern themselves with perfection. “When you’re pushing people they can’t get their work out right,” one ex-striker commented.
So they were getting it out as fast as they could, without caring how it was coming out. They made all these jackets lopsided and crooked. Who are you going to sell them to once the stores see how they are? They are definitely going to return them. And that is what started happening. They were sending back truckloads of jackets, sportcoats, and pants.
In addition, retailers who disliked Farah’s high-handed business practices had gladly removed Farah pants from their shelves during the boycott, and were reluctant to resume dealing with the company again after the strike.
All of these management problems resulted in a 40 percent decline in sales and a $3.5 million loss in the last quarter of 1976. Five thousand of the original nine thousand employees were laid off. Several Farah plants were closed, including plants in San Antonio, Victoria, and Las Cruces, New Mexico.
These financial setbacks hindered the efforts of union activists to continue organizing. First, there was a visible cutback in services provided for the workers by the company. Bus service to and from the plant was curtailed, coffee and donuts no longer were served during breaks, the already inadequate medical care available to workers was cut back, and Thanksgiving turkeys and Christmas parties were no longer provided. Many workers complained that the plants were dirtier and more dust-covered than they had ever been in the past. Since these cutbacks coincided with the end of the strike, many nonunion members blamed the union, not Farah, for the decline in their working conditions.
A more serious consequence of Farah’s financial setback was that it required a drastic reduction in the size of the work force. This need to lay off workers provided Farah with an opportunity to harass and eliminate his most vocal opponents among the union activists. Some were given extremely erratic work schedules. Some days they would be required to work until noon, other days until three o’clock, and frequently they were called to work on Saturdays. They were rarely given much advance notice of their hours. Some ex-strikers were switched to production lines that were scheduled to be phased out. Others were placed on extended layoff and after one year were let go by the company.
Farah’s management devised several further strategies that undercut the ability of union activists to organize. One was to isolate union members. At the end of the strike almost all of the strikers were assigned to the large Gateway plant. (By keeping them all in one place the company apparently hoped to prevent strikers from “infecting” other workers in the various plants.) After the strike, one woman recalled,
We were closer. We didn’t let our chain break. They tried to break it. At first they put us all together. And then suddenly they knew that we were so strong, they started separating us. They went to Northeast, and the other ones went to Paisano. So then suddenly you were all separated. Then they put happies with you. It was hard to make them understand.
While in the past an effort had been made to assign women to the plant nearest their homes, after the transfers many workers found themselves working at plants across the city from their residences.
It is against this background of changes in production, financial setbacks, the establishment of high quotas, and transfers of workers that many grievances were filed. (During negotiations for the second contract in March 1977, union officials stated that more grievances were filed at Farah than at all other ACWA plants in the United States combined.) When workers had grievances, it was up to the shop stewards to investigate the complaint, collect all the necessary information, discuss it with the immediate supervisor, fill out the forms, and deliver them to the union office. If a grievance could not be resolved on the shop floor, it would be turned over to a business agent.
Most shop stewards were inundated with grievances. Some were responsible for lines of a hundred workers, stretched out over a quarter mile. Unlike the supervisors, they did not have roller skates and bicycles at their disposal to traverse the distances within the plant. They had to do all union-related work during lunch hours and breaks. One ex-striker said:
I’m a very active person and I love to help people. They wouldn’t let you talk during work, they wouldn’t let you talk about the union or anything. At breaktimes I would go real fast, and I would go in the plant and start talking to the people, start going line by line.
Work for the union did not end with the end of the working day at Farah, and most shop stewards spent several hours each day driving to and from the union office. “Some people don’t understand the time you put into it,” one shop steward complained,
the time you have to leave your kids to go fight their cases. We don’t get paid for being shop stewards, we don’t get gas money, we still pay our union dues, everything. We get nothing out of it, other than our self-satisfaction that we are helping our people.
In addition to being overworked, shop stewards were systematically harassed. One union activist noticed that every time she went to the bathroom a supervisor followed her, and if she took time to smoke a cigarette, the supervisor would hurry her back to work. Another found that whenever she had problems with her sewing machine and signaled the supervisor, he would consistently ignore her, and it would be hours before the machine was repaired.
The ability of shop stewards to effectively solicit and process grievances was further hindered by their isolation from other union activists and from workers in general. “They have a great big cutting room,” one shop steward commented,
and on the corner where all the machines start, that’s where I’m at, on the very corner. They kind of keep me isolated from the other people. I had one woman tell me—she saw me in the bathroom. She said, “Are you the shop steward here?” I said, “Yeah.” And she said, “You know, I’d never seen you before here.” I said, “Yes, I’ve been here, but I’ve never been on the other side.” She said, “Well, they keep telling me there was one [shop steward], but I never saw you.”
In at least one case a steward was fired for carrying out her duties. In this instance, an ex-striker who had filed a grievance was being harassed by the supervisor. The entire production line had stopped work to watch the argument. The shop steward stepped off her machine and walked down the line to investigate. The supervisor started yelling at her to return to her machine. Outraged that she had climbed down from her machine in the first place, and then refused to go back, he phoned the plant manager, who fired her for disobedience. She had witnesses and was rehired after her case went to arbitration.
A final factor that made the shop stewards less effective than they might have been was the continuing apathy of nonunionized workers. The ex-strikers clearly understood that they had to organize to defend their interests, and were continually frustrated by the complacence and lack of support from workers who refused to act on their own behalf.
There were never enough women willing to serve as shop stewards. When shop stewards were laid off, or transferred from one plant to another, there were rarely other workers willing to take their places.
The effectiveness of the grievance procedure depended largely on the resources of the union staff. The business agents, hired by the union, were chosen from among the ex-strikers. Inexperienced and inadequately trained, they were overwhelmed by the volume of grievances. In addition, some ex-strikers charge that the union carefully selected the most passive and malleable strikers to work full-time for the union.
Another union staff member who played a decisive role in implementing the grievance procedure was the union engineer. Because of the changes in production from pants to leisure suits and the introduction of new operations, many of the grievances dealt with allegedly unfair quotas assigned to those operations. Quotas for new operations were initially set by company engineers. If they were to be challenged, a grievance had to be filed within thirty days; then a union engineer would be sent to the plant to determine whether or not the quota set by the company for that operation had been reasonable.
There was only one union engineer for the five Farah plants, and he was responsible for all the other ACWA plants in El Paso as well. Not only was the union engineer overworked and unable to investigate every dispute, but all too often, ex-strikers complained, the union engineer would back up the quotas set by the company.
One union activist, switched to a new production line and given an impossibly high quota, received a pink slip for low production. She called in the union engineer to observe the operation. She could not even produce half of the quota, and another person he observed was not able to make the quota. Nonetheless, he agreed with the company that the quota was a reasonable one. The repeated occurrence of similar cases led many strikers to conclude that the union engineer could not be counted on as an advocate for the workers.
Many ex-strikers felt victimized by a combination of the company’s determination to manipulate and undermine the union and the union’s reluctance to actively challenge the company. The union seemed willing to take to arbitration only those cases in which a favorable decision was certain. Only a small percentage of all the grievances filed were taken to arbitration.
Decline of Unidad Para Siempre
Militant union members were left in a particularly vulnerable position. The rank-and-file group, Unidad Para Siempre, pushed for reforms that had not been included in the contract. These reforms included elimination of the quota system, compensation and training for shop stewards, and greater rank-and-file participation in settling grievances between workers and the company. In this way, they hoped to build a stronger and more responsive union. The continued growth of Unidad was hampered by the fact that a large number of its members—the most vocal and militant union activists—were among the first to be laid off by Farah during his cutbacks in production. Unidad members feel that the union did not actively prosecute their cases because, like the company, it felt threatened by their presence. By 1977, few members of Unidad still worked in Farah plants.
Unidad’s ability to form a strong organization was further inhibited by fundamental divisions among the workers. There were differences among the ex-strikers and nonstrikers about how much and when to criticize the union. Among the workers at Farah, some still actively opposed the union. They blamed the union for Farah’s financial predicament; they blamed the union for the termination of services they had previously enjoyed. They did their best to harass union activists in the plant. “Oh, I had so many things done to me,” one shop steward remarked.
They [workers hostile to the union] used to get into my car, put gum on my chair. One time I was setting the cuff. People would come by and knock them all down. They would take all my union papers and leaflets. They’d take them off or throw them on the floor. One time somebody cut all the threads off my machine. Can you imagine?
Other workers were simply indifferent to the union. As far as they were concerned they could take advantage of union benefits without paying dues or suffering the harassment inflicted upon union activists. Some Mexicans feared that they might lose their green cards if they became union activists.
Union members viewed the union in a variety of ways. Some uncritically supported it. In their view the major obstacle to the growth of a strong union was the apathy of the workers who refused to share the responsibility of working to improve conditions. Another group of union activists expressed frustration with passive, nonunion workers in the plant, but attached equal importance to the weaknesses of the union machinery. Still another group, many of whom belonged to Unidad, emphasized the extent to which the union had collaborated with the company and saw democratizing the union as the major requirement. Finally, a small group of ex-strikers became disillusioned with the union, and simply signed out.
The Second Contract
The continuing layoffs, loss of rank-and-file activists, tensions among workers in the plant, and inadequate support from the international union all combined to weaken the position of the workers during contract negotiations in early 1977.
Negotiations took place with both sides assuming that Farah was in serious financial difficulties. Workers on the negotiating committee spent several days listening to detailed descriptions of Farah’s woes, and finally were told, “You can ask for the moon, but if we give it to you we’ll fold tomorrow and you’ll all be out on the street.”
This bleak picture was accepted by union lawyers, who urged the negotiating committee to accept Farah’s terms. The union officials clearly were worried about Farah’s financial status, and felt that no further challenges to the company’s authority should be mounted. Instead of giving an organized voice to workers’ grievances, they tried to devise a strategy that would help the company back to financial health. As one union official put it, “Once Farah was a union plant, it was in the union’s interest to sell pants.” If selling pants more cheaply meant accepting a serious setback in working conditions, the union officials were willing to pay that price to keep Farah from going under.
The 1977 contract granted the workers a scanty thirty-cent pay raise over a three-year period. It eliminated dental benefits and retained the hated quota system. Most damaging of all, it permitted Farah to lay off experienced workers and call them back to work on a different production line—at the minimum wage. Some members of the negotiating committee reluctantly voted to accept the contract, certain that once it was taken to the workers for ratification it would be rejected.
Many workers now believe that the company exaggerated its problems so that the union would settle for a weak contract. Although it is still uncertain whether Farah Manufacturing Company will recover from its economic crisis, it is already clear that under the terms of the 1977 contract, the workers are paying for Farah’s problems.
The contract was hastily presented in a short meeting held in the cafeteria at the Gateway plant. The meeting was called at the end of the working day, and most workers did not know until the last minute that the meeting was to take place. The contract was read in legalistic Spanish which few workers could understand, and questions from the floor were discouraged. When a vote was called the ACWA Joint Board Manager requested that those in favor of the contract stand up. Since the room was packed, most people were already standing up. There is a great deal of controversy about what happened at this point. Many who attended the meeting say that a clear majority of workers raised their hands in opposition to the contract. No formal count was made, however, and the union official declared that the contract had passed.
Before workers could raise their objections to the terms of the contract and the way in which the vote was conducted, the bell signaling the end of work rang. Workers swarmed out of the Gateway cafeteria, many angrily pulling their union buttons off their shirts and throwing them onto the ground. Lacking experience as well as the presence of a strong rank-and-file organization, the remaining union activists were unable to challenge the proceedings. This created even greater divisions among the workers, as many felt that they had been sold out by union militants.
Since March 1977, Farah has closed another of its El Paso plants. The number of workers at Farah, particularly union members, continues to decline.
Events at Farah since the strike show the continuing difficulty of union organizing in the Southwest. The right-to-work law, the consolidated opposition of powerful employers, the timidity of union officials, and the many incipient tensions in the border area which employers can use to divide the work force—all of these are formidable obstacles in the way of a strong workers’ organization.
The story of the ACWA at Farah also illustrates some of the problems specific to organizing workers in the garment industry. In contrast to relatively monopolized, capital-intensive industries such as auto and steel, the garment industry is highly competitive, volatile, and labor intensive. In this context of constant business fluctuations, it is possible for a large and established company like Farah to suffer a dramatic decline within a period of several years.
The development of runaway shops during the last decade has made this instability even more pronounced. Increasing workers’ organization and the relatively high cost of American labor have prompted labor-intensive industries such as garments and electronics to move south across the border, or to Southeast Asia, where labor is cheaper and less organized than in the United States. In border cities such as El Paso, industries have been able to take advantage of the proximity of an abundant supply of documented and undocumented workers from Mexico.
In an attempt to prevent industries from leaving the country, many unions such as the ACWA have adopted the strategy of bailing out the company in times of financial hardship. As recent events at Farah suggest, this may often be done at the expense of the workers. Although this is not a problem whose ultimate solution lies solely within the borders of the United States, current union strategy has not even provided a partial answer. Instead, it has failed to prevent runaway shops and simultaneously has helped to undermine the development of a strong union movement.
It is clear from the Farah experience that a successful unionization effort does not end when the union wins a contract. Organizing and training of workers in everything from a grievance procedure to labor history must continue on a long-term basis. In addition, workers must develop a strong rank-and-file movement—one that can overcome divisions among the workers, build a democratic local union, and encourage women workers to develop leadership skills and an analysis of their working situation.
While the Farah strike did not produce a strong, mature rank-and-file movement, it did help to create the conditions under which one can develop. The workers who made the strike were irreversibly changed by it. All of them say that they would organize and strike again; most of them recognize the need for strong support from an international union like the ACWA, as long as it does not undermine the independent organization of rank-and-file workers. “We’re sticking in there and we’re not going to get out and we’re not giving up!” one ex-striker insisted.
I believe in fighting for our rights, and for women’s rights. When I walked out of that company way back then, it was like I had taken a weight off my back. And I began to realize, “Why did I put up with it all these years? Why didn’t I try for something else?” Now I want to stay here and help people to help themselves.
The Chicanas who comprise the majority of strikers learned that they could speak and act on their own behalf as women and workers, lessons they will not forget.
(Unnumbered note p. 227)
1. El Paso, Texas, is located on the western tip of Texas, near the point where the boundaries of Texas, New Mexico, and Mexico intersect. In July 1975, the population was estimated by the U.S. Bureau of Census at 414,700 people, of whom 57 percent were “Spanish American.” El Paso is directly across the U.S.-Mexico border from Ciudad Juarez, which has an estimated population of 600,000.
2. General Executive Board Report, “Farah Boycott: Union Label,” Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, 1974 Convention, 1.
3. Allen Pusey, “Clothes Made the Man,” Texas Monthly (June 1977), 135.
4. In June 1976, ACWA merged with the Textile Workers Union of America, and became the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union. Since the events in this article occurred before the merger, the union will be referred to as ACWA.
5. “Farah Boycott,” ACWA Report.
6. Bishop Sidney Metzger to Bishop of Rochester, Oct. 31, 1972, reprinted in Viva La Huelga: Farah Strike Bulletin No. 15 (Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, AFL-CIO).
7. Moody’s Industrial Manual (New York: Moody’s Investors Service, Inc, 1975), 1099.
8. Critics of the union have blamed the strike and boycott for the company’s business troubles. The boycott never actually destroyed Farah’s profit margin, however. In fact, some analysts argue that the short-term effect of the strike was beneficial because it forced the company to stop overproduction. They note that “during the only full year of the boycott (1973), the company jumped from $8 million in losses to a modest $42,000 profit” (Pusey, “Clothes Made the Man,” 135). The losses predate the union and can be traced to management errors on Farah’s part.
Reprinted from Mexican Women in the United States: Struggles Past and Present (Los Angeles: University of California, Chicano Studies Research Center, 1980), with permission of the authors; © by the authors.
The authors wish to thank the real authors of this oral history—the women workers at Farah who generously shared their lives and opinions with three outsiders. Many of them asked to remain anonymous because they still live and work in El Paso, Texas.