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LABOR / Harry Bernstein

Illegal Alien Issue Raised in East L.A. Dispute

September 18, 1985|HARRY BERNSTEIN

Probably not one member of Congress is aware of it, but there is a nasty little labor dispute going on in East Los Angeles that is symbolic of the critical questions currently being raised in Congress' highly emotional debate over illegal aliens.

On the surface, the dispute itself doesn't seem to have far-reaching implications. Last year, the approximately 200 workers at Angel Echevarria Co., manufacturer of the nationally distributed Somma water beds, voted overwhelmingly in a secret-ballot, government-conducted election to be represented by the International Ladies Garment Workers' Union.

The company subsequently fired more than 30 of the workers, and the regional office of the National Labor Relations Board here ruled that the workers were fired simply because they had supported the union.

The company is appealing the decision to the NLRB in Washington, and it is also trying to get Washington to overrule another local NLRB decision dismissing the company's charge that the election was unfairly conducted.

The case could drag on for months--and even years--in the appeals process after the NLRB in Washington makes its final determinations. In other words, at first glance, the labor-managment struggle in East Los Angeles doesn't seem unusual in light of the increasing number of anti-union actions by corporations, large and small.

But, while not unique, it is different than most such disputes because many of the workers employed by this company are illegal aliens. Most have slipped into the United States from Mexico, but a number are from El Salvador, Guatemala and other Central American countries.

But there is no law that prohibits a company from hiring such workers. And the heart of the current congressional debate on illegal aliens is whether to punish employers who knowingly hire illegal aliens.

The millions of workers who are in this country illegally seldom join unions, and they almost never go on strike or otherwise complain about their wages or working conditions because they fear deportation and the return to the poverty in their homeland.

Former Labor Secretary Ray Marshall said nearly a decade ago that the fear of deportation makes most illegal aliens work "cheap, hard and scared," and therefore makes them attractive to exploitative employers.

But the workers at the water bed factory defied custom. They apparently work hard, but they didn't want to continue working "cheap and scared," and so they joined the union. They even went on strike for a few days. But they were easily and quickly replaced, apparently by other illegal aliens.

Because the strike action failed, the union launched a boycott of Somma water beds. While management says that action is ineffective, union organizer Peter Olney says the boycott has already had an impact on Somma sales.

The Somma labor dispute is symbolic because, in microcosm, it dramatizes the problems of the illegal alien and therefore could be useful to Congress as it debates the issue. Ultimately, Congress should pass a law that will punish employers who knowingly hire illegal aliens.

There is a local dimension to the dispute. The company president, Angel Echevarria, is a strong financial supporter of Mayor Tom Bradley. In fact, last January, during the middle of the labor dispute, Bradley appointed Echevarria to the influential Water and Power Commission.

The union has asked that Bradley both intercede with Echevarria and insist that the company begin contract negotiations at once with the union, especially in view of the overwhelming pro-union vote by the workers.

Bradley doesn't want to get involved--at least not yet--and he notes correctly that the case is still pending before the NLRB in Washington. Thus, he contends, it would be improper for him to take sides at this point when the company is both challenging the legality of the union election and fighting the charge that it fired many workers because they supported the union.

Some of the union officials, including Olney, warn that if Bradley does not support the union in its fight with Echevarria, the mayor should not assume that organized labor will automatically support him if, as expected, he runs for governor again next year.

William R. Robertson, head of the Los Angeles County Labor Federation, says that he expects Bradley to back the union if it wins its legal battle. In any event, Robertson says he doubts that the dispute will play a role in labor's decision to back Bradley in another campaign for governor.

Unions have been battling furiously over almost every labor issue with Gov. George Deukmejian, and Bradley has had labor support for many years. Thus, Bradley is virtually assured of labor's endorsement if he runs against Deukmejian again. But, if the mayor remains entirely aloof from the little labor dispute in East Los Angeles, he could diminish some of the enthusiasm he needs from his longtime political allies.

Farm Union Fight

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