COMPTON — If she were 6, Alma Linares might have the best job in the world, getting paid to spend her days assembling and testing hundreds of electric toy trains.
But Linares is 36, an immigrant from El Salvador who speaks only Spanish. And for a single mother with two children, the roughly $600 a month she receives from her assembly-line work at Athearn Inc. barely keeps food on the table.
Linares says she is typical of other Athearn workers--most of them Latino women, some of them undocumented--who handcraft models that are sold for up to $40 each to children and hobbyists who praise their detail.
Athearn pays its workers an average wage of $3.80 an hour, or 45 cents more than the federal minimum wage, according to Chuck Shepherd, an official with the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union.
The company also offers a handful of holidays and up to two weeks of vacation, Shepherd said, but nothing beyond what is legally required, such as basic workers' compensation. Unlike millions of American workers, those at Athearn get neither health insurance nor sick pay.
So after 13 years with the model train maker, which operates in a Compton industrial park along the 91 Freeway, Linares is now leading a union movement seeking higher pay and better benefits.
But in the 19 months since workers voted 71 to 17 to join the union, Athearn officials have refused to bow to the union's basic demands.
"We see it as an exploitative situation," said the Rev. Richard W. Gillett, an Episcopal priest and founder of a Los Angeles-based ecumenical organization that has tried and failed to mediate the dispute.
The situation at Athearn, Gillett alleged, is a classic example of the way many companies across the nation have treated immigrant Latino workers, most of whom never complain because they are illegal aliens.
"One time," Linares contended through an interpreter, "the (company's) attorney said during negotiations that he didn't care if the people leave, if they're angry and they want to leave. 'Fine, they're undocumented, anyway. There are a lot of people waiting for those jobs.' " she quoted him as saying.
I.R. Athearn, a 40-year-old model train builder who owns the manufacturing firm, declined to comment on a variety of union charges when reached recently by The Times.
However, in a brief conversation, Athearn said, "I can't blame anybody for wanting to get more money."
He added: ". . . I think that some of the department stores and some of the (retail) chains have gone about just working part-time employees so they don't have to pay these benefits. It is quite an expensive thing."
But Margarita Murillo, 28, an Athearn worker from Morelia, Mexico, said union members only want to be reasonable. "We don't ask too much," she said.
For example, workers want the company to adopt a health insurance policy that is "the cheapest plan in the country," Shepherd said.
Cite Retail Value
Janeth Vasquez, 27, also from Mexico, said through an interpreter: "We have asked the company why they don't give us more, because we produce the trains" and know their retail value. "So we know how much money is coming in. We know that they have the possibilities to pay but they just don't want to do it."
In her native El Salvador, Linares worked as a nurse. But at 23, she said, she was drawn to the United States by stories her friends told about "the land of opportunity . . . the paradise."
Linares said she was fearful about speaking out when she joined Athearn because she needed a letter of employment to gain legal status. Now that she is no longer undocumented, she is willing to speak out so she can work to achieve the union's goals.
"I started this struggle," Linares said, "and I feel we can better conditions."