COMPTON — Protesting low pay and a lack of medical insurance, about 80 Latino women employed by model-train manufacturer Athearn Inc. staged a two-hour work stoppage Thursday and rallied outside the company's plant just south of the 91 Freeway.
Chanting and waving signs with messages such as "Athearn Is This Year's Scrooge," the workers were led by officials from the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers union and were joined by other labor organizations, as well as representatives from area Episcopal, Catholic and Methodist churches.
"We are not asking for the sun and the stars," 10-year worker Margarita Murrillo said. "What we are asking for is something fair."
Most of the Athearn workers are Latino women--some illegal aliens--earning an average of $3.80 an hour, 45 cents more than the minimum wage. In February of last year, they voted 71 to 17 to join the textile workers union. But union leaders say Athearn has refused to make a reasonable contract offer that would increase pay and include medical benefits.
Union representative Chuck Shepherd said employees want a three-year contract with the lowest assembly worker starting at $3.60 an hour with gradual increases to a maximum of $5.40 after eight years.
Shepherd said the company has countered with a wage package that would pay bottom-level assemblers $3.35, the federal minimum wage, with gradual increases up to $3.75. He said the union is also asking for basic medical insurance, which the company does not provide.
Company President I. R. Athearn declined to comment about the workers' contract demands.
"They can do whatever they want," Athearn said, "and they can call you all kind of names, but as owner you are very limited in what you can say."
Athearn founded the company 40 years ago in his garage and now has a reputation among electric train enthusiasts for producing scale models of exquisite detail.
"They are considered the Cadillac quality of model railroads," said Jose Iniguez, manager of the World Trains store in Paramount. He said the retail price of Athearn's product ranges from $2.50 for a flatcar to $32.50 for an engine.
Union member Murillo, 28, began engraving model trains 10 years ago for Athearn. She likes working there, she says, because of the family-like camaraderie among her fellow employees.
But Murrillo says she doesn't like being paid only $4 an hour. Married and a mother to one child, she said she is able to get by on her pay as long as nothing goes wrong. If her child gets sick she often has to borrow money.
"What else can we do?" Murrillo said.