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Immigrants Becoming Militant on Job Issues : Labor: Demonstrations by Latinos demanding severance pay from two closing plants indicates a new assertiveness and better coordination.


The scene is familiar throughout the sagging American manufacturing economy: A factory closes and low-wage production employees are left in the cold.

That's why the angry demonstration Friday by 100 picket-waving workers a factory about to close in Chatsworth was unusual.

The workers, who manufacture gardening equipment, demanded severance benefits--payments that are rarely made when a business shuts down, and even then are usually reserved for higher-paid office employees and supervisors.

The demonstration at the Paramount division of White Consolidated Industries, which employs 400 people, was an example of increasing and better-coordinated militancy among Latino immigrant workers.

The workers, many of whom said they had worked in the factory for 10 years or more and make no more than $7 an hour, insisted their employer had a social obligation to help them make the transition to another job after Paramount closes next month.

They demanded two weeks' severance pay for each year of employment and contributions of $1,000 per worker to Hermandad Mexicana Nacional, a North Hollywood-based Latino labor organization, which coordinated the protest along with the International Union of Electrical Workers.

"We are angry," said Espiridion Cruz Valencia of Canoga Park, who came to the United States from Mexico 18 years ago and said he had worked in the factory for 14 years.

Paramount officials declined to comment on the demonstration or the allegation by workers that severance payments are being made to clerical and managerial employees.

After the demonstration, the Chatsworth workers got on a bus to join a rally by a group of workers at another White subsidiary, Gerard Metal Craftsmen, a filing-cabinet manufacturing plant near Gardena that also has announced plans to close by the end of the year.

There, representatives of about 90 Gerard workers are demanding a larger severance package than the approximately $1,000-per-person plan.

White Consolidated Industries is the nation's third-largest appliance maker. It was acquired four years ago by AB Electrolux of Sweden, Europe's largest appliance maker.

The rallies Friday were out of the ordinary not just because of the severance issue.

Immigrant workers have a reputation for being passive and exploitable, largely because of their fear of deportation if they are in the country illegally. However, representatives of workers at the two plants said many are longtime residents who have qualified for eventual citizenship under recent federal immigration laws and are not afraid to stand up to their employers.

"The reason so many of us have worked here for so long is that many of us were undocumented," said Jorge Garcia, 30, a leader of the Chatsworth demonstration who said he had worked at the factory since he was a teen-ager. "We had no choice."

While many Western European countries have policies that ease the transition for employees when a factory closes, no such policies exist in the United States. It was not until last year that a federal law went into effect requiring 60-day notices to employees when management closed a plant. Both the Chatsworth and Los Angeles plants gave the required notice.

"What those workers are asking for is not unprecedented, but it's relatively rare in the U.S,," said Harley Shaiken, a professor of work and technology at UC San Diego.

At the Los Angeles rally, Gerard and Paramount workers marched side by side, waving signs that read "Electrolux, Don't Electrocute Us" and "We Want a Severance Package, Not Peanuts."

Union organizers and plant workers said they expected the combined effort to increase pressure on the company to come up with a better deal.

"Now we're telling them that we're all together," said Jose Pineda, 36, who has worked at the Gerard plant for eight years and is the union's chief representative.

The Gerard workers organized into a union just two years ago but, not expecting that the plant would close so soon, did not include a severance package in their contract, Pineda said.

Company officials said they are shutting the Gerard plant in order to consolidate operations at a plant in Aurora, Ill.

"My wife can't work. She has a bad back. And so I have to support her and my son," said Pineda, who moved to Torrance from Tijuana 15 years ago and earns about $250 a week at the plant.

Union organizers and workers at both plants said that if management does not accept their demands, they will consider organizing a boycott of goods produced at the two sites.

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