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FOCUS : Drywallers Send a Message of Frustration


At age 56, Silverio Nieto has helped build hundreds of houses from Ventura to San Diego, through boom times as well as bust. Working side by side with his two grown sons, Nieto used to believe that he was doing more than constructing nice tract homes for prosperous Anglo families he would never meet; he thought he was building a comfortable life for his family.

But after 15 years, he has little to show for lifting and nailing 100-pound sheets of plaster on walls--sometimes six days a week, 12 hours a day--except a lean, sore body and callused hands.

Nieto's income, as high as $23,000 a year in good times, has been whittled to around $6,000, and he was dismayed to see his paycheck shrinking to less than what it was a decade ago despite working just as hard, if not harder. His wallet empty and the rent unpaid, Nieto confided to his wife, Linda, that he doubts that he can find another occupation at his age.

"So many homes we have built, I have built," said Nieto, who rents a house in Riverside. "And none of them are mine."

Banding together, frustrated workers such as Nieto have ignited one of the largest, most organized and highest-profile labor movements in recent years in Southern California, which is known as unfriendly terrain for unions.

Seventeen weeks after the strike started June 1, the workers, most of them Latinos, won a large concession on Sept. 24. Tired of picketing, vandalism and threats, lawsuits and complaints to regulators, some drywall companies agreed to begin negotiating to try to end the strike. How many companies would participate and the outcome of the talks were not clear as Nuestro Tiempo went to press.

Most pressing, the strikers say, is their demand for increased wages, although they also are seeking acceptance of a union by the building industry and benefits such as health insurance, pensions and vacations. Their attorneys have filed 34 class-action suits against drywall companies for alleged labor law violations.

Tensions escalated as the strike spawned sporadic vandalism at construction sites as well as fights between striking and non-striking drywallers, including one clash with police in which 63 men were arrested and another in which 150 men were taken into custody.

The labor unrest stems from the cyclical, maturing process that occurs among all immigrant work forces, said Raul Hinojosa-Ojeda, a UCLA professor of urban planning who specializes in Latino immigration and U.S.-Mexico relations.

"As people are here for a while, they begin to organize and demand their rights," Hinojosa-Ojeda said. "Clearly, they have been fed up for a long time, but now they are saying: 'We have to take a stand because we have nothing to lose.' "

But as the strikers cry foul over reduced wages, Southern California's builders say the drywall workers are paid fairly and are victims of the severe recession that has crippled the entire industry.

Because of trouble obtaining financing and a severe slump in sales, home builders in the last two years have been forced to lay off many employees. Some have declared bankruptcy.

"This is the most difficult recession in the 30 years I've been in business," said George Lightner, president of Lightner Development Inc. in Rancho Cucamonga. "Everyone in the industry has had to lower prices."

Bob Sato, president of a drywall contractors trade association, said the industry had too many contractors and laborers--even during good times--which kept drywallers' wages low.

In the more skilled construction trades, such as plumbing and electrical work, strong unions exist, so wages among those workers remained higher as the pay scale of drywallers dropped, he said.

The solidarity among striking drywallers has been so strong that Antonio Vasquez, 55, recalls that when sheriff's deputies tried to arrest half a dozen strikers, more than 150 clustered around and insisted that, if those men go, "then we all should go." Together, they raised their arms, waited for the handcuffs, and the deputies arrested them all.

The July incident at a Mission Viejo construction site was by far the largest sheriff's sweep of the strikers. Trespassing charges were dropped against nearly half the protesters. The rest pleaded guilty.

Most of the non-unionized laborers in Southern California's residential drywall business are Latino, many of them Mexican immigrants in their late 20s and early 30s. No one is sure how many are in the country illegally. But when deputies arrested the 150 strikers in July, one-third were illegal and the rest were legal immigrants or second-generation Americans. Many, such as Nieto, who migrated here in 1962, have lived more years in the United States than they did in Mexico.

Contractors pay drywallers by the piece--a set amount for every square foot of drywall they hang. Their wages, 7 to 9 cents per square foot from 1982 through 1991, have bottomed out at about 4 or 5 cents because of the recession.

That rate translates to about $300 per 40-hour week--or $7.50 an hour--about half of what some were making five years ago when construction jobs were easier to find, according to interviews with the workers.

Like many other strikers, Nieto said he has no intention of signing up for welfare or unemployment compensation. He wants to work, and drywalling is his trade. He had expected to do it until the day his back gave out, and he trained his sons when they were teen-agers. Now the three of them are still side by side--not on the construction site, but on the picket line.

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