In the nation's largest current union organizing drive, hundreds of Mexican immigrants won a "landmark victory" Tuesday against Southern California's huge building industry.
Thirty-nine of the region's largest drywall subcontractors approved their first union contract in a decade after a strike that seemed a hopeless cause when it began five months ago.
AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland congratulated the strikers in a written statement and called Tuesday's agreement a "landmark victory for working people."
"This demonstrates what people can achieve in solidarity," Kirkland said.
The workers, many of whom are illegal immigrants who don't speak English, put together their unusual strike for higher wages and a union with little help from the unions.
Drywall hangers attach broad sheets of plasterboard onto the wooden frames of houses and apartments to form the inner walls. There are an estimated 4,000 drywall hangers in Southern California, which makes this the largest current organizing drive in the country, although only a fraction of these people participated in the strike.
More subcontractors that have been on the fence are expected eventually to sign the contract with the International Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners.
The strikers say they will continue to picket companies that refuse to sign, especially in San Diego, where all the big companies continue to hold out.
The workers won wages higher than the $300 a week they say they have averaged for the last few years. But the $400 to $500 a week they will earn on average now is still a little less than such drywall hangers earned 10 years ago.
The strikers, however, have said they didn't want to push the subcontractors too far while the multibillion-dollar home-building industry is in a horrendous slump.
The two-year contract prevents what the men say is the widespread cheating on wages by subcontractors, one of the major reasons behind the strike.
The workers also won another key demand: health insurance funded equally by employer and worker.
In return, the strikers will drop their lawsuits accusing the companies of not paying overtime, a violation of labor laws. The prospect of spending hundreds of thousands of dollars fighting those lawsuits pressured the subcontractors to the bargaining table.
Carpenters union officials didn't return repeated phone calls Tuesday, and strike leaders couldn't be reached for comment.
But Bob Sato, a Ventura County drywall executive and president of the industry's trade association, the Pacific Rim Drywall Assn., pronounced the contract "fair" and "a compromise that brings about labor peace and keeps the employers competitive."
In the short run, the settlement means that labor unions have once again succeeded in organizing low-paid Latino workers in Southern California: The drywall strike followed protests by Latino janitors' and automobile machinists' wanting to join a union.
It is also the first big resurgence of trade unionism in the region's home-building industry since the business was first organized in the 1950s.
In the long run, though, some experts say, unions will continue to lose members as the U.S. industrial base shrinks.
Even though Latino immigrants are one of the fastest-growing segments of the labor force, experts say unions are not likely to make up their membership losses by turning to the most underpaid, exploited workers in America.
The first Mexican immigrants started in the drywall business in the early 1960s; many were from the same central Mexican village of El Maguey, and those close ties helped them when they began organizing the strike last fall.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the builders and their subcontractors started hiring many more Mexicans and kicking out many of the predominantly Anglo unions in what had once been a heavily unionized business.
First, the union benefits such as health insurance and pensions disappeared. Next, the subcontractors say, the builders pinched them to hold down costs during the 1982 recession, so they cut the only cost they could: wages. Some men who had been earning more than $500 a week found themselves with $300 or less--about what they would get from unemployment benefits, the men say.
They went on strike June 1, hobbling the building industry by picketing job sites across Southern California, vandalizing half-finished homes and occasionally threatening strikebreakers.
Through it all the carpenters union kept a low profile, at first because the union was unsure of the strikers' resolve and later because it feared becoming a target of builders' lawsuits.
The strike wore on through the summer with no conclusion in sight until the strikers hired lawyers and launched class-action lawsuits against the subcontractors in September.