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Labor Dispute at Cal Spas Intensifies : Strike: Workers cite low wages and poor benefits and claim the company is impeding efforts to unionize. The manufacturer is being lured to move, and the City Council is caught in the quagmire.

July 15, 1993|LEE ROMNEY and ANDREW LePAGE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

POMONA — Start with about two hundred Latino workers walking off the job, bitterly complaining that Pomona-based Cal Spas is sabotaging their efforts to unionize.

Add a statewide boycott of Cal Spas showrooms, and a rancorous face-off between the union and company that has degenerated into threats and led to slashed tires, fistfights and even strikers' claims that company supporters chopped down their shade tree and defecated near their lunch spot.

As if that weren't enough to complicate the labor dispute at the company, which manufactures fiberglass spas and their wood frames, factor in a Latino-majority City Council trapped in a political quagmire: how to offer moral support to strikers while preventing Cal Spas, from packing up and moving.

City and economic development officials say communities in Arizona and Nevada have been wooing Cal Spas for more than a year, and that its loss would be a blow to Pomona.

"We definitely want the company in Pomona. But I know how difficult it is for the workers, and I feel between a rock and a hard place," said first-term Councilwoman Cristina Carrizosa, a native of Mexico whose district includes many of the striking workers as well as California Acrylic Industries Inc., known as Cal Spas.

"This company has provided jobs for quite a few years now. The workers feel very proud of the product they make, but they are also family people and they cannot support their families on the salaries they make. We cannot afford for any of the two groups to lose," Carrizosa said.

Nearly a month after the June 18 walkout, however, both sides have dug in their heels, even as they state their eagerness to resolve the dispute fairly.

Helping to organize a bargaining unit of 500 workers is a United Electrical, Radio & Machine Workers of America international representative with more than 35 years' experience rallying Latino workers. On the company side is an Orange County law firm that years ago represented Central California growers in their fight against Cesar Chavez's United Farm Workers.

Cal Spas President Charles S. Hewitt declined through his attorneys to be interviewed, but the company has issued several letters and statements to employees, Pomona officials and community activists rebutting the strikers' claims.

A company attorney said spa sales last year brought in less than $1 million in profit. He said the privately held company would not release further financial information, except to say production and sales have not suffered during the strike.

About 300 workers remain on the job and the company has replaced almost all of the strikers.

The striking workers--who earn between $4.25 and $7 an hour--say they are seeking union representation in order to make better wages, and to secure health benefits, paid holidays and paid vacations.

More than improving working conditions at the plant, however, strikers say unionizing would ensure that all workers are treated equitably.

"Once I needed a protective belt because my back was injured, and they wouldn't give it to me. Sometimes one person asks for a raise, and they give it to one and not to another," said Rosa Alvarez, 52, who has worked at Cal Spas in the wood shop department for six years and makes $6.25 an hour.

One of three women to walk off the job, Alvarez provides the only income to her two teen-age children and husband, who is ill.

"There's no protection here. You can work like a burro and they'll still let you go."

Many complained that pay scales are based on favoritism.

Ernesto Paz, 26, a member of the union organizing committee, has worked at Cal Spas for five years and makes $6 an hour. A memo on letterhead "From the Desk of President Charles S. Hewitt" obtained by strikers, however, outlines a different pay schedule.

According to the chart, those who have worked at the plant for 60 months should be making $7.50.

Many said they simply cannot stay afloat on Cal Spas wages.

"I make $4.50 an hour. I have to pay $500 a month in rent, I have to pay for my gas, my lunch, all my bills, and I have seven children to support," said two-year Cal Spa worker Jose Orozco, who gathered outside the East Ninth Street plant early this week with about 60 other striking workers to discuss the boycott of Cal Spas outlets and take turns picketing the plant.

The workers, some reclining underneath a Cal Spas trailer and others gathered under a portable awning, were still fuming from an incident that took place before dawn last Friday.

Someone hacked the branches off a tree that had shaded striking workers, leaving a sea of foliage on the ground. An attorney for Cal Spas said company officials deny any role in cutting the branches.

On Monday morning, human excrement fouled the area where strikers have been gathering daily to organize and prepare soup lunches donated by local churches.

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