Through determination and pluck, a few dozen immigrant production workers have achieved what years of wrangling by labor leaders and anti-globalization activists have not: They stopped a factory from moving to Mexico.
U.S. District Judge Carlos R. Moreno sided with the newly unionized workers Tuesday, handing down an astonishing preliminary injunction that prevents a Gardena jewelry manufacturer from going through with a planned relocation to Tijuana.
Quadrtech Corp., which employs about 120 minimum-wage assemblers, was also ordered to bring back two truckloads of equipment it had already shipped south.
The injunction, which was sought by the National Labor Relations Board, will remain in effect until the NLRB rules on dozens of charges filed by the union, a process that could take years.
The most serious is an allegation that business owner Vladimir Reil planned his move only to avoid dealing with the Communications Workers of America, the union that represents the workers.
In granting the injunction, the judge found that the workers were likely to win the NLRB case, which would force Reil to remain and bargain in good faith. The company can appeal.
The tale of the minimum-wage jewelry assemblers, who began fighting in May for better working conditions after a supervisor refused to give an injured worker a chair, illustrates that even in a time of momentous economic shifts, individual employees have some power.
But the rarity of the court order--and the shock it elicited from business and labor leaders across the nation--also underscores the difficulties workers face in turning that power into tangible gains.
Hundreds of thousands of production jobs have been moved to Mexico and other low-wage countries over the last decade. Threatening such a move has become a common reaction to a union organizing campaign, although the tactic is illegal.
A survey of more than 100 businesses by two Cornell University researchers in 1996 found that half responded to union organizing drives by threatening to close or move to a low-wage country. In one case, the employer prominently posted a map of North America with a large red arrow pointing to Mexico.
It is rare, however, that a union fights the move and rarer still that the federal government backs the union in a court case. The injunction issued Tuesday was the first of its kind in the Los Angeles region, and perhaps the nation. Nationally, the NLRB has gone to court to stop employers from anti-union activity fewer than 100 times a year for most of the last decade.
"It is unusual, far too unusual given how often it happens," said John Hiatt, general counsel for the AFL-CIO. "If a company's got a smart lawyer, they can usually avoid it pretty easily."
Reil did not respond to numerous phone calls, and his attorney, Gregory G. Kennedy, said only that he was "not authorized to comment." In court briefs, Quadrtech attorneys argued that the move--announced one day after the union was certified to represent workers--was motivated by "purely economic reasons."
Several business groups reacted to the ruling with disbelief. "It's astounding. It's terrible," said Gino De Carlo, spokesman for the California Manufacturers Assn., adding that the employer's motives for moving should not be relevant. "Whatever reason he had for it, it's his own company."
Workers at Quadrtech, most of whom are long-term employees and earn the state minimum wage of $5.75 an hour, were relieved to keep their jobs, which had been scheduled to end this month.
But several said working conditions have deteriorated since the union election in October. Production speeds are faster and supervisors have imposed arbitrary rules, such as a ban on conversation. They believe those conditions won't improve until they sign their first union contract.
"We're pleased with [the injunction]. It's a win. But we're too tired to celebrate," said Sonia Avalos, who has assembled earrings and other jewelry for six years. "It's very difficult. We can stand it only a little while longer. . . .
"What we want is that the factory stays here, and they give us a raise and treat us like people."
Other workers--mainly women from Mexico and Central America--described a physically punishing environment. Some assembled as many as 1,700 rings and studs used for body-piercing a day. Temperatures were maintained above 90 degrees to facilitate working the metal. Some employees were forced to stand for an entire 10-hour shift.
"I was with the company 18 years, and I never made more than the minimum wage," said Luz Maria Venegas, who is off work on disability leave with a bad back. A shipping clerk, she lifted packages weighing up to 50 pounds.
With limited educations and English skills, the workers said their options were limited. Many family members worked the line together.