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Bedding Workers on Strike for Retirement Savings Plan

March 28, 2001|NANCY CLEELAND | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a sign of shifting priorities for a maturing immigrant work force, about 400 production workers at a Vernon bedding manufacturer have held a strike line for three weeks over their demands for a retirement savings plan.

The strikers at Hollander Home Fashions are primarily Spanish-speaking immigrants, and many have more than a decade's experience cutting sheets, stuffing comforters and sewing pillows. They earn about $7 to $12 per hour and have a fully paid individual health plan.

Though years ago workers agitated for better pay and medical benefits, today they are more concerned with the prospect of retiring with little or no savings. "We get old fast," said Wilbert Serpa, who cuts samples for Hollander Home Fashions. "We have to think about the future now." Added Ignacio Abundis, another cutter, "Who knows if Social Security will even be around when we retire?"

Jeff Hollander, a grandson of the company's founder and its current president, said the company would prefer to offer higher pay increases than a 401(k) savings plan, which he said many hourly employees would not use. "It's about giving employees a choice," he said. "My feeling is that the government provides for IRAs that employees can benefit from."

Hollander took out a quarter-page ad in Sunday's Spanish-language newspaper La Opinion, saying employees have been misled by the union and noting, "Many workers throughout the country who are in 401Ks have recently lost much of their money because of the stock market."

The workers, represented by UNITE, the Union of Needle Trades, Industrial and Textile Employees, gathered in front of the Hollander Home Fashions factory at Boyle and 50th streets Tuesday morning for a rally that drew County Federation of Labor Director Miguel Contreras and mayoral candidate Antonio Villaraigosa.

"This is what the auto workers and steel workers fought for decades ago, and it's what immigrant workers in Los Angeles are going to start demanding more and more," Contreras said later. "When you're young, you fight for a good medical plan for your children. That's very important. But as the work force ages, the pension plan becomes more of an issue."

The strike has been bitter, with each side accusing the other of violence and harassment. A spokeswoman at the Boyle Street factory said 49 of the factory's 230 production workers crossed the line Tuesday, and the remaining work was performed by temporary hires.

Hollander said he had offered production workers "the largest wage proposal that Hollander has ever made," about 50 cents an hour for many workers. But union representative Christina Vazquez said much of that boost is due to a scheduled jump in the California minimum wage. Higher-wage workers will see increases of 25 cents per hour the first year.

In the latest round of negotiations, UNITE asked for the same retirement savings plan given to supervisors, mechanics and quality-control inspectors--a maximum 6% employee contribution, with the employer matching 50 cents on the dollar.

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