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Throngs Show Their Potent Role in Economy

May 02, 2006|David Streitfeld | Times Staff Writer

Immigrant workers powerfully asserted their importance Monday, making clear they are vital to California's economy. Without us, they declared, industries would tremble, jobs go undone and prices rise.

Dolls from China, DVD players from Japan and shirts from Malaysia piled up at the ports. Lettuce wasn't picked in Blythe and strawberries languished in Oxnard. On one block of L.A.'s Koreatown, only two out of nine businesses were open. The garment district was nearly deserted.

By itself, the "Day Without Immigrants" won't hurt the economy in the long run, analysts said. Shoppers will quickly go back to shopping and workers to working.

The economic message, however, was emphatic and unmistakable.

"This was a reality check," said Economic Roundtable President Daniel Flaming. "You can't wish away these workers. They are rooted in the community. Not everyone realized that before."

Flaming and others have extensively studied the role played by recent arrivals, both legal and illegal. The protests provided vivid evidence that the bulk of the country's estimated 11 million to 12 million illegal immigrants don't just cut lawns and wash dishes in restaurants.

This is an unusual protest movement. There's little precedent in American history for a simultaneous combination of consumer boycotts, demonstrations and work stoppages. And there's none for a labor rights struggle that is cheered on by many employers.

"I don't remember hearing a single major business group complaining about today's actions," said Stephen Levy, director of the Center for Continuing Study of the California Economy.

Employers haven't suddenly grown more compassionate. In this era of low unemployment, they are eager to have sources of cheap labor. And they fear the sanctions that would accompany a serious crackdown on illegal hiring.

Beyond this, Levy said, there is a sense that everyone is complicit. "I've hired a housekeeper or a gardener or a baby-sitter where I certainly didn't check their papers," he said. "There's an acknowledgment here that we're all involved."

The industries hit the hardest Monday were agriculture, long the domain of immigrants, and, somewhat surprisingly, the ports.

At the nation's largest seaport complex, the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, as few as 10% of the truckers showed up to haul freight.

"It's eerie, looking out at the Vincent Thomas Bridge with no trucks on it. It just looks kind of flat and lonely," said Teresa Adams Lopez, a spokeswoman for the Port of Los Angeles.

The 110, 710 and 47 freeways -- the latter includes the Vincent Thomas Bridge -- had only a few of the rigs that are normally so thick that motorists sometimes miss their exits because the trucks obscure the signs.

The work stoppage was quickly seized upon by union organizers, who hoped to redirect it into traditional labor activism. Organizers with the International Brotherhood of Teamsters made their case in several locations while in Wilmington's Banning Park, an independent movement to form a Los Angeles Port Truckers Assn. was gathering signatures. So far, every effort to organize most of the 10,000 drivers who work the ports has failed.

One driver who stayed away, 24-year-old George Fernandez of Los Angeles, said he supported the immigration rights movement. But he added that the drivers, who clear as little as $20,000 annually after their overhead, were also hoping for "some sort of relief from all the costs, like for fuel, and the low pay and the working conditions."

The effect in the fields was even more significant.

"No one is packing today," said strawberry grower Hector Gutierrez, managing partner of Otilio Farms in Oxnard. "This will put us behind, and we might have to throw some overripe fruit away."

Operations at Bart Fisher's 10,000-acre ranch in Blythe came to a halt as his 120 workers disappeared for the day. "We don't even have a tractor operating," said Fisher, who grows hay, lettuce, broccoli, melons and cotton.

On some farms it was a normal Monday. Tulare dairyman Rob Fletcher was relieved when his milkers, all immigrants, showed up to work his 700 cows.

Overall, however, it was apparently the biggest agricultural work stoppage on record in the state. The 1973 grape strike in the Coachella and San Joaquin valleys and 1970's Salinas Valley vegetable strike had been the largest.

"But both of them only involved targeted crops and didn't come close to the numbers of farm workers participating today," said Marc Grossman, a spokesman for the United Farm Workers union. The state's year-round farm workforce numbers about 225,000, according to the California Farm Bureau Federation.

It wasn't just the size of the farm worker protest that was eye-opening but the unusual harmony between growers and workers.

In Greenfield, south of Salinas, the frontage roads along U.S. 101 were lined with idled tractors, trailers and harvesters in a show of solidarity.

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