In 1905, at the ripe age of 18, Sidney Hillman found himself locked in a Russian prison, caught red-handed in the abortive first Revolution. After two short jail terms, he fled to England seeking freedom from the Czar’s rule. He then took a boat to Ellis Island, N.Y., and found his way to Chicago’s sweatshops where he combined his revolutionary vision with a job as an apprentice cutter with Hart, Schaffner & Marx. From the shadows of Jane Addams and Clarence Darrow, Hillman emerged as the champion of east European cutters and of the young Midwest farm women who left their rural life for a sewing machine in the city’s sickness.
In 1914, at the United Garment Workers convention in Nashville, Tennessee, dissidents from around the country walked out to form a new union. They drafted Hillman as their first president. In a few short years, the Russian immigrant had built a powerful force, the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union of America (ACWA), implementing the concept of industrial unionism before its time. With John L. Lewis, Sidney Hillman ushered in the most successful period of American unionism: the 1930s, when industrial unions became welded to the CIO.
Through the years, Hillman supported his Southern soldiers — people like Eula McGill and Ed Blair — but he knew his power was in the ethnic cities of the North. The Nashville convention was a fluke in the Amalgamated’s chronicle of significant moments. But if he were alive today, he would quickly recognize the power of the new ethnic centers and take another long look at the Southern Rim.
New York and Chicago may still attract the industry buyers, but the actual cutters and sewers have moved from the lower East Side to places like the south side of Texas. Today there are some 25,000 mens-and-boys apparel workers in El Paso alone. Almost all of them are Chicanos. The leaders in the industry — Blue Bell, Levi Strauss, Mann, Billy-the-Kid, and Farah — all have plants there, though their names are not widely known. But by 1974, after a 22-month strike and boycott, the name Farah had become a household word for millions. And Chicanos in Texas — their home for centuries - had joined Cesar Chavez in etching their culture onto the changing national landscape. Another ethnic wave had swept into its own, and into the leadership of the trade union movement.
Chicanos dominate the sprawling city of El Paso — 58 percent by official figures, but probably closer to 70 percent in reality. Across the border spreads Juarez, Mexico, which together with El Paso forms a metropolitan area of over one million. Surrounding isolated land belongs to the sand, stone and sky, with the exception of a few green ribbons along the Rio Grand where truck farming and the western extreme of Fort Worth’s cattle ranches thrive — and an area the size of Rhode Island that belongs to the Defense Department’s ill-named Fort Bliss.
Along Interstate 10, the new spine of El Paso, lie the clothing factories where Chicanos work. Levi-Strauss, the world’s largest apparel manufacturer (over $1 billion annual sales) operates four plants in the city, joining several other leaders in this low-wage, predominantly female industry. But the talk of the town is Willie Farah, El Paso’s largest employer with five factories and about 95 percent Chicano and 85 percent women.
On May 9, 1972, three-fourths of the shipping department at Farah’s giant Gateway plant walked out into the hot El Paso sun. Eventually, 2000 Farah workers joined their friends in days earlier. Word spread fast between the shipping and loading departments in the two towns. It was the nature of Farah’s production for these departments to be in constant contact. Rank- and-file organizing had helped solidify their relationships.
Some San Antonio workers had attended a rally in El Paso several weeks before the walkouts. As one El Paso strike leader recalls, ‘‘We contacted people in San Antonio to come talk with us and tell us how their organizing drive was going. About seven or eight carloads came. They marched with us, and Farah had two photographers taking pictures. When they went back to work on Monday some of their leaders got fired, the ones who attended the rally. The workers didn’t stand for that thing. That was the spark for the strike.”
Paul Garza attended that rally in El Paso and made the mistake of telling his supervisor in San Antonio that he was sick that day. They took his picture and he was fired. ‘‘We were tired of living on rice and beans. We wanted to live like anybody else.” The time had come to end the humiliation of no job security, no maternity leave, an inadequate insurance program and an average weekly take-home-pay of $69.
Rank-and-file organizing had actually begun years before the strike. Several El Paso workers remember those early rumblings: “In late 1968 and early ’69, we had some small meetings, five or ten and then 12 or 15 guys. We were trying to organize. All the people at the meetings were men, and the majority of workers were women. That was our greatest obstacle, getting the women signed up for the union.” Many of these men from the cutting, shipping and machine shops had been to Vietnam and to Army bases across the country. They had tasted life outside El Paso, many for the first time, and they learned about Chicano leaders like Cesar Chavez.
“We started talking about these things at athletic events that we sponsored,” said another worker. “The shipping department, where I worked, used to have a softball team, and we’d play against the machine shop and the cutting department for some beers. All these departments were mostly men. We’d sit around after the game drinking beer and talk about these things and the union. It was hard to get hold of the women because Farah intentionally had us separated. They had women starting work earlier and they changed our break routine. They did a good job of isolating us.” Young and usually single, these men formed the nucleus for the early organizing efforts. They didn’t have to look after kids and could afford to spend time in meetings.
In 1969, the ACWA sent organizers to El Paso to distribute leaflets and gradually spread word about the union. The men had considered getting in touch with the Teamsters but soon gravitated to the Clothing Workers. In October, 1970, the cutting department voted in an NLRB election for representation by the ACWA. But Farah refused to honor the NLRB ruling. He appealed and the organizing continued.
Amalgamated also sent staff members into San Antonio to organize the Farah plant there. They found some good men and women to work with. One San Antonio woman remembered those early days vividly: “I didn’t know very much about unions. The company stole three raises from me, every time I got close to a 10-cent raise. There was no chance of advancing myself.
“One day, one of my kids got sick,” she continued. “I went to the hospital, but they wouldn’t let me stay. They made me get back to work. And we could be laid off at the will of the
Company. There was always the fear of getting laid off. We never had any job security. Plus they were always changing our quotas. We had to do something. It was mostly pride. They tried to step all over us.”
The walkouts posed special problems for the ACWA organizers. “On May 3,” one witness recalled, “we were sitting in a cafe where we could see the plant. All of sudden 600 or 700 workers start coming out the gate. It was a feeling of pure panic. We were almost ready to file a petition (to the NLRB). The workers took it out of our hands.”
When thousands poured out of the Gateway plant a week later in El Paso, the stakes went up. The walkout became a problem not only for the organizers but for the top union leaders as well. The organizing job had not been completed; less than half of the workers were signed up. May was not the big month for shipping pants. It was a bad time for the union to respond.
Union chiefs traveled to El Paso to consult with field staff. They recognized that the future of Amalgamated depended on organizing the South and Southwest. They could not turn their backs on the Farah workers or deny them any of the weapons in the union arsenal. Within the week, Amalgamated decided to undertake their most difficult battle since the East Side wars on their own Union Square in New York City. They had won then and they knew they must win again.
Fighting Willie Farah was no gentlemen’s duel. A mechanical genius, cocky, crude, and fanatically pro-American, Farah had built up his Lebanese parents’ small shop to the largest private employer in El Paso. By 1971, Farah had 9,500 workers on his $40 million payroll, including one out of every seven workers in El Paso — a remarkable contribution, he thought, to “the problem of Chicano unemployment.” In his own style of paternalism, he offered workers free coffee and sweet rolls as incentive to keep up with his whirling machines. Dissenters were ruthlessly purged, whether they wanted time to go to the bathroom or the freedom to wear their hair long. To the larger public, Farah remained a loner and social failure. Even his friend George Janzen, president of the El Paso Chamber of Commerce, said, “Willie is too wealthy to have ever bothered much over the social amenities.”
Above all, Willie Farah despised unions. He did not intend to change. As the battle with ACWA heated up, Farah denounced, blasted and ridiculed the “communists” and “agitators” to anyone who would listen — despite the efforts of his New York PR firm to muzzle him. He soon became his own worst enemy in the eyes of the press. He told one reporter, “The union did us a favor by cleaning house, getting the troublemakers out. With that filth gone, the plant is more cohesive.” On another occasion, he said of the union: “My workers have been intimidated and frightened. The management has been vilified, the company’s philosophy has been falsified and the public has been deluded.”
The stories of police dogs harassing picketing strikers, arrests in the middle of the night, and multiple unfair labor practices added to impressions that Willie was the one doing the intimidating, not the union.
In July 1972, Amalgamated capitalized on this publicity with the announcement of a nationwide boycott of Farah pants — an identifiable product, widely sold and thus subject to consumer reaction against the “villian” in Texas. The AFL-CIO committed the support of its full membership — only the third time in its history for such a move (the United Farm Workers boycotts and the multi-union 1969 GE Boycott were the others). The Catholic Church added more strength. A courageous El Paso priest, Father Jesse Munoz, turned his huge church, Our Lady of the Light, into the strike headquarters. His 25,000 parishioners, many of them Farah strikers, formed the first line of support within the Chicano community. And Bishop Sidney Metzger, based in El Paso, wrote letters of endorsement throughout the national Catholic Church.
As the boycott picked up steam, others offered their help, from city councils to church groups, from
leftist organizers to El Paso patriots, from the Farmworkers’ Chavez to 1972 Presidential candidate McGovern. US Senator Gaylord Nelson announced the formation of a Committee for Justice for Farah Workers that included Edward Kennedy, Joanne Woodward, Archibald MacLeish, Averell Harriman and a host of other dignitaries. At a Washington press conference, Nelson hammered home the broad appeal of the strikers: “The issues in this strike are basic to our democratic process. At Farah, the issues are not only decent wages and working conditions. The issue is human decency — the rights of American citizens, the continuing struggle of Mexican-Americans to overcome the prejudice and the repression that keeps them vulnerable to exploitation.”
The workers on the picket line meant to prove Nelson right. Men and women discussed the issues of the strike and the broader community problems. “We were like one big family,” remembered one woman deeply involved in the strike. “We helped each other with family problems. Strikers married strikers. My kids (she has three, ages 10,11 and 12) learned a lot of things that had to be done. From 6 a.m. to 7 p.m., I left them by themselves or took them to the office. And we were finding out about our protections under the NLRB. I was learning about a union.”
The strikers joined in the boycott effort, traveling around the country speaking to labor groups and other supporters. AFL-CIO central bodies worked closely with the Amalgamated’s Union Label Department to generate publicity, plan and staff the picket lines, educate the community, and push toward a contract. The boycott gained momentum with large Christmas rallies late in ‘72 and the publicity given Bishop Metzger’s strong endorsement. By April, 1973, Farah’s sales for the quarter were down by $9.1 million from the previous year. ACWA’s new President Murray Finley didn’t let the press miss the news. “The Farah management can no longer take refuge in its silly argument that previous drops in sales, which coincide with the onset of the boycott, were caused by changes in styles or fabrics.”
Willie still didn’t buckle. He applied more pressure inside the plants by bringing across the border each day some 600 Mexicans who could not be reached by the picketing strikers. Farah also claimed that a majority of the workers were content. As proof, he took out full-page ads with a petition signed by his “8,000 happy Farah workers.” The phrase stuck, but the “happies” did not. The good Father Munoz counted the tiny signatures and counted only 2,310 names, far short of Farah’s 8,000.
“I asked for an open discussion with the happies,” Father Munoz says, “but the company said this was unthinkable. The happies would come to me afraid and ask, ‘Is this true what Farah has told us about no jobs if the union comes?’ The people were so afraid.”
Some strikers wanted to increase pressures at the local scene by raising larger social issues in the Chicano community and taking more militant action at the plant gates, rather than devoting so much of the union’s energy in the boycott. “The boycott is and it isn’t a good thing,” explains one worker, critical of the national union’s strategy. “See, once they make you depend financially, pretty soon you’re going to depend on them for leadership, that’s the policy making of that group. If the leadership and policy making had come from our own resources, it would have taken a more militant and social aspect.
“The union will always make it seem an economic struggle instead of a social struggle even though they are yelling social justice all over the country. They were scared because things were getting out of hand, because of the consciousness that was growing here and because of our enthusiasm with other organizations around the country. At first, we didn’t think the boycott would be effective at all. Well, we learned so much about the Anglo community outside El Paso and about workers across the country, and many people became conscious of the exploitation of the Mexican-American down here. So the boycott did help.”
Amalgamated stepped up efforts to hurt Farah financially. They hired a young activist from Yale Divinity School to coordinate the clergy in cities targeted by the boycott; and they used Alinsky-style organizers and civil rights groups to supplement the muscle of the labor movement in several critical towns. Boycott staff, for example, solidified the strong but disparate labor movement around eliminating Farah products from Alabama, an important market for the company. Within a month, they had succeeded.
Utilizing the leverage of a highly visible, single label product (Farah slacks), the boycott began to score undeniable points against the company. Farah’s stock plummeted from 39 ½ to below 7 dollars a share on Wall Street. The financial community was clearly worried about Willie’s apparent irrational intransigence against the union. At the 1973 annual stockholders meeting, Father Munoz was again on the scene to remind the assembled owners of the company that “the stock market doesn’t lie.” Finally, the pressures from his losses brought Farah to his knees.
On February 24, 1974, after 22 long months, Amalgamated and Farah reached a settlement. Both sides agreed to drop their lawsuits; and when the mayor of El Paso certified that a majority of workers and strikers had signed union cards, Amalgamated called off its boycott and the company agreed to negotiate a contract.
The union met with the strikers at Our Lady of the Light, the last official gathering at the church; they met with the non-strikers at a separate meeting. A 55-member rank-and-file committee was elected and began around-the-clock negotiations with Farah representatives, finally hammering out a
contract which included dues check-off and binding arbitration. On March 6 and 7, 1974, the Farah workers ratified the agreement in the Gateway cafeteria and in San Antonio. The strikers returned to work, and the union settled down to the business of administering a contract covering the remaining Farah plants.
Criticism arose over the union’s actions during those pressured final days. Some workers felt the contract should have been ratified outside the plant by the strikers alone. The union, on the other hand, felt an obligation to supporters who stayed inside, knowing that many of the “happies” were in fact allies. Father Munoz, close to all the workers’ factions as well as to the union, put it this way: “For the great majority, there was rejoicing, and thanksgiving prayers that the strike was over. But to a few this settlement appeared to be like a sell-out on the part of both Amalgamated and Farah.”
A union born in the Chicago sweatshops had joined forces with the growing Chicano militance to establish a major presence in the Southwest. But Father Munoz once again sounded prophetic words: “Those who have been thoroughly acquainted with the situation from the very beginning know that the war has just begun.”
A defeated Willie Farah softened his public stance, but privately tried new tactics to control the workers. Inside the plant, he found a staunch group of genuine happies to carry on his cause. The strikers quickly realized that a union contract didn’t end the harassment from company officials and anti-union workers.
“There are so many things wrong,” explains one concerned worker. “I try to read the contract every day.”
Another adds with a steely determination, “There are a lot of problems with that contract. They need to be changed.”
The Farah management’s maneuverings against Amalgamated are now handled by Dan Cruse, the new head of industrial relations. Cruse, a former executive with General Electric, apparently brings a more sophisticated approach to dealing with labor unions than that exhibited by Willie Farah. Almalgamated Clothing Workers’ officials in New York and Texas refused to comment on the latest developments at Farah, a position which the company may appreciate. Reached by phone in El Paso, Cruse also remained hesitant to talk about any union-management business. Fie adamantly believes that “the normal situation for labor relations is as far removed from national publicity as possible.”
It’s not hard to understand Cruse’s position. On the local level, the company has all the chips on its side. The union faces a cumbersome grievance procedure that helps the company through lengthy delays. In a current dispute, for example, the workers contend that Farah is violating a contract provision prohibiting subcontracting work to other companies if his own employees are not working full time. While the grievance slowly winds its way through the procedures, the workers say they’re losing money in shorter hours while Farah continues to get large chunks of business done in Mexico where costs are lower.
Meanwhile, supervisors have been distributing blank resignation cards to workers, leading to speculation that Farah plans a campaign to decertify the union. Another more likely union-busting tactic might come early next year when Amalgamated has to renew its contract. Company losses
continue in the millions and when Willie Farah turned over the post of president to William C. Leone, rumors began to circulate that the company may merge with a larger organization — perhaps a textile giant like Burlington or a conglomerate like City Investing Corp., Leone’s former employer. No one outside the inner circle knows exactly what Farah’s plans are, but they must certainly involve countering the power of the union.
The union, of course, must be prepared for any tactic. They have come up with some of their own. After the Farah victory, ACWA added Farah strikers and other Chicanos to their staff in the Southwest. They built up their El Paso operation to 22 people, practically all Chicano. The union office handles grievances, helps workers organize the tough-to-reach green-carders, sponsors English classes and other education courses and provides a broad range of social services.
ACWA has also turned serious attention to Levi-Strauss, trying to build on their base in El Paso. They brought in Ed Blair, an organizing veteran of 40 years in the deep South, into Texas to supervise the team of Chicano organizers in the Levi-Strauss campaign, targeting some 20 non-union shops stretching from Corpus Christi to Albuquerque. As one San Antonio striker explained recently, “More people are beginning to hear about the union. People want to settle into one place, but there are not enough jobs. We want to get one standard contract across the industry.”
The ACWA has recently merged their union of 62 years with the Textile Workers Union of America, born from the CIO days in the ’30s. The combined Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union (ACTWU) membership of 500,000 still is concentrated in the Northeast and Midwest. But the Stevens campaign in the South (see accompanying article) and the Farah/Levi Strauss struggles in the Southwest loom ahead as the major targets of the combined Union.
A “power shift” has indeed occurred over these last years. Willie Farah still directs his company, but is assisted by the labor relations of Dan Cruse and the new leadership of William Leone. Unions no longer have the luxury of a stable urban membership in the northern garment and textile districts established long ago, and have made major commitments to the Southern Rim.
And above all, Chicano workers have taken notice of what unions are all about. Their frustrations have found some channels of expression. The Farah strike educated a generation of Chicano workers of their rights and of their power in the national consciousness. They know how to lobby Texas Senator Lloyd Bentsen on the Humphrey-Hawkins bill, for they understand what employment could mean for their people. They realize that renewing the Farah contract will not be easy; they are bolstering themselves for another battle. And they recognize their limitations and the importance of a trained staff.
The cultural traditions of Chicanos north of the Rio Grande precede Sidney Hillman’s trip to Ellis Island. From the sweatshops of Chicago, Hillman embarked on a long journey for the rights of oppressed workers. The road has led to Texas where Chicano workers and organizers carry on the same struggle. Their unique spirit of survival with dignidad prepares them for the next challenge.
In 1963, the year Mississippi State faced Loyola in the NCAA, Bill Finger was playing high school basketball in Jackson. He is now a freelance writer in Raleigh, NC, and at work on a book about the players of those historic teams. (1979)
Bill Finger is a writer in Raleigh, NC. (1978)
Bill Finger is the labor editor of Southern Exposure. (1976)
Bill Finger is the Director of the Institute for Southern Studies Textiles Project. He has worked for the North Carolina AFL-CIO and the Southern Oral History Program at the University of North Carolina. (1976)