Tuesday, October 29, 2019

DDLM: FXA Reads. From a WIP: Unionizing Argentina

Francisco X. Alarcón is a good friend of La Bloga who has walked on. Adelante, Francisco! Here is our friend reading a pair of works outside Doheny Library the first day of the Festival de Flor y Canto: Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow. One never knows what tommorow has in store, verdad?

Latinopia Word Alarcon Two Poems from Latinopia.com on Vimeo.

Union Solidarity: A Value in Action
Michael Sedano

Esteban Torres represented eastern Los Angeles county in the House of Representatives for eight terms, earning a reputation as a fierce environmentalist when he led a campaign to clean up the BKK toxic landfill in Covina. A Graduate of Garfield High School, Torres entered public life as a Union organizer in the Chrysler Maywood plant. He became the first Chicano Shop Steward then Torres joined the national UAW, who "lent" him to the International Metalworkers Federation because, being a Chicano, he was the only UAW executive qualified to take the risk of organizing the entire continent.

Michael Sedano is wrapping the final chapters of a YA "as told to" autobiography of Congressman Torres. With Labor Unions under severe stress from conservative politicians, La Bloga shares this anecdote from a key moment in Torres' career and labor history.

Background: US and European automotive manufacturers found skilled workers for cheap in South America. Walter and Victor Reuther of the United Auto Workers spearheaded an initiative to train South American unions in U.S.-style bargaining and negotiations, ergonomic practices for worker health, and history of the labor movement. Torres got the assignment. In an essentially one-man organizing effort, Esteban Torres Unionized the South American metal trades. Workers won harmonized wages, improved working conditions, unique benefits. Unionization helped countless familias find home and security.

The Argentina part of my South America Organizing mission ended in a major accomplishment with Unión Obrera Metalurjíca affiliating with the International Metal Workers Federation. Workers of the world were uniting. They would bring the automakers to the bargaining table.

But it all almost blew up in my face during what should have been a regular automotive plant visit. I was viewed as an outside influence when the local workers already had sophisticated organization.

Management’s worst fears grew from UAW historical tactics. In the 1930s, sit-in strikes and worker solidarity won important concession from the bosses. I did not represent the UAW, a United States union, I came as a representative of the International, and my goals were educational. They had my agenda in advance.

Outside the meeting room, the workers on the assembly line were not part of my intentions. They called a "wildcat" strike. The workers stopped the line and sat down. It was a sti-down strike and as a Union man in the plant, I was sitting-in, too.

Like in the U.S., the Argentine assembly line stretches half a mile under a steel-skinned canopy. Steel beams and sheet metal enter at one end, a car exits at the other. In between, workers perform their tasks on parts that cruise past hanging from an overhead chain or pulled along hooked to a concealed tractor. Every worker follows a plan, minimizing steps but performing the same motions over and over, controlling the moving target, side-stepping to keep up with line speed, finishing the job then  turning to meet the relentlessly oncoming next partial assembly.

At a designated time, workers push the closest STOP button and the line grinds to a halt. Hanging pieces of work-in-progress rock back and forth on their hooks and slowly come to a halt. Partially-formed auto bodies sit emptily where someone was making it into a Ford.

Workers arrived prepared. For three days and two nights they remain at their workstation, eating, chatting, singing songs to bolster their conviction. At night workers spread their jackets and cardboard in the backseat frames of cars on the line.

Had I lied, entered the plant under a false flag to instigate this costly defiance?

Management negotiated a suitable conclusion to the labor action with the striking workers. I was under a microscope and closely questioned by my hosts, but in the end they knew I was on-site when workers engaged a long-planned action.

Although I represented the International federation, the U.S. State Department represented my interests. The local U.S. labor attaché demanded a full account of my role. As it turned out, Argentina's Ford workers didn’t need a UAW lesson on historical sit-downs to recognize a useful tactic to get Management to sit-down and talk. I just happened to be there at the right time when workers seized the means of production--their labor--and withheld it. I had the good fortune to be there and demonstrate solidarity. 

Solidarity is a Value of the Union Movement. You hear a lot about Values. A Value is a behavior someone can witness. A Value isn’t merely an attitude, which is a predisposition to act one way rather than another. Values express themselves in actions. Values produce behaviors others can hear, see, touch, count, and define your motive, what you stand for.

That sit-in would be only the first way I'd get to demonstrate U.S. and International solidarity with Argentina's metalworkers. My host, Augusto Vandor told me, “We are so proud that you’re here representing the United States auto workers, that you’re representing the IMF, because we like those organizations, and we want you to be with us on March the first, where we’re going to celebrate our Plan de Lucha.”

I did not know el Plan de Lucha, but clearly I was offered an honor. I did some research. Plan de Lucha, I learned, was a massing of Labor followed by a march to the Capitol. As an honored visitor, I would march in the front rank with the banner carriers and Union leadership. Una manifestación por la calle principal, thousands of us. I had visions of a happy, festive Labor Day march down Whittier Boulevard, gritos and mariachi supplanted with Argentine touches.

After an evening of fellowship and a few beers to conclude my research, I took a taxi to my hotel. When the cab turned on the main avenida toward my hotel I remarked to the driver I’d be marching this street in tomorrow’s Plan de Lucha. He laughed heartily.

“Every year,” the cab driver told me, “Labor holds that manifestación on March the First. And every year, the Army greets them with clubs and bullets. The marchers in the front rows get beaten and dragged into vans. They're jailed, some are killed, and every year, every year, they come back and do it again.”

I was still thinking about what the cab driver said, the next morning as I laced on my steel-toed work shoes. The heavy leather soles offered the kind of support my feet needed for a long walk, or a darting run from a police riot.

Sure enough, up the avenida we march, a huge excited mass. And sure enough, the Army is at the steps of the Capitol to greet us, seething with anger separated from us by wooden barricades. 

This year, the Union assembled without attacks. The country was changing, the Union was gaining influence behind a united front. Solidarity is a Value in action.

No comments: