In January 1990, just three weeks after Christmas, the Levi-Strauss Company closed one of its San Antonio factories and laid off 1,150 workers, most of whom were older, uneducated Mexican-American women. Petra Mata, one of those workers, still vividly remembers that day and the ensuing feelings of betrayal and extreme despair: "Overnight everything disappeared. All the good visions you had about the United States were gone. You don't know how to continue living in this country because you don't know how to speak the language. You don't have an education. And at that time, I only had my green card, so I wasn't even a citizen yet."
Twelve years later, 55-year-old Mata is working with her compañera and co-coordinator Viola Casares, 58, in Fuerza Unida to spare other working women the grief they faced when they both became casualties in one of the city's largest and most controversial layoffs.
Fuerza Unida's efforts, and Casares and Mata's experiences continue to be important as Levi's has announced that there could be another round of factory closures, although the company isn't saying which ones will be shut down. The announcement is expected by March 31.
At first, Mata and Casares kept their scope relatively small. The laid-off workers organized and eventually became known as Fuerza Unida, or "United Force." They led a successful national boycott against Levi's products and filed a class action lawsuit against the company to receive adequate severance packages (which was defeated in 1996). Although Fuerza's efforts did not directly benefit their initial interests, their work was enough to help organize workers at a local steel factory and even at another Levi's plant in El Paso.
These small successes spurred them into struggling for broader reforms. When Levi's moved their manufacturing plant to Costa Rica in 1990, the women of Fuerza followed; there they witnessed the desparate conditions of the maquiladoras and became aware of the universal plight of the working woman. Back then Viola "didn't even know how to pronounce the word globalization." Now she teaches others about its effects and networks with activists worldwide in order to continue educating herself on the topic and to serve as a delegate for "la mujer obrera."
La Dignidad de la Mujer Obrera (The Dignity of the Working Woman) was the natural choice of theme for this year's International Women's Day March, which Fuerza Unida was chosen to lead for the first time in the march's history in San Antonio. The march, which was held March 9, also broke from tradition in that it was held on the city's South Side, rather than downtown. Organizers said this was symbolic not only because the area is ignored by businesses and politicians, but it is also the location of the old Levi's factory.
After receiving a blessing from a self-described "Apache grandma," about 300 women and men marched from the defunct plant at 6818 S. Zarzamora, to South Park Mall and back again, hollering chants like "Se ve, se escucha, la mujer esta en la lucha! (It's seen, it's heard, the woman is in the struggle!). They sung along to tunes by the female mariachi group Dueto Gloreva, who changed the words of the popular "El Rey" to "La Reyna," and led a powerful rendition of "Cielito Lindo," the unofficial anthem of the Mexican Revolution. A closing rally included dancing, drumming, dramatic performances, and several moving speeches on topics like domestic violence, immigration, globalization, environmental protection, and reproductive health.
Joleen García, a Fuerza volunteer and member of the march's organizing committee, described the rally's wide agenda as "holistic education" for the woman seeking empowerment. "It's an education that we haven't had in our public schools, especially with immigrants or women without a full 13 years of education," she says. "We want to educate them on their value as women — how to know what you're worth, recognize it, be able to hold that, carry it with you and protect you, and know not to accept anything less than what you're worth."
Fuerza Unida has made this education process a part of its mission, but organizers now hope to get their message across to a very specific group of women — those currently employed by Levi Strauss in its two San Antonio plants and six other locations nationwide. In January, a company press release announced "the possible closure of an undetermined number of U.S. manufacturing plants." Linda Butler, a Levi's spokeswoman recently told the Current that all eight facilities are under risk of closing. When asked if the women in their Costa Rica factories make a dollar an hour, Butler said she did not know but assured us Levi's pays "whatever is lawfully required and the prevailing wage in that country's industry."
Although three Levi's factory workers from El Paso drove down for the march, there was a noticeable absence of current employees from the two San Antonio plants. One of those factories is not represented by either of the two unions, Unite and United Food and Commercial Workers that represent the other seven U.S. plants. While Fuerza Unida is most eager to help these women—because they literally stood in their shoes 12 years ago — they can also sympathize with their silence and lack of participation thus far. "It's like when we were scared," remembers Casares, "We didn't want to loose our jobs. We understand what they're going through. They may also be in denial like we were in denial."
So what advice would the women of Fuerza Unida give the women following in their fateful footsteps? Mata suggests they begin by organizing, learning their rights, learning English, learning a trade beyond sewing, and getting a GED or higher education. "Then you can go from there. So when they lay you off, you can say, 'I know where I can find another job,'" she explains, "Not like what happened to us, where we just stayed in one corner crying because we didn't know what to do or where to go. At least now we can make changes for the workers, their families, and our community."