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The pain and sacrifice of birthing a union.

Drywallers, families suffer for cause

SANTA ANA, Calif. - In Orange County one recent Friday the 13th, union organizer Jesus Gomez received bullets in the mail, with a threatening note. In San Diego County, someone smashed the windows of a truck belonging to organizer Antonio Hernandez.

The only woman among the thousands of men on the Southern California drywallers' picket lines, "Adelita" - Maria Incarnacion Sandoval takes her nickname from a Mexican revolutionary - was beaten, by police, she alleges. Too shaken and sick to picket, she has retained a lawyer to press charges.

As always when there is a union struggle, the family suffers. There's little money. Wives alternate between tears and toughness, between complaints and support, between threatening to walk out and standing firm - and packing lunches for the next day's picketing.

Drywallers fasten the 4-by-8-foot plasterboards to wooden studs in homes, offices, churches and other buildings. The boards weigh more than 100 pounds. Most drywallers shift them around as if they were playing cards. Many bear badges of courage: Hernandez has a 14-inch scar down one leg and a shorter one on his arm where a wallboard slipped.

Drywallers can handle dozens of boards a day when new cities are mushrooming on dry desert, as happened in the 1980s boom in Southern California.

California's bust helped prompt the thrust to unionization in the southern six counties (northern California drywallers generally are unionized), but there is more to it than that.

|That's slavery'

This was a weekday. The parking lot of the Carpenters Union hall in Santa Ana, just off Interstate 5 an hour south of Los Angeles, was filled, mainly with pickup trucks. Some men stood around outside, talking. Inside, apart from a dedicated group of card players seated at a round folding table, hundreds more waited noisily for lunch.

Notices in Spanish on the wall cheered the strike and warned picketers not to indulge in violence - it is not condoned by the strike committee.

These were the day's picketers. From 500 to 600 fan out across Orange County daily, visiting construction sites to urge nonunion drywallers to walk off the job and join them. The strikers want guaranteed wages and health benefits. From Los Angeles south to the border, about 2,500 drywallers - from a pool of possibly 5,000 when work is abundant - are on strike and picketing.

"The picket line is the most dangerous place to be in a strike," said Father Victor Salandini, the San Diego priest who periodically pickets with the strikers and says Mass for them (see accompanying story).

Gomez and Hernandez confirmed that as they talked above the din in the Santa Ana hall.

In the 1970s, not long after he came north from Mexico, Gomez was a Carpenters Union member. But the antiunion right-to-work measures welcomed to California when Ronald Reagan was governor made severe inroads, and union carpentry jobs dwindled. Gomez went into drywalling. "We left union membership," said Gomez. It was a mistake, and now we see the results are bad."

The crunch in drywalling came for Gomez in October 1991. He had been making good money with a contractor who then failed. Gomez switched to another job. When payday came, the foreman handed him far less than the agreed amount. When he complained and said he would not work for peanuts," Gomez was told to take it or leave it. He decided to do something else - organize. He talked to fellow workers, called a meeting here, a meeting there. They would build a strike fund.

When be started, he said, his wife, Marina, was mad at him: "But I said, |You've got to be with me, otherwise we'll lose everything we have. When they make us work for peanuts, that's slavery."

The families of workers who would strike were urged to save as much as they could to prepare for a June 1992 strike deadline.

Marina Gomez and the four children, ages 16 to 4, agreed. Gomez said his wife told him, "If you're going to fight, then fight." And it is a fight, often against sleeplessness. Gomez and Hernandez are gone for days at a time, visiting their sections of the state, finding bail (150 picketers have been arrested), checking on the injured (nine have been hurt, six by police), fielding calls from employers and dealing with confrontations with police and domestic problems of the picketers and their families.

Days they are not on the road usually start in the union ball around 5 a.m., organizing pickets and paperwork. In each county, pickets work out of donated union space. Before the strike began in June 1992, the drywallers had amassed a $400,000 war chest. Gomez wrote more than a thousand letters to unions, restaurants, community groups, churches. No Catholic bishops have publicly supported the strikers in the four dioceses involved: Los Angeles, Orange, San Bernardino and San Diego.

But the war chest was soon depleted by rent, bail and gasoline costs. Help in spurts has continued: the AFL-CIO in San Francisco sent down truckloads of food; community groups organized fund-raisers.

How much money has been raised? "Hard to say," said Gomez, "it goes out as fast as it comes in. We try to help people that need it most - the guy that just got married and they've got their first kid and no savings at all."

Is anyone going hungry? "Oh, yeah, a little, maybe. We were good the first month; after that it was harder. We had a lot of problems." Families are helped out with sacks of rice, beans, eggs, tortillas. "It's not a lot," said Gomez, "but it's something." He guessed that most families were getting by on $40 to $50 a week. "It's not enough," he said.

Pitching in

In 1991, in San Diego, Hernandez was watching his pay go down each month for the same amount of work or more. Soon, he said, he was getting less in 1991 than he had been five years earlier. When Gomez approached him about joining the strike, Hernandez was ready.

The toll at home has been hard, said Hernandez. His wife, Jennifer, and the five children barely see him. The best the strikers have been able to do is organize occasional family picnics and a Christmas party.

In mid-January there will be a big push in San Diego County to get subcontractors - the firms that do the drywalling for the major construction companies - to sign provisional, contracts (they would still have to be ratified). In five counties, 43 contractors have already signed; in San Diego County, none.

Also this month, said Hernandez, to add to the numbers and the pressure, pickets will come to San Diego from Los Angeles and Santa Ana. Father Salandini has invited his friend Cesar Chavez, the United Farm Workers' leader who has already given the drywaller strikers his encouragement.

Employers have charged that Hernandez is just looking for a comfortable union job. They've been accusing me of many things" said Hernandez. "Ask anyone who has worked around me; they'll tell you whether I am lazy."

Where subcontractors already have signed up, those victories have not been easily won. As in any union effort, there is a ploy-counterploy. Since the strike started, employers have raised wages for nonunion strikers and are promising health coverage in 1993.

None of this deters Hernandez. All his energy is directed toward the strike. He intends to get the drywall employers to the table. Behind him, there's a lot of support.

Though there wasn't much from Tony and Jennifer for the five Hernandezes at Christmas, "my mother-in-law, my brother-in-law, my sisters and my brothers: They all pitched in."

Making do: It's messy, noisy and tiring.

There's nothing genteel about trying to start a union.
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Title Annotation:southern California drywallers
Author:Jones, Arthur
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Jan 22, 1993
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