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A lesson in labor organizing from the bottom up: Jesus Gomez and the California Dry Wallers

Mark Bean

During a hot summer of hanging and taping drywall I was reminded of Jesus Gomez, a Mexican drywaller with whom I’d worked years ago. Jesus had successfully organized other Mexican sheet rockers like himself, striking building industry job sites in southern California (SoCal) and bringing the workers into the Carpenters Union in the summer of 1992.

I began a search for him, thinking he might have something to teach us about fighting for workers’ rights in these uncertain times.  It took three phone calls to reach Jesus, known as “Churro” to his friends. He’d just finished up working on his half-acre of corn when he called me back.  He told me he was retired and lives with his family on two acres near Riverside.  We talked about the present and revisited our shared past.  At the end of the conversation, Jesus said, “It’s okay, go ahead and tell them our story, man. You know it.”

Shorted pay, Jesus organized for justice

Jesus Gomez came from El Maguey, a small village in the state of Guanajuato, Mexico. He had worked hanging drywall in the Orange County area of SoCal starting in 1975. In October of 1991, Jesus received a paycheck that was smaller than what it should have been.

“My paycheck was short about $60. What they were doing was injustice.”

His contractor refused to make up the difference, and felt safe doing so. The contractor’s predatory mind-set was typical of other area bosses at the time, secure in their knowledge that these poor, immigrant Mexicans — many undocumented, with no union to back them up — would not cause problems. Besides, a recession and a construction slump offered added insurance against an uprising.

Jesus began driving to other job sites and to the homes of other workers to talk with his fellows about fighting back.

“Many of the guys were from my home town, El Maguey, so it was natural that we knew each other. Many knew me only by my nickname, Churro.”

Through these visits and conversations, Jesus and others crafted a plan of action based on the complaints and frustrations of the group.

From conversations to a strike, a movement was born

On June 1, 1992, the drywallers went out on an unprecedented strike.  The building industry and government agencies tried, but failed, to break it.

“It’s funny how a small thing can become a big thing,” Jesus laughed. “Who would have thought that my anger at being shorted pay would lead to organizing hundreds of workers and shutting down an industry seven months later?”

At this point the workers organized themselves as the “Movement of Drywall Hangers.”

Committed to organizing from the bottom-up

The Movement did not ask for representation from traditional unions at that time. They were a bottom-up organizing effort, which became an advantageous tactic for their strategy for a better living wage and benefits. As far as the National Labor Relations Board  was concerned, complaints by the anti-union Building Industry Association were dismissed because there was no traditional union representing the Movement.

Support from their community

Traditional unions and others did find ways to lend support.

Jesus described how the Movement, “ …had informal help from the Carpenters Union for meeting space. Our guys on picket lines were harassed by INS [Immigration and Naturalization Service] because some were considered illegal immigrants. A typical tactic by government authority at the bidding of business.” These workers received assistance from the California Immigrant Workers Association to fight the INS.

Strong community networks and the justice of their cause inspired many other Latino and union groups to lend aid to the strikers.

Partnering with the Carpenters Union and achieving victory

Once they succeeded in bringing the Building Industry Association to the table, the Movement chose the Carpenters Union for representation. In the end, they achieved a new contract; improving their pay with benefits.

Sharing lessons learned

Jesus eventually went to work as an organizer for UBC Local 2361 (now Local 55) in Orange County, continuing to teach others about the lessons he learned as an organizer of The Movement.

In late 1992, Jesus Gomez and other strike leaders came up to Olympia as guests of the Rank and File Carpenters’ School, where I was attending. They had much to teach rank and file carpenters about organizing non-union carpenters from the bottom-up, and about how other communities could be of help in such an effort locally.  Today, the story of a group of immigrant workers organizing for better wages and working conditions demonstrates the reality that immigrants can strengthen unions and — far from undercutting wages — contribute to improved conditions for all.

And as for me, I still remember his thin, smiling, cinnamon presence at the school. He did indeed remind me of a churro.

Mark Bean is a poet, carpenter, artist and drummer among many other things.

 

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