In the summer of 1992, immigrant construction workers across southern California launched a militant strike that surprised both their employers and the Anglo leaders of trade unions. Aided by the California Immigrant Workers Association (CIWA), the drywallers' strike succeeded in improving working conditions in residential construction across the region. This account is from CIWA organizer Jose De Paz. CIWA operated from 1989-1994 as an associate membership organization of the AFL-CIO.
Three main ingredients account for the success of the drywallers strike. First, the determination of the strikers. They were not doing “strike duty”. They embraced their cause 24 hours a day and everything else became secondary to the strike. Additionally, the strikers were aware that they were being oppressed not only as workers but also as Mexicans, which made their bond twice as strong. This came particularly handy when entire families were evicted from their homes for non-payment of rent and had to move in with one or more families in a single dwelling.
Second, organized labor’s considerable contribution to the independent drywall strike fund. In addition to individuals and community organizations, more than 21 AFL-CIO affiliated unions and six Central Labor Councils in California made significant donations to the fund.
Third, CIWA’s unique participation. Besides coordinating legal and immigration defense, CIWA served as a communication bridge between the strikers and police agencies. CIWA also functioned as the strikers’ spokesperson with the media (particularly the Spanish-language media) and as the coordinator of support from Latino community and labor organizations. CIWA’s unique com bination of skills and its dual credentials in the labor and Latino communities enabled it to convert the drywallers’ struggle from a localized labor dispute into a Latino workers movement.
The drywallers’ strike is already widely recognized as a labor struggle of historical proportions, providing valuable lessons for the future growth of the labor movement, particularly in California with its large Latino population.
The drywallers launched their strike as independents, without the full institutional support and protection of any specific labor union. They assumed full responsibility for the success or failure of their struggle, which meant that they owned it from the very beginning. Instead of waiting to be saved by an institution, they made the first move towards shaping their own destiny. The drywall strike was led by drywallers. The organizing strategy was developed by drywallers. The decisions were made by drywallers.
As an independent strike, the drywallers were not subject to the stifling anti-worker NLRB provisions and regulations as unions are. Also, instead of targeting only one or even a few contractors, the strikers went after the entire residential drywall industry. Moreover, the drywallers did not let the odds against them overwhelm them into inaction. The maxim of “engaging only in those battles that you are sure to win” might have obscured the thinking of orthodox professional organizer types. The pragmatic thing might have been to wait until the economy and other conditions were more conducive to victory. Excessive pragmatism often paralyzes.
Finally, the drywallers exhibited long-term vision. They made it clear from the very beginning that they wanted to institutionalize their gains by making representation by a union of their choice a non-negotiable demand.
Organized labor should be viewing the drywallers’ strike as the shape of things to come, rather than as an isolated incident. Mexican and Latino workers in California have a rich tradition of organizing, but they’ve often lacked the resources to succeed. At the same time, many in the Mexican and Latino communities, who are unsatisfied with superficial “cultural” gains (e.g., the ubiquitous Cinco de Mayo celebrations, Hispanic Heritage month, and cultural diversity fairs) are concluding that the pivotal and most tangible measure of Latino progress is the size of the paycheck at the end of the week. That check, they have learned, will grow only through collective bargaining.
Jose De Paz, “Organizing Ourselves: Drywallers’ Strike Holds Lessons for the Future of Labor Organizing,” Labor Research Review, April 1, 1993, https://ecommons.cornell.edu/handle/1813/102610.