A walkout by Salvadoran immigrants at a San Francisco skateboard-parts factory provides a glimpse of organizing efforts in the Bay Area's growing population of young Latino workers.
The 20 nonunion employees of Ermico Enterprises Inc. are on strike for higher pay, better working conditions and union recognition.
Newly arrived, timid immigrants tend to remain silent about working conditions that would provoke longtime residents. But two weeks ago, 20 of the 40 laborers at Ermico decided to walk off their jobs because they felt that management was thwarting their attempt to form a union. The other 20 are still working.
The strike came at a time when the workers, most of them Salvadoran men in their 20s, were scheduled to vote in a secret ballot election on whether to join Molders and Allied Workers Union Local 164, which represents most Bay Area foundry employees.
Nelson Moran, 20, sat on the stump of a telephone pole as a trash can fire warmed him and three other young strikers outside the gates of the Hunters Point industrial park that contains the Ermico plant.
A police van was parked nearby. Nine strikers were arrested last week for blocking access to the factory.
Checking of his list of grievances, Moran said there is no ventilation in a 20-by-40-foot area of the plant where workers grind aluminum castings for skateboard wheels assemblies.
The only bathroom has no hot water, he said. Workers whose hands are hot from handling molten metal sometimes get painful cramps when washing with cold water, he said.
Workers sometimes get nauseated from breathing fumes from lubricants used to cool drills and grinding machines, one young unidentified laborer said. "You start feeling bad, sleepy, things like that," he said.
David Bacon, and organizer for the molders' union, called the conditions in the plant "primitive."
Newly hired workers earn $4.25 an hour at Ermico, according to strikers. But workers in union foundries in the Bay Area start at $8 to $10 an hour.
"The salary is too low," said Moran, who emigrated four years ago from his native Salvadoran farming town to the United States. "They don't pay vacations, holidays. We don't have good insurance."
Management referred all questions to an attorney, James Meath of Richmond, Va. Meath said that he is unaware of conditions in the plant and cannot respond to any of the grievances.
"Our position is that we're going to run our business," he said.
Moran, who lives with his mother and brothers in San Bruno, laughed when asked whether he feared that the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service would come to check the striker's documents.
"I don't care if the people don't have papers," another striker said. "No more exploitation." The metal-casting industry depends on immigrants and eventually will listen to their demands, this worker believes.
Ignacio de la Fuente, business manager for the molders' union, predicted that the strike will influence other immigrants who enter the Bay Area economy through low-paying factory and service jobs.
Economists have said job actions among unskilled Latino immigrants may become more common under the new immigration law. Illegal aliens who have lived in the United States continuously since Jan. 1, 1982 may be eligible to become temporary residents under the new law.
Meanwhile, the union organizing effort is tied up at the National Labor Relations Board.
The molders' union is charging that management refused to attend a meeting a month ago, when the NLRB was to set a date for the secret-ballot election. The union also claims that four laborers active in organizing were fired two days after the meeting.
Management has responded with charges of intimidation by the union. The company says the four workers were let go because of a business slowdown.