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Empowering Female Workers

Former garment workers support a sewing cooperative through a nonprofit organization

As the newly jobless picked up their last paychecks, Southwest Workers Union representatives — picket signs in hand — came out to meet with them. At the time, the union was protesting the loss of U.S. jobs to overseas workers.

The union organized the seamstresses, who then created Fuerza Unida, and both went to court to fight for a better severance package for the laid-off workers. Despite losing that battle, the struggle seemed to pay off 14 years later, when Levi’s closed its last U.S. plants and the 800 workers who lost their jobs received better severance packages.

The newly formed Fuerza Unida grew stronger by joining the Southwest Network for Environmental and Economic Justice, which provides training and leadership development for grassroots organizations. As years passed, Fuerza Unida expanded its services by tailoring them to its members’ needs.

Today, Fuerza Unida’s sewing cooperative makes tote bags, does alterations and crafts special-order clothing, including women’s outfits and men’s guayabera shirts. Workshops and seminars offer information on immigration, health and educational opportunities. A summer Youth Leadership Program teaches teens about ways to improve health, tend vegetable and herb gardens, and cook. And the organization’s food pantry helps stock more than 80 family kitchens each month.

The food baskets help Jessica Rubalcaba, 31, stretch her family’s tight budget; her husband earns $350 weekly in a construction job. The mother of four children, who range in age from seven to 17, says she’s considering pursuing a high school equivalency diploma because of what she’s learned at Fuerza Unida. Her two teens joined this year’s summer Youth Leadership Program. “When you come to this country, you feel like the doors are closed,” says Rubalcaba, originally from Nuevo León, Mexico. “But you can improve. Fuerza Unida shows us how.”

A sisterhood has sprung up among founders, supporters, organizers, volunteers and participants. Juanita Reina, 55, a former Levi’s seamstress, finds volunteering at Fuerza Unida therapeutic. She attributes many of her ills — carpal tunnel syndrome, knee problems and depression — to her eight years of working at the plant. But assisting at the organization lets her forget those ills for a while. She recalls a woman who’d just lost her job at a dry cleaning shop and was seeking help. “It was like her whole world was falling down,” Reina says. “I felt so proud that we could help.” Fuerza Unida helped her get a new job.

Another seamstress, Leticia Garza, 51, was laid off from a textile plant three years ago. Working at the nonprofit gives her more than additional experience making clothes, she says: “Being with Fuerza Unida is like being at home, among friends and family.”

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