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Local Heroes

 

Empowering Female Workers

Former garment workers support a sewing cooperative through a nonprofit organization

En español | Emotions churn and tears spill down Petra Mata’s face — just as they did 20 years ago when, without warning, she lost her job at the Levi Strauss & Co. factory. Nonetheless, she continues narrating her story. Now 64, she’s accustomed to the sorrow inherent in her success.

Mata, a mother, grandmother and great grandmother, converted rage and sadness into moxie, transforming herself into more than a former U.S. garment worker who lost a job to lower-paid labor abroad. In 1990, she and a handful of other laid-off Levi Strauss workers in San Antonio established Fuerza Unida, and they’ve spent the past two decades making it stronger. The nonprofit organization supports a sewing cooperative, food pantry and learning center as well as community marches and protests. It empowers women, Latinos and an entire community.

“They picked themselves up by their bootstraps and said, ‘Let’s make the best of this.’ And they did,” says Eva Trevino Garcia, project director of the AARP Foundation’s Senior Community Service Employment Program, which directs seniors to Fuerza Unida for assistance. “They created an organization that really puts itself out there for people.”

<p>Mata’s role as Fuerza Unida’s executive director stands in stark contrast to her work at the plant, where she earned $9.73 an hour as a seamstress.</p>

And not just for Texans. After Arizona passed a law allowing police to ask anyone who has been stopped, detained or arrested to produce identification papers, Mata and other San Antonio activists marched to protest the law, which they say could lead to racial profiling. (Parts of the new law have now been blocked by a federal judge.)

Mata’s role as Fuerza Unida’s executive director stands in stark contrast to her work at the plant, where she earned $9.73 an hour as a seamstress. “It was the best job I had ever had. Losing it was like losing the world,” she says. “But I found that this loss brought me into a new world.” When she and the others learned of the layoffs, she says, “it was like a death in the family.”

When the plant closed in 1990, some 1,150 seamstresses were left without jobs — jobs that had allowed many to taste middle-class life despite having only an elementary school education and limited English skills. Salaries paid for houses, cars and furniture. “We had a lot of confidence in the company,” Mata says. “When they told us they were shutting down the factory, we felt defrauded and betrayed.”

Job loss often led to family crises, foreclosures and divorce. But for some, it also ushered in rapid personal transformation.

“I never thought I could do what I do right now,” says Viola Casares, 66, Fuerza Unida’s program coordinator. “I have only a sixth-grade education. At Levi’s, I didn’t get involved in anything. The plant closure opened our eyes.”

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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