The rebellion of the drywallers

June 27, 2012

A major labor struggle between drywall workers and residential housing bosses took place in Southern California during the summer of 1992, when roughly 4,000 drywallers went on strike for union recognition and paralyzed the industry for over six months.

This hard-fought battle was quickly forgotten in the short memory of the mainstream media, but the issues it dealt with are still relevant in today's labor struggles. Twenty years later, Mario Cardenas dug through the archives of Socialist Worker to recount the story of a bitter, wildcat, immigrant-led labor battle.

IN THE summer of 1992, the U.S. economy was still suffering from a recession that took hold at the start of the decade. Unemployment was growing, especially among the African American and Latino populations. The economy dominated the presidential race as the George Bush Sr. administration's approval rating declined, and a Democratic presidential candidate, Bill Clinton, toured the country, promising to heal the gap between rich and poor.

Meanwhile, the majority of working class Americans were experiencing frustration and anger. Among Blacks, those feelings came to the surface after the verdict exonerating Los Angeles police for their beating of an African American man, Rodney King, which sparked the LA Rebellion in April 1992.

This was the background to the drywallers' struggles. Drywall hanging in Southern California had traditionally been a well-paid union job for U.S.-born white workers, as well as a minority of Mexican immigrants who came to California looking for work. But the work was difficult and dangerous. Drywall workers were responsible for nailing heavy drywall boards to the frames of houses and other buildings. Injuries were frequent, and the work eventually could lead to deterioration of workers' joints.

A San Diego march in support of Justice for Drywallers
A San Diego march in support of Justice for Drywallers

Throughout the 1980s, the construction industry saw a decline in union representation due to the conservative trend in national politics, which was aimed at rolling back the gains of the New Deal era--coupled with a sharp recession in the early 1980s that halted the construction industry across the country.

The crushing of the PATCO strike by air and traffic controllers under the Regan administration was the iconic beginning of the end for working people who felt they were "middle class." As the recession hit, the construction bosses followed Reagan's example and forced open-shop policies through employers' organizations like the Associated Builders and Contractors.

Unions were kicked out of California's residential housing industry and replaced with highly exploitable undocumented immigrant workers from Mexico and other Latin American countries. By the early 1990s, drywall hanging was a job filled with misery and humiliation. Workers were paid $300 for a 60-hour week, with no health care, no overtime, no vacation or sick days, and no prospects to improve their conditions.

As strike leader Roy Navarro said in 1992, "We're being squeezed to death. Pretty soon, we won't even be able to support our wives and kids."

It's noteworthy that most unions didn't attempt to organize these workers. Many claimed that the immigrants were "union busters" for taking the jobs of union drywall workers.

In 1992, the industry was controlled by dozens of contractor firms with free reign over the labor market. The contractors were supplied with workers with the help of "labor barons" or "coyotes," who moved people across the border.

The barons would exploit their position as better-adjusted immigrants to prey on those recently arrived. They facilitated finding work and housing as a service to the workers, and took a cut of their wages for themselves. The labor barons had ultimate authority over who got to work, how long they worked and how much they would get paid. Often, laborers wouldn't receive the wages they were promised or wouldn't get paid at all before being fired.

The barons facilitated a source of cheap labor for the bosses and relied on the vulnerability of the immigrant communities of Southern California. Most of the strikers came from the same towns in rural central Mexico. Their only ties in the U.S., which criminalized them, were their fellow countrymen, including the labor barons.

But as the strike proved, the workers found that the barons were cheating them. Today, labor barons are still common in immigrant communities in the U.S., a testament to the real aim of criminalizing undocumented workers: creating a hyper-exploitable working population.

THE SPARK for the drywallers' uprising came in October 1991. Jesus Gomez, a disgruntled drywaller and eventually a leader of the strike, made a decision that would change his life and the lives of thousands of drywall workers in the region.

After a dispute over $60 in stolen wages from his employer, Gomez decided that he would no longer tolerate the humiliating conditions at his workplace. Gomez contacted the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners and, along other drywallers, began organizing meetings in the region, with the aim to once again unionize the industry.

They visited different worksites across Orange County during the spring of 1992, holding meetings and gaining support across different building sites. Most of the initial strikers were from the same town of El Maguey in the central Mexican state of Guanajuato. Support was won through the complex social networks of "paisanos" that had shared the terrible work conditions for far too long.

Justice for Drywallers, the organization formed to carry out the strike, presented demands for a pay raise, a health plan and union recognition to the local contractors and threatened to strike on June 1 if no agreement was reached. That same day, hundreds of drywallers were found carrying signs and disrupting worksites with picket lines across Southern California.

"This is at least a little something, a beginning," Gomez said in 1992. "It lifts my spirits. There may be fewer jobs when all this is over, but at least they'll be decent ones."

The odds weren't great for the mostly undocumented immigrant workers who had just gone on a wildcat strike during a period of recession and high unemployment, against well-organized and overzealous residential construction bosses. But the drywallers had little to lose and a lot to gain, and their struggle quickly captured the support of labor, immigrant, clergy and community organizations like the Hermandad Mexicana Nacional, Los Amigos de Orange County and the League of United Latin American Citizens.

By July, the labor stoppage spread to nearby counties and gained media attention, as well as the full attention of the bosses who urged local police departments to get involved. On July 2, more than 150 picketers were arrested in Mission Viejo, out of which 49 were turned over to the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), the predecessor to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)--or simply, "la migra."

Support came from other labor organizations, too. During a solidarity rally for the drywallers organized by Justice for Janitors in Los Angeles, 68 people were arrested and seven strikers were severely beaten by the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD). A drywall worker and striker whose family had been in the business for 30 years said of the drywall bosses and the police; "One way or another we are going to win...if they want violence, violence they will have."

Besides repression, employers made efforts to hire scab workers. Most of the scabs were brought in from out of state, but their stay was not very long. Justice for Drywallers picketed the worksite where scabs had been working--and in some instances, they managed to convince the scabs to join the strike.

THE STRUGGLE became bigger than the economic aims of Justice for Drywallers. For years, the immigrant communities of Southern California faced racist harassment by police and la migra. When these same bodies attacked the striking drywallers, larger and larger numbers came out to rallies as the strike continued.

On July 28 and again on August 18, 500 people marched on headquarters. In San Diego, 500 drywallers and supporters protested at the San Diego Police Department on August 8. Strikers and supporters organized a march against INS in Los Angeles on August 24 as the drywallers who faced deportations headed to court. Justice for Drywallers even joined a mass march against the North American Free Trade Agreement in San Diego on October 22.

The repression against the strikers was brutal and included confrontations between hundreds of picketers and police officers of different jurisdictions. By the end of the strike, the total number of arrests had reached over 600. A legal defense team, set up by the California Immigrant Workers Association, was crucial to sustaining the strike efforts.

A strategy of overloading the courts with appeals and public pressure to win plea bargains for defendants not only kept losses at a minimum, but drew broad support to the drywallers. Also, a legal offensive against drywall contractors exposed their anti-labor practices. On September 8, nine class action lawsuits were filed in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, accusing drywall contractors of not paying overtime and not complying with the Fair Labor Standards Act.

By late November, the strike had grown into a bitter battle that had crippled residential construction in Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, Ventura and San Diego Counties, and involved about 4,000 drywall workers. On November 10, the Pacific Rim Drywall Association, which represented about 60 percent of the industry, agreed to negotiate with Justice for Drywallers.

A formal agreement was signed on November 12, which gave the drywallers their first raise in 10 years, a health care plan and recognition of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners to represent the workers. Even so, pickets continued for months afterward, until nearly all of the industry in Southern California was unionized.

Tony Hernandez, a leader of the strike, hailed the deal as "a great victory for the workers. The bottom line is that our people will now be able to go back to work with dignity and decent wages."

The Justice for Drywallers campaign has long been forgotten, along with names like Jesus Gomez, Silberio Nieto, Jose Nieto, Roy Navarro and Antonio Hernandez. But their struggle continues: Chants of "si se puede" echoed through the coming decade by other workers in different industries, who followed the drywallers' footsteps in keeping independent, rank-and-file unionism alive. The roots of the massive movement for legalization of undocumented immigrants of the last decade were planted during struggles like that of the drywallers.

Today, as the majority of working class people in this country face austerity, unemployment and the brutality of racist police and immigration officials, the drywallers strike of 1992 reminds us of the type of labor struggle we must build to save our dignity and living standards.

Further Reading

From the archives