April 7, 2000

No More "Mexican Wage" — Hunger Strikers Win a Contract At Spanish-Language TV Station

By David Bacon

FRESNO, CA — After not eating for 43 days, workers at KFTV Channel 21 and their supporters finally swallowed a little fish soup on March 31. Their fasting made language discrimination in television a national issue, and helped them obtain a union contract that would help eradicate discrimination.

"We really achieved something important here," said Martin Castellano, a master control technician at this city's Spanish-language TV station and one of the hunger strikers. "I was beginning to lose strength after not eating for so long. I feel like a rock has been lifted from my shoulders."

Workers at Channel 21 began to organize last May around complaints that they were paid much less than their counterparts in the English-language media. News anchors at the area's English-language stations can make $80,000 a year, Fermin Chavez made just over a third of that for the same job at Channel 21. Castellano, who has been with the station 10 years, made $21,500, in a job that pays $30,000 at other local stations.

Workers say Univision can easily afford to pay more. The company's 1999 fourth quarter revenue hit $205 million, and netted $31 million. Its stock price more than doubled last year.

The dispute was particularly bitter because management includes one of the nation's most prominent Latino political figures, and was represented in negotiations by a former national civil rights attorney. The station belongs to a large corporation, Univision, whose CEO is Henry Cisneros, former mayor of San Antonio, Clinton's first secretary of Housing and Urban Development, and a longtime supporter of the United Farm Workers.

With the Latino vote becoming crucial in many states, Cisneros packs a lot of political weight in the Democratic Party.

Henery Cisneros

Facing the hunger strikers more directly, across the bargaining table, was Vilma Martinez, a former civil rights lawyer who was executive director for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF) from 1973 to 1982. Telephone calls to Univision and the station seeking comment were not returned.

Lower wages for Spanish-speaking workers has been a hot issue in the atmosphere of anti-immigrant hostility which has clouded California. It also touches a nerve because it continues the age-old practice called the "Mexican wage" — for a century, until the 1960s, Mexican workers in mines, railroads and factories were paid less than their white counterparts doing the same work.

KFTV workers voted to become members of Local 51 of the National Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians last May. Then, after more than twenty negotiation sessions failed to produce a contract, some employees decided on a hunger strike, including Cardenas and Caste-llano, who fasted for six weeks and a day. They were joined by their union's negotiator, Carrie Biggs-Adams, who works a regular job for NBC in Los Angeles as well, and by two community supporters, Angel Noriega from the Committee of the Poor, and Tami Van Dyne, a staff member at the Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union.

"When I started this hunger strike, I thought Cisneros would talk to us, and it would just last a week," says Carde-nas says. "We were wrong about him. But I'm a very determined person. . . . my dignity and self-respect were on the line, and I wasn't going to give up."

According to the union, Univision has a reputation for hardball bargaining. Workers at San Francisco's Channel 14 spent a year in negotiations.

Last week Univision finally made important concessions, and the union agreed to a settlement. Chavez' salary rises to $37,000 a year, Castellano's to $26,500, and Cardenas gets a $3450 raise. Some employees will get increases of as much as 42 percent in addition to 4 percent raises for each of the next three years. Channel 21 also agreed to relinquish several proposals workers viewed as an attempt to punish them for joining the union.

"We're still underpaid," Castellano explained, "and in the long run, the wages really need to come up, especially since we all do more than one job. But this contract gives us the foundation."

Workers broke their fast in a religious ceremony at the encampment they had maintained in front of the station for weeks.

Biggs-Adams noted that the fast and community support had a broad effect. "Advertisers were pulling out, and many people in the community refused to be interviewed on Channel 21," she said. Squads of community supporters followed the station's remote news crews, and held up signs supporting the hunger strikers whenever they tried to film a segment.

The state's Lieutenant Governor Cruz Bustamente and supervisor Juan Aranbula were supportive, but most other Latino politicians in the area remained silent.

"The grassroots community support we received, especially from the United Farm Workers and the Fresno Labor Community Alliance," Castellano said, "gave us the strength to last this long. At a certain point, Univision realized that people were really beginning to hear our story, and the publicity hurt them a lot. I don't think they ever thought we would get this far."

David Bacon writes widely on immigrant and labor issues.

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