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Fronteras: Preserving Fuerza Unida's Legacy — The Closure Of A San Antonio's Levi's Plant Sparked A Movement

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Levi Strauss operated a plant in south San Antonio that employed more than 1,100 workers. It abruptly closed in 1990 when the company moved production to Costa Rica, where workers were paid a few dollars a day.

The company said at the time it was shifting its operations to ”increase manufacturing flexibility and reduce costs.” The laid-off workers, mostly Mexican-American women, felt they were the victims of a great injustice, so they organized to form Fuerza Unida, or “united force.”

They filed a class action suit in 1993 claiming the plant deprived or improperly calculated the workers of employment benefits, including pension, severance and disability. The suit and its appeal were ultimately dismissed, but it did not stop the group from holding boycotts, hunger strikes and protests.

“We weren’t able to win a victory and get back what we lost,” said Viola Cásares, co-founder of Fuerza Unida. “But on my part, I learned how to be a better organizer, mother, grandmother (and) friend and it opened my mind to the injustices at the workplace.”

Cásares and fellow co-founder Petra Mata said the work of Fuerza Unida continues today and is now getting a push to preserve its legacy. The nonprofit is donating its collection of historical documents — papers, photos, videos and other items that chronicle the group’s advocacy for the rights of garment workers — to the University of Texas at San Antonio Libraries Special Collections. Library staff will process the collection this year and make it accessible to the public by fall 2022.

“They've protested on behalf of workers rights, women's rights, Mexican American civil rights and human rights,” said Dean Hendrix, Dean of Libraries at UTSA. “And these are to be celebrated, these are to be studied and we are going to make sure that they get the prominence that they deserve.”

Preserving Fuerza Unida’s Legacy — The Closure Of San Antonio's Levi's Plant Sparked A Movement
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Petra Mata and Viola Cásares banded together with hundreds of other former displaced Levi Strauss workers to form Fuerza Unida, an organization that advocated for severance pay and labor rights. | Courtesy of UTSA Libraries Special Collections, Fuerza Unida Collection

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Norma Martinez can be reached at norma@tpr.org and on Twitter at @NormDog1
Lauren Terrazas can be reached at lauren@tpr.org and on Twitter at @terrazas_lauren