SEVERAL hundred laid off Levi Strauss workers will start a hunger strike today to demand greater compensation for losing their jobs due to a plant closure.
In 1990 Levi Strauss & Co. shut its San Antonio plant employing more than 1,100 workers and shifted jeans production to Costa Rica. The planned five-day hunger strike in San Antonio and San Francisco by an estimated 200 workers highlights growing efforts to slow the export of garment jobs overseas.
"We lost our good-paying jobs in Texas, and they are only paying those women in Costa Rica a few dollars a day," says Irene Reyna, a leader of the former Levi's workers.
David Samson, spokesman for Levi Strauss, says the company gave the laid-off workers wages and benefits well beyond what was legally required. He adds that Levi's continues to employ 23,000 workers inside the United States at a time when other garment manufacturers have moved all production overseas.
Richard Rothstein, a researcher with the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, says the US garment industry has lost more than 300,000 jobs since 1978, in part due to companies moving production overseas. This occurs mostly because of lower wages, he says. The garment contractor in Costa Rica making Levi's jeans pays its workers $1.08 an hour.
The Levi's controversy began in January 1990 when the company closed the San Antonio plant, which annually produced $70 million worth of Dockers and Officers Corp jeans.
Although not in a trade union, the production workers in that plant - mainly Latino women - earned good wages for the region, says Ms. Reyna. "I was making $9.10 an hour as a sewing machine operator."
THE shutdown badly hurt the workers and the local economy, says Reyna. The workers formed Fuerza Unida (United Force), and several hundred laid-off workers began coming to weekly meetings. Through rallies, picket lines, and demonstrations they eventually got Levi's and the state to pay for job retraining and education, she says.
Workers sued Levi's, claiming racial discrimination, and asked for compensation for on-the-job injuries. She says less than 10 percent of injured workers reported their problems while still employed at Levi's, fearing retaliation by management.
Levi's spokesman Samson denies all of Fuerza Unida's charges and says that the former employees lost their case in state court. The case is being appealed.
Samson says Levi Strauss went well beyond legal requirements to help its workers. The company gave 90 days notice, when only 60 days was required, extended medical benefits for three months, and gave some other support, such as job retraining.
Samson says that Levi's continues US production when global competition has led many manufacturers to move operations to the Far East and Latin America in search of low-paid labor.
"You can't only look at labor costs," however, says Samson. American workers often produce better-quality garments more quickly, he says. But he acknowledges that some Levi's garments are now completely manufactured overseas: "We can't make shirts in the US because all our competitors have gone offshore."
Analyst Rothstein says Levi Strauss faces a problem common to the industry. "Shirts are lightweight and easy to ship back to the US from abroad," he says. "Levi's isn't any better or worse than the rest of the industry" in moving jobs overseas.
He says the US government should develop a national policy to prevent the export of garment jobs. The US should insist that third-world countries exporting garments to America reduce their competitive advantage by increasing their minimum wages, improving work conditions, and allowing unions to freely operate. That would "discourage US firms from relocating."
The former Levi's workers in San Antonio say Levi's had profits of $357 million in 1991 on nearly $5 billion in sales. Closing their plant, they say, was not an economic necessity.