San Antonio’s Fuerza Unida educates and empowers garment workers in Austin

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Photo Credit: Courtesy of Leandra Blei | Daily Texan Staff

This past weekend, Fuerza Unida, a San Antonio-based nonprofit, celebrated their upcoming 30 years of social activism and community involvement at the Women and Fair Trade Festival in Austin.

It all started when Viola Casares and Juanita Reyna arrived for work at the Levi Strauss & Co. plant in January 1990, just as they had every day for over a decade. 

The women, along with 1,150 garment workers, were mostly Mexican-American. When they gathered to hear a message from their managers, it was something no employee expected to hear: The plant was shutting down, and they would not receive retirement benefits.

Reyna said management justified closing the plant to stay competitive with other large corporations, and then outsourced the women’s jobs to Costa Rica. Their families were suddenly short of much-needed paychecks.

“That struggle … it was shock, and it was anger,” Reyna said. “We just wanted to protect ourselves and our families and to work for a just settlement with Levi.” 

With little education or authority, the women fought back. They used what founder and co-director Casares calls their “struggle” to form Fuerza Unida, Spanish for United Force.

Fuerza Unida works to unite and educate garment workers and their families about social, economic and environmental justice. The organization operates as a sewing cooperative in San Antonio, Mexico and other Latin American regions. 

Casares said Fuerza Unida has about 70 members of all ages and genders. Most are older residents of San Antonio, and some are former Levi Strauss workers. 

To spread the word about Fuerza Unida’s mission, Casares brought handmade Mexican textiles to the 16th annual Women and Fair Trade Festival  at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Austin, where they have participated in the event since 2003. 

Casares and the members of Fuerza Unida fight to keep their doors open every day to educate the public on how big corporations manipulate garment workers and how shopping fair trade can support vulnerable communities such as theirs. 

Casares works closely with Austin Tan Cerca de la Frontera, or “Austin So Close to the Border,” who advocates for labor and human rights by sponsoring events such as the Women and Fair Trade festival.

“The purpose of the (festival) is not only to sell but to let people know what fair trade is, which is the direct sales from producers to consumers,” Josefina Castillo, executive director and co-founder of Austin Tan Cerca de la Frontera, said. 

Casares said Fuerza Unida also filed a lawsuit against Levi Strauss, which resulted in no compensation but brought attention to their issues and strengthened their community’s resolve. 

“Rather than getting knocked down and crying, we learned a lot and gave back,” Casares said. “They said we were one big family. But when they took away our jobs to make more money, they said we were a bunch of illiterate women, and we didn’t know any better.”

Casares said the group organized and empowered themselves to provide training and education for the ex-Levi workers. Through hunger strikes, boycotts and other protests, Fuerza Unida eventually got severance pay for the workers from the other two San Antonio Levis plants that shut down in 2003.

“The struggle of Fuerza Unida has shown me a lot,” Casares said. “It is a struggle trying to educate our women, but it has shown me how to be a better mother, a better grandmother, a better person.”