Los Angeles Herald Examiner September 2, 1988

From – Los Angeles Herald Examiner  September 2, 1988

Title – “A Democratic patron who hates trade unions”

It is often said that behind every successful politician there are high-rollers. But what happens when the interests of the patrons-behind-the-throne clash with those of a community? A labor dispute currently being played out on the East Side may provide an answer.

Local 512 of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union is seeking to renegotiate a contract, signed two years ago, with Angel Echevarria, better known as the “King of the Somma Mattress.” In response, Echevarria according to union sources, is working hard to discredit the ILGWU. A member of the National Right to Work Committee, the mattress king makes no secret of his antipathy toward labor.

Echevarria has many friends in the Democratic Party. He has contributed tens of thousands of dollars to Mayor Tom Bradley’s various campaigns and thousands to Councilman Richard Alatorre’s. Other Latino politicos as well work hard to be on the receiving end of his “generosity.”

Three years ago, the mayor appointed Echevarria to the powerful Water and Power Commission, no doubt in appreciation for his contributions to the Bradley cause. Also important in his selection is the fact he’s a presumed Latino leader.

In 1984, the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce voted Echevarria the Hispanic Businessman of the Year, for good reason. He opened his mattress factory in the late ‘70s with a $25,000 investment. At that time, the waterbed industry suffered a 25 percent return rate because of water leakage. Echevarria developed a highly successful hybrid of the conventional mattress and waterbed.

By the mid-1980s, Somma manufactured 500 mattresses a day. It has 22 warehouses across the country. The company owns and occupies a 16 ½-acre administrative and manufacturing site at Indiana and Union Pacific in East Los Angeles. Its real-estate value is estimated to be $9 million.

Somma employs 200 workers, mostly Mexican and Central American. Echevarria has a reputation for working them hard and paying them little, despite the fact that the company grossed $47.65 million in 1987, according to Hispanic Business magazine. It ranks 33rd among Latino businesses nationally.

On Jan. 11, 1985, Somma workers overwhelmingly voted the ILGWU as their bargaining agent. Still, Echevarria refused to negotiate. He appealed the union vote on grounds that even the regional director of the Nation Labor Relations Boards said lacked merit. All told, Echevarria spent tens of thousands of dollars in attorney fees to delay collective bargaining. Meanwhile, he fired at least 36 union sympathizers.

Workers called for a national boycott of Somma Mattresses. The ILGWU made the firing a community issue in East Los Angeles. It pressured Bradley to make a statement, but the mayor refused comment until the NLRB ruled on the legality of the dismissals. The union exposed the fact that Alatorre, then running for the City Council, had received a $5,000 campaign contribution from Echevarria. Alatorre fresh with an endorsement from L.A. County Federation of Labor, said he knew nothing about the labor dispute.

In the end, to the politicians’ relief, Echevarria signed a contract with the ILGWU, in part because the national boycott proved a success. Union officials readily admit that the contract isn’t a strong one, but claim it’s the best they could get under the circumstances. Echevarria had the money to starve the workers out, and the burgeoning reserve labor pool of unskilled workers helped him weather the crisis.

Echevarria is up to his old tactics in stonewalling the ILGWU’s request to renegotiate the contract. He reportedly has urged a loyalist to circulate a petition among factory workers that would strip the union of its dues-collecting authority. Until the petition is voted on Oct. 6, he has said he won’t talk. Over the past two years, many ILGWU sympathizers have been laid off, while the remaining workers have been discouraged from participating in union activities, according to the union.

If Somma workers are forced to strike Echevarria in 1988, it should be embarrassing to many of our Latino politicos as well as to the mayor. None of them can claim ignorance about Echevarria’s attitude toward trade unions or his refusal to give his workers and their families a decent future.

The right of Latinos to organize unions is fundamental. Without labor unions, they are powerless. It is only logical to expect Latino elected officials representing heavily Latino districts, to support the ILGWU quest for a better contract.