STRIKES: A Bishop v. Farah

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Last May, one-fourth of the 9,500 employees of Farah Manufacturing Co., one of the nation's largest makers of men's pants, walked off the job in El Paso, Texas. The company refused to recognize the strikers' demand to be represented by a union (the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America), much less bargain with them for higher wages. Strike leaders called a national boycott of Farah goods and, since 95% of the company's work force is Mexican-American, the company was soon squirming under the heat of a popular Chicano cause rivaling the California grape and lettuce workers' strikes.

Senators Edward Kennedy and Gaylord Nelson condemned the company. AFL-CIO President George Meany and Senator George McGovern, New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller and Mayor John Lindsay joined in endorsing the boycott. Chicano Leader Cesar Chavez rolled into town in a bus carrying large signs proclaiming support.

The bishop of El Paso, the Most Rev. Sidney M. Metzger, sent a letter to all U.S. Catholic bishops, lambasting Farah for unfair labor practices and asking his fellow clergymen to bring pressure on retailers not to reorder from the company. "I feel that the company is acting unjustly in denying to the workers the basic right to collective bargaining," the bishop declared.

At the center of the controversy is the company president, Willie Farah. The son of a Lebanese dry-goods merchant, he had turned his father's business into a huge success. In 1971, the company ran up a profit of $6,000,000 on sales of $164 million. An imaginative businessman, the 53-year-old Farah nevertheless holds decidedly 19th century views about organized labor. He was so offended by the strike that he seemed ready to risk the business in opposing it. Accustomed to making the rounds of his well-lighted, air-conditioned plant on a bicycle, he could see perfectly well that his workers were happy and did not need a union. Did he not pay them well? Farah starts his workers at $1.70 an hour, 10¢ above the federal minimum wage. And what about his fringe benefits? Free bus service from downtown El Paso, a free medical clinic and a turkey for every employee at Christmas.

Such paternalism, the strikers commonly complain, insults their "digni-dad." To get a raise, the workers must fulfill unbearably demanding production quotas, such as sewing six belts per minute onto finished slacks when most say that it is possible to do only five. Bishop Metzger estimates that employees take home an average $69 per week, while unionized workers at the Levi-Strauss and Tex-Togs plants in El Paso net $102. That, says the bishop, "sounds more like a living wage."

Unraveled. Unmoved, Farah had called the bishop a member of the "rotten old bourgeoisie" and a man who is "lolling in wealth." Farah seems to be thoroughly unimpressed by the fact that his company lost $8,000,000 last year, largely because of the strike, and that the price of its stock has plummeted to $10 per share, down from $30 before the walkout.

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