Letters from the Boss--Cartas del Dueño 1960s Conditions

Primary Source

from Basta Ya! August 1970


Levi's Garment Workers

photo: Basta Ya!

Walter A. Haas, Jr., president of the Levi Strauss Company, has sent a personal letter, dated February 16, 1970, to each of the women who work in his "Levi's" pants factories in San Francisco (on Valencia Street) and in San Jose.

Although the letter is written very emotionally, the majority of the women have not been moved by the supposed 'concern' which has suddenly inspired Mr. Haas: the workers in the two factories, especially the one in San Francisco, know that hiding behind the mask of kindness is another of the dirty games already so familiar to them.

Although we already know the outcome, we believe that this letter deserves a careful analysis. In order to place it in its true perspective we will go into a little history.

We know that the Misters Haas won't like them hearing the private history of their factory; they make this clear by systematically removing the women who have worked longest in the factory. Cases have been reported where excellent operators who worked for the firm for 15 or more years were removed. They have been fired for the least excuse with the compliance of the union 'contract,' a contract which the women have never seen. On other occasions, workers with many years' employment have been removed through direct participation of the union officials, with the [well-worn] phrase "I'm sorry, sister, but the union can't do anything in this particular case; a contract is a contract."

The fact that the Haases are systematically getting rid of 'old' employees is not because they are unable to yield a sufficient profit, but because the 'gentlemen' wish to separate the history of the woman, who at first was unique, from that of what is today a world-wide chain and a prime example of how empires are built on the sweat and sacrifice of exploited women.

The Haas plan is to create a 'generation gap' in order to cut off communication between the women who know the shameful history of the factory and the 'new' workers. But they are mistaken. The history of their factory, along with that of Koret and others in the community (laundries, bakeries, etc.) is part of the history of the Latin community in the Mission District, just as Chinatown is for the Chinese or the Fillmore for the Blacks.

The Haases will go on ousting 'older women' but the history of their factory will remain written throughout time because we, the Latin youth, learned that history from our mothers and our grandmothers who witnessed and experienced the injustice and exploitation to which they were subjected, in this and other factories in the community.

The Misters Haas are trying to break the influence of the 'old' women over the 'new' ones. The "new" ones are influenced from the outside, from the police abuse of our brothers and sisters, as in the case of Los Siete; it comes when the Latin youth return maimed, or dead, or don't return at all, from Vietnam. It also comes when the 'new' workers leave exhausted from the factory, receiving in exchange, a pitifully few dollars.

Our children will learn the history through their young mothers, part of the 'new generation' that the Haases and their 'brains' plan to put in their model factory on Valencia Street, but these men must know that times have changed and that the youth of today is not about to let itself be deceived and is ready to fight for his rights, inside the factory of out. The heritage that our children receive from us will be different from what we received from our elders, and we'll make sure of that!!!!!

Mr. Haas begins this letter by saying to his workers:

"For some time, I have been very concerned about the wages (after all deductions) that our employees in our California plants take home."

In this paragraph the women see a parallel with the times in which the Haas Brothers owned only the Valencia Street factory (full of the spirit of 'brotherhood') they came with their wives and children to share the Christmas cake with their workers, personally going to each machine to shake hands. The women also remember the successive promises of improvements they were offered at that time, throughout the growth of the company, either by the company lackeys or by the union's lackeys -- promises that were never fulfilled!

They also remember, and still suffer from, the tremendous repressions and various methods of intimidation that were used and are used to maintain inhuman conditions. Since the opening of their factory, the Haas Brothers have imposed such conditions on the women who have amassed a fortune for the two of them and who have given world wide fame to 'Levi's' with their hard work and sacrifice.

As may be observed in this paragraph, the phrase 'after all deductions' also has a certain significance. It occurs to us that Mr. Haas hopes to imply that if his workers take home so little money, it is not because he pays starvation wages, but because the government takes (robs) a large part of the pay checks.

Fine, we have to agree in part regarding this, since the truth is that the government does take a good part of the earnings of these women, so that they can 'contribute' to pay the expenses of their own sons dying in Vietnam, or to pay the enormous salaries of the police who abuse and outrage the young people in our community. It follows from our definition that the women are robbed first by the Levi-Strauss company and then by the government. This is why they take home so few dollars.

Mr. Haas continues, saying in his letter to the workers that he requested those in charge of his factories "to explore various ideas by which we could raise your wages and at the same time continue competing in our market."

That Mr. Haas requested new ideas from the managers of his factories is nothing new, since in one way or another these men have done nothing (assuming the ideas are theirs) but repeat the same old tactic of forcing the women into maximum production for minimum wage.

Here we should return to the history of this factory, which is also the history of Koret and other sewing plants in which the labor force is made up of minority group women (Latin, Black and Oriental). We must admit that the Haas Brothers were and are the leaders in applying 'new tactics' in how to exploit their workers more.

Years ago, when the San Francisco Factory was the first and only Levi-Strauss in the country, the workforce was composed almost entirely of Latin American and Italian women. This was in the days when the Haas Brothers personally greeted their employees and shared New Year's Eve with them.

The tactic then was to maintain division among the women, creating some operations in which 10% of the women could earn so-called 'higher wages' in Levi-Strauss. Of course, at that time the Haas Brothers were competing with other factories in the community in the employment of women.

From that 10% of 'higher wages,' a small middle-class was formed in the factory, this forced the rest of the workers to kill themselves trying to compete, constantly creating friction and maintaining the division among them.

Then, in late 1964, the situation became impossible when the company put in new machinery doubling production and cutting, at the same time, the pay. Before the installation of the new machinery, the average weekly wage was $75. Immediately after the 'automation,' the company introduced the famous 100% quota, fixing the basic rate at $1.48/hour plus 16 cents for achieving 100% or more of quota. Those who didn't make quota were paid $1.30/hr., which at that time was the minimum wage required by the state.

The workers protested and were answered by the company with the excuse that high costs in the installation of the new equipment and the 'need to stay in competition with the market' had brought the firm to this 'temporary' adjustment (1964).

The women decided not to let themselves be deceived by any more promises and began to mobilize themselves, taking the problem into their own hands, both within the factory and without. They organized meetings of protest against the union officials. They organized a march to City Hall. They nominated their own leaders and commissions within the same shop. The consequent panic of the union officials (and others) required the intervention of the perennial Secretary of the Labor Council, George Johns, who suggested that they bring in a wages specialist from the International Union to determine fair wages.

After enough time had passed to dampen enthusiasm, the answer arrived from the union specialist, Sam Hennington, who, as a result of his study, arrived at the conclusion that the company should raise wages: one cent!!

As will be seen, the new plan is nothing new, but more of the same. The results is that the company goes on growing at a fantastic rate while the pay has been shrinking at an alarming rate. The sudden 'magnanimous philanthropy' of Mr. Haas is nothing more than another attempt to increase production and thereby make more money, this time not by means of new machinery but at the cost of the health of women who even under the present circumstances leave each shift worn out by their work.

Around three months ago the company introduced a new practice -- the woman who produces 100% or more of quota would have her picture published in the 'Honor Roll' for all factory employees to see. Then, each week that she repeats 100% of quota, a star would be added next to her picture as an 'outstanding employee.'

This plan, which is obviously just another way to increase competition and create division among the workers, had it origins in the 'new plan' which Mr. Haas so 'generously' introduced a couple of weeks ago. Unfortunately some of the women fell for the 'trick' and put up a photo without understanding that they were being used by the company as an example against the rest of their sisters. What Mr. Haas hoped to do was prove that with a 'small effort' on the part of each employee, 100% production could be reached. This is practically impossible, however, unless the worker is a slave to her machine. 100% quota is based on the production of the fastest workers.

At the end of the first paragraph of his letter to his employees, Mr. Haas says, "and at the same time remain in competition within our market."

As is seen, Mr. Haas once again repeats (just as in '64) the phrase 'competition within our market.'

We believe that what Mr. Haas really means is complete control of the market and we will prove it with the following figures. (These are authentic figures released by the company and published in the S.F. Chronicle in the middle of last year.)

The article begins by saying, "A business secret finally comes to light. The owning family of Levi-Strauss, makers of the world-famous "Levi's" pants, finally revealed, for the first time, the sales, profits, and total value of the company, which is much more than can be imagined."

The figures given in that same story are as follows:

"Sales in 1968 reached $196 million (excluding sales of The Great Western Garment Company, Ltd., Alberta, Canada, and other subsidiaries). Net profits were $12 million. Total worth of the company which made its first pair of pants in its San Francisco plant is $56 million. The company is presently among the six largest manufacturers of clothing the country. It is, likewise, ranked among the 500 largest corporations in the United States; among the largest in the number of employees (12,000), and also it is among the 50 companies which made the largest profits as of last year. The company operates internationally with four plants in other countries, a few subsidiaries (associates) and sells its pants in 60 countries."

Another small article (also from the Chronicle, May 1969) says:

"Levi-Strauss and Co. announces its entry into the European Free Market through the purchase of a plant in Whitburn, Scotland. This plant (with an area of 45,000 sq. ft.) will begin production in August (1969) for Great Britain, Ireland, Scandinavia, Austria, Switzerland, and Portugal. The company, based in San Francisco, also owns factories in Belgium, Mexico City, and Hong Kong."

Mr. Haas says in his letter that we must 'remain in competition within our market,' as if to say to the women in the Valencia St. and San Jose factories that the future of the company is in their hands and that competition will be impossible if they don't make a greater effort at production.

Of course, Mr. Haas fails to mention in his letter that the company is presently one step away from world control of the pants' market, and that to achieve this end, the Haas Brothers will not stop at any means; fictitiously based quotas, pressure on the workers, use of divisive tactics among the workers, setting one race against another, buying union leaders, or any other means, 'new' or 'old' depending on the circumstances and situation in each factory. There is always the same end -- more exploitation upon which to build and extend the 'Levi's Empire.'

The next paragraph will be divided into two parts. In the first part he says: "After the managers" -- according to Haas -- "exchanged impressions and discussed various ideas, they arrived at the attached plan which will raise the wages of all our employees."

We must emphasize that this is another of the plans which have the same end result: more work for less pay.

How will the company classify the four work grades announced in the letter?

The company will do it at their convenience since they are not specific. They can determine rate changes for any operation in which the women earn anything extra. In the past the company lowered pay rates and changed operations at will and when the workers complained, the same union officials came to convince them that there was nothing they could do and that they should accept the company decision.

If this contract were planned to benefit the workers, it would be done through the union and by a contract clearly specifying each operation and pay rate in such a way that the women would be sure of their rights.

Here we put in the second part of this paragraph:

"In addition, you will begin to receive the raise proposed by your union two weeks ahead of time."

This is perhaps the only case in which unionized workers have been offered improvements without the union informing its members of the offer. This silence on the part of the union is more than noteworthy because it is unheard of for this kind of labor 'leader' to miss an opportunity to gain the recognition of the union members. In this silence lies the complicity of the union leaders; they know that had they intervened, the plan would have had to be signed and made specific (as we indicated above). By leaving all the responsibility for making the contract specific to the workers today, tomorrow they may wash their hands of responsibility (like Pontius Pilate).

In the last paragraph of Mr. Haas' letter to his employees, he says: "The management in each plant will explain the new plan to you in small groups, and we hope that you will feel free to ask any questions, etc."

Once again it may be seen how the company separates the women, calling small groups so that they can discourage exchanges of opinion or discussion in detail of the proposed plan and at the same time be able to identify the worker who asks for specific details which put the honesty of the plan in doubt.

The main reason for not explaining the plan in a general meeting is that it would provoke a general discussion which would finally uncover the plans of the Haases and at the same time expose the complicity of the union officials in this new swindle of the workers at Levi-Strauss.

--Basta Ya!

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