The fourth installment in our ‘How I was radicalized’ series comes from Romina Akemi. She describes working at a garment factory in the American South, where she was mentored by an older co-worker. Romina recently moved back to Chile from Los Angeles, where she was a member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and the Black Rose Anarchist Federation.
Clarissa, Who Explained It All
By Romina Akemi
At times, I feel as though my stint as an industrial factory worker took place many years ago, and yet, I am only 37. Through the majority of my 20s, I labored in the garment industry, which is also where I learned the arbitrariness of what is defined as “skilled” labor. As a member of the IWW, I have often heard people crack jokes about the communists or trotskyists that did “the turn” into industry. As a red diaper baby of a certain age, I was a member of one of the last generations to participate in this political tactic. That decision was part of my natural political progression, since my imagination lay in Chile, where one of my uncles was a factory leader and participant in the “cordones industriales” prior to the 1973 coup d’etat. Soon after my 21st birthday, I moved to Birmingham, Alabama to begin my turn to industry. This is one story from that period of my life.
As a person of Chilean and Italian descent, I had always considered myself able to easily adjust to different cultures and histories. At least, that was the case before I moved to Birmingham. It was my first time experiencing “culture shock.” I realized that as a Californian, I had an accent that marked me as an outsider. Also, I observed (and reacted against) the undeniable presence of anti-black racism that I had either previously been oblivious to or had never seen enacted in such overt ways. My first sewing job was a small shop that produced custom made draperies, valances, tablecloths, and comforters for the elite families of the era. I had minimal sewing experience, mainly what my Chilean grandmother had taught me. My coworker, who also trained me, was a black woman in her 40’s named Clarissa. I remember the times when she would declare: “Romina, stop working. We are taking a break,” and we would go outside to smoke cigarettes. She also started to bring extra food for me, because she couldn’t stand the idea that I ate cold sandwiches for lunch. She found warm food absolutely necessary. She told everyone in the factory that I had never heard of, or tried, collard greens. She also explained to me the meaning of the word “yonder” and made me use it in sentences from time to time. Clarissa shared many stories, including her memories about her friends who were killed in the 1963 racist bombing of a Baptist church in Birmingham. She told me, “I remember being in church, down the street where those girls were killed. I felt the floor shake and a loud noise.”
One day we were smoking outside and she asked me how much I was being paid and I told her $7.25 an hour. She told me they were only paying her $6.45 an hour. I was horrified. I said that was racist bullshit, since she was training me and was extremely experienced. Clarissa was making custom curtains and valances (sometimes for 12 foot window frames) and I was essentially her assistant, learning the trade. I asked what she wanted me to do and she told me to hold off. We had to strike at the right moment. I thought: When?
A few months later, I was hired at a union sewing factory outside of Birmingham. My boyfriend worked nights at a cotton mill and my pay at the union job would have vastly improved our situation, at least enough to afford to cover the large hole on the driver’s seat of our car (that we almost lost to a tornado). I told Clarissa about my new job and that I was going to give our boss a two-week notice. She pulled me outside and said: “This is what we are going to do. You are going to hold off and not give notice until three days before. By then, I will have talked to everyone else. When you give your notice, I will tell [our boss] that I am quitting unless she gives me a $2.00 raise.” I immediately agreed and asked her if she thought this plan would work. She said she didn’t know, but it was worth the risk. When the moment came, my boss (a white, very Southern woman who was one of the owners) was horrified that I was leaving at such short notice. She offered to give me a $1.00 raise and I told her I would think about it, to complicate the situation. I told Clarissa about the potential raise and she immediately went into action. At first, the owner scolded Clarissa and told her that she couldn’t make those kinds of demands. Clarissa responded, “Fine, I am leaving!” and proceeded to gather her things while I stood there standing next to my machine, not knowing what to do. All our other coworkers stopped working, as well. Finally, our boss yelled, “Stop! Stop! Please, Clarissa. Let’s talk.” We all stood around waiting to see what would develop. When Clarissa returned, she had a big grin on her face. “They gave me a $3.00 raise!” We cheered and hugged. It didn’t occur to me until years later that this was my first job action. But it was an action that would not have been possible without the insight and leadership of Clarissa. At the time, I told her that when I had my first child (something that has yet to come to pass), I would name them after her. She laughed, but I was not joking.