Eva Savala (born 1937)
Eva Savala’s parents came to the United States separately, her father in 1909 and her mother in 1920, hoping for business opportunities al norte. But the work they found—Eva’s father at the local foundry, her mother in the fields—was not what they had expected. “When [my grandfather] went to get a haircut, they told him, we don’t give haircuts to dogs or Mexicans,” Eva remembered. “It just broke his heart.”
Her parents met and married in Moline, Illinois, in 1926. By the time Eva was born in 1937, her mother had buried four children. She lost another when Eva was three. “She had suffered,” said Eva. “To lose that many children in the way they were lost. I don’t think I realized it until after she passed away.” The Great Depression also took its toll; when Eva’s father lost his job at the Rock Island Railroad, the family was left without a steady income until he began working at John Deere in the early 1940s.
Before and during her first marriage, Eva worked at a grocery store, a doctor’s office, and a rubber plant. She found that few jobs existed for a young woman without much education or experience. After her divorce in 1960, she struggled to make ends meet. She remembered, “I knew what it was like to walk to work so that I would have enough money to buy a gallon of milk.”
In 1973, Eva began working at the McLaughlin Body Company, a plant that produced parts for Mack trucks. The job paid $3.25 an hour, compared to the $2.50 she could earn as a secretary. It was a much-needed income for Eva’s family, but the work itself was more difficult than anything she had done before. “I almost walked out the first night,” she remembered. “I would come home and be dirty from head to toe.” As one of only three female employees, she faced harassment from male coworkers:
They had these huge tanks. They were making truck parts for the big semis, the Mac truck. I’d have to hoist them and wash them because they were full of grease. They just came out of the press. It was a pretty nasty job and I was pretty discouraged. There were a few nasty sexual remarks made—a very, very sexual remark. A very filthy one. At first, to be honest, I barely knew what it meant. That’s how naïve I was…
I went to my union steward - and I knew nothing about unions at that time - and he laughed. I went to the president of the union and complained [about it] and he said, “Well, if you don’t like it, run against him.” So I did.
Though she was intimidated by the prospect of running for union steward, she “just went on” with the campaign regardless—and won.
As a steward, Eva spoke up for her coworkers and negotiated on their behalf. “They used to hire a lot of employees that were being paroled from the jail system,” she said. “Some of them couldn’t read or write, so I would take care of their communications. I would write their grievances. If they had problems with bill collectors, I would try to straighten it out.” For the other women in the plant, Eva was their mentor and impassioned advocate.
I can remember, I was very vocal, and that’s when more women were coming on board. I can remember one instance where this one girl was in the bathroom crying. I said, “What’s wrong?” She said, ‘Well, so and so grabbed my bra.” I said, “We’ll take care of that.” I went up to him and I told him I was gonna make a phone call to his wife. Those were the days you did what you had to do.
Eva also edited and published a union newsletter. Not only did the newsletter connect the plant’s workers, but it also provided a platform for Eva and her coworkers to speak out against poor working conditions and unfair supervisors.
Eva ran for chief steward in 1983, but lost the election, despite her prior experience and advocacy. “I was a woman,” she remembered later. “They weren’t ready.” Two years later, she began working for the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement (LCLAA).
In 1987, she became the international representative for Region 4 of the United Automobile Workers union—the first Hispanic woman to hold the position. As a representative for a nine-state region, Eva traveled across the country organizing unions, often to considerable pushback from local communities. “The KKK burned a cross in Jerome, Idaho,” Eva remembered of her time there. “At that time in Idaho, if there were four Hispanics on a corner, it was a mob.” But Eva refused to back down. “I said, I’m not quitting because my kids are not going to suffer like this.”
(Oral history interview with Eva Savala conducted by Janet Weaver for the Mujeres Latinas Project, September 27, 2005)