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Press the Press
Direct Action at Boeing
Boycott Azteca Tortillas
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Boycott Azteca Tortillas
T he mostly Latina workers at Azteca Foods in Chicago had endured years of abuse—one-third of them for more than 20 years—by the time they decided to fight back. When they walked off the job on September 30, their wages were at least two dollars an hour below the industry average, according to the U.S. Labor Department. Health benefits were substandard. Federal authorities had cited the tortilla plant for numerous health and safety violations, and most recently the National Labor Relations Board has issued an Unfair Labor Practice complaint against Azteca. But mostly, say the workers, they are on strike for respect.
“For all of us this struggle is about respect and dignity,” says Josefina Bonilla, a 27-year employee at Azteca. “We have given our lives to this company, our youth, our hard labor, and Azteca Foods has grown to be large and profitable. All we want is the respect we have earned.”
But that respect has not been forthcoming. Their all-male, mostly white supervisors routinely yell at and insult them, the workers say, telling them they are worthless and threatening to fire them. Supervisors reportedly follow employees to the restroom to time them. Many workers say their supervisors follow them to the lunch area, ordering them back to work as soon as they sit down to take their 20-minute unpaid lunch break.
Many of the workers have severe rashes, which they believe are caused by the bleach they use in the flour, and many more have been burned by the sulphuric acid they mix in the dough. Company doctors reportedly dismiss these complaints out of hand. The workers also report on-going problems in getting the proper protective equipment. There have been numerous injuries at the plant, including one replacement worker who slipped on a bag of tortillas during the strike and got his hand caught between two conveyor belts that dragged his arm in and mangled it. None of the replacement workers in the area were trained (as required by law) in stopping the belt, which also has no emergency stop button. The worker says he remained stuck for ten minutes until someone could get him out.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) investigated the incident, and striking workers expect OSHA to issue at least one citation to Azteca. The injured temp worker is currently hospitalized in Loyola Medical Center and says he cannot use his arm. Azteca is paying temp workers minimum wage, with no benefits, to replace striking union em- ployees.
Yet the company is not broke. Azteca takes in annual revenues up to $33 million, less than 10 percent of which is devoted to labor costs, according to company documents. The owner, Art Velazquez, has also reportedly been bragging that he has purchased a $4 million house. Velasquez declined to be interviewed for this article.
A Crooked Union, Too
T he workers clearly needed and wanted a union. Unfortunately they already had one. The 87 workers at Azteca Foods belonged to Distillery Workers Local 3, run by the Duff family. The Duffs also own Windy City Temps, currently under federal investigation for allegedly false registration as a minority/woman-owned business, which got the company affirmative action contracts worth millions with the city of Chicago. The Duffs also allegedly received kickbacks from the bank where they kept union funds. John Duff, Jr., spent 17 months in jail for embezzlement of union funds.
But that’s not the worst. “The president, the reps, everybody in the union were from the Duff family,” says Leah Fried, a field organizer with the United Electrical Workers (UE). “They represent some of the poorest workers in the city and they run a temp agency that basically supplies scabs to the same employers.” The Azteca workers now call the Duffs’ union a “company union” because it helps the employer more than the employees. Fried says there is a kind of mini-epidemic in Chicago of “mobster-wannabe” unions like Distillery Workers Local 3, victimizing an estimated 20,000 workers in Chicago alone.
But in April 2002, Azteca workers stood up to Velasquez and the Duffs, by voting three to one to form a union with UE Local 1159. “The workers were signaling that they wanted a change,” says Fried. “But the owner said he would rather die than give them any more than they had.”
The National Labor Relations Board supervised the vote and required bargaining to begin, which it did in May. According to the union, their bargaining team submitted proposals at that time demanding pay raises and improvements in health benefits. When Azteca responded, says Fried, the company proposed sweeping cuts in employee and union rights, as well as increases in health insurance costs that effectively lowered wages.
“Most employees are general laborers,” says Fried. “For them, the company proposed cost increases that work out to 37 cents an hour for health insurance and 5 cents an hour in pay raises, effectively a pay cut of 32 cents an hour.” Azteca also proposed severe limitations on seniority, which had previously determined bidding on job openings in the plant and overtime distribution, among other issues. But, most surprisingly, the company also balked at rights freely granted the previous union: the right to pass out leaflets in non-work areas on non-work time, which is protected by federal law, as well as the standard union security clauses and other rights. The new union has filed an Unfair Labor Practice (ULP) charge alleging that Azteca is not bargaining in “good faith,” as required by law.
Another company demand, which emphasizes the additional uncertainty faced by immigrant workers, is the authority to fire any workers at any time for any incorrect information on their job application. The issue is this, says Fried, “All but three of the workers are Mexican immigrants, and many of them were undocumented until the general amnesty. Then they became documented workers and they came to their supervisors with new social security numbers and, in some cases, new names.” Azteca’s response, says Fried, was to consider them new employees, stripping them of up to ten years seniority and re-starting them at the lowest pay rate. Now they want to fire them.
In July, the workers set up an informational picket outside the plant during a shift change, between 2:30 and 4:00 PM, Azteca management responded by blockading the road, stopping every worker, and threatening to fire all participants. Management also allegedly changed the security codes so that workers could only get in if a supervisor let them in, and they hired private security guards to videotape the picket.
“Of course all that is illegal,” says Fried. “So we marched to the gate and demanded that everybody be allowed back to work and we told the bosses they’d better call their lawyer.” They did and no one was fired. The labor board has issued a complaint against the company related to this incident. But by the end of September the Unfair Labor Practices (ULP’s) were piling up and the workers couldn’t take much more. What was the purpose of labor laws if the bosses could just keep violating them? So they took a vote and decided to strike over the ULP’s.
Taking It to the Streets
O n September 30, 75 percent of Azteca employees walked out. The company threatened to replace them all permanently, which is illegal in an Unfair Labor Practice strike. The union has filed another charge with the labor board. Since then, according to UE, not a single striker has crossed the picket line to return to work. Unionized truckers have also refused to cross to make deliveries or pickups. The problem, says Fried, is there are a lot of non-union drivers.
Strikers have called for a national boycott of Azteca products, including tortillas, tortilla chips, and tortilla shells. Workers and supporters have passed out leaflets at grocery stores in several cities where Azteca products are sold. The Hyde Park Co-op chain in Chicago has decided to stop carrying Azteca products since the strike began and the union claims their efforts have “crippled production” at the plant, which is reportedly down to 15 percent of its pre-strike rate. Azteca has been forced to subcontract its tortilla production to suppliers in Texas, Nebraska, and New York, says Fried. Sales, she believes, have also been hurt.
Community support for the strikers has been overwhelming from Jobs with Justice, Loyola Students Against Sweatshops, Seminarians for Worker Justice, and the Interfaith Committee on Worker Justice to local and state politicians.
Several parishes of the Catholic Church have provided food for the strikers and conducted mass on the picket line. All the workers are Catholic, as is the owner. At Christmas time, Church supporters even helped strikers hold a “posada” on the line. A “posada” is a procession that depicts the family of Jesus of Nazareth seeking shelter before his birth. Says Fried, “it has become a metaphor for the workers’ struggle, seeking justice.”
Ricky Baldwin is a writer, activist, and organizer focusing on labor, race, and U.S. foreign policy. His articles have appeared in Z Magazine, Labor Notes, Extra ! and elsewhere.
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AnnouncementsLABOR - May 1 is May Day. Workers of the world will celebrate the 124th anniversary of International Worker’s Day. Born out of a call for an 8-hour workday in the United States, this day is an opportunity for all workers to show their solidarity with one another, as well as to renew the call for labor rights.
FARM CONFERENCE - The Farm Conference on Community and Sustainability will be held May 24-26 in Summertown, TN, in partnership with the Fellowship of Intentional Communities. Tour green homes, see sustainable food production, learn about solar installations, alternative education, midwifery, and more.
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PALESTINE - The Conference of the Palestinian Shatat in North American will be held June 3-5 in Vancouver. The conference will examine the future of the Palestinian liberation movement.
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LABOR - The Pacific Northwest Labor History Association’s 45th annual conference will be held May 3-5, in Portland, OR. This year’s theme is Labor Under Attack: Learning from the Past and Preparing for the Future. A call for presentations, workshops and papers is currently underway.
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MARIJUANA - On the first Saturday of May marijuana legalization activists will hold informational and educational events, rallies and marches in over 300 cities around the world.
ECONOMICS - The Union For Radical Political Economics will hold its 39th annual conference May 9-11 in New York City.
RECLAIM THE DREAM - The 2013 Poor People’s Campaign & March from Baltimore to Washington D.C. will be May 11. Communities, schools and unions interested in participating are encouraged to contact the Baltimore People’s Assembly.
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MOTHER’S DAY - The 17th Annual Mother’s Day Walk For Peace will be May 12th, in Dorchester, MA. The walk began in 1996 for families who had lost children to violence. The day has become a way for thousands of people to financially support the work of the Louis Brown Peace Institute.
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ACTIVIST CAMP - Youth Empowered Action (YEA) Camp will have sessions in July and August in Ben Lomond, CA; Portland, OR; Charlton, MA. YEA Camp is designed for activists 12-17 years old who want to make a difference in the world.
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HAITI/WOMEN - Haiti’s government is considering a legal reform measure that would prohibit and punish all sexual assault, including marital rape. MADRE and the International Campaign to Stop Rape & Gender Violence in Conflict are launching a petition to raise international support for this push to address violence against women in Haiti.
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OCCUPY - An Occupy National Gathering will be held in Kalamazoo, MI, August 21-25.
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COMMUNITIES - The Communities Conference is a networking and learning opportunity for co-operative or communal lifestyles, with workshops, events and entertainment; scheduled for August 30-September 2 at the Twin Oaks Community in Louisa, Virginia.
LABOR DAY - The 29th annual Bread and Roses Festival, a celebration of the ethnic diversity and labor history of Lawrence, MA, will be held September 2, in honor of the 1912 Bread and Roses Strike. There will be music, dance, poetry, drama, ethnic food, historical demonstrations, walking & trolley tours.
Contact: PO Box 1137, Lawrence, MA 01842; 978-794-1655; http://www.breadandrosesheritage.org/.
OCCUPY WALL STREET - September 17 is the two-year anniversary of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Events are planned in New York City and worldwide.
TEACHERS - The 13th Annual Conference, “Teaching for Social Justice: The Politics of Pedagogy,” will be held October 12 in San Francisco, CA. The free event features workshops, resources, and free childcare.
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HAITI - International Action, which brings clean water and chlorinators to Haiti, seeks office space capable of housing up to six people and their office equipment.
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MEDIA - The Union for Democratic Communications and Project Censored are sponsoring a joint conference on media democracy, media activism and social justice to be held November 1-3 at the University of San Francisco. Proposals for presentations, workshops and panels from activists and critical scholars are invited.