After spontaneous strike to protest wage issues, textile workers’ partnership with community organization and union leads to victory
As national union rates hit all-time low, victory shows promise of community partnerships, immigrant organizing for reversing labor’s decline
The mostly Latino immigrant packers and machine operators of Artistic Stitches, Inc., an embroidery company with contracts with some of Chicago’s largest businesses like Chase Bank, declared victory Thursday after a job walkout in protest of wage issues and an innovative community organization/union partnership led to a successful union drive.
At a time when American union rates have reached their lowest in nearly a century, the campaign shows the potential for the labor movement’s revitalization with innovative new organizing strategies.
“Union membership is at an all-time low, but it doesn’t have to be that way,” said Jorge Mujica, organizer for Arise Chicago.
Concerns about job security and possible violations of Illinois minimum wage law led the workforce to walk off the job the day after Thanksgiving. Workers were laid off near the end of every year, then rehired as apprentices, at apprenticeship wages–despite the fact that many had worked at the factory for years. They did not receive any holiday pay despite working through major holidays like Thanksgiving, which proved to be the last straw for workers who walked off the job the day after Thanksgiving this year.
“We decided to walk off the job because management said they weren’t going to pay us holiday pay for working on Thanksgiving,” said Juana Cortez, a worker at the factory.
The mostly immigrant work force stood together to demand they be treated with dignity and respect on the job.
“Now, we can defend ourselves from the mistreatment, have paid vacations and holidays. Now, there can be equality,” said Juana Cortez.
Workers approached the interfaith workers’ rights organization Arise Chicago, who assisted in organizing co-workers to know their rights on the job. Selecting Workers United as their union with which to affiliate, the workers petitioned the National Labor Relations Board for an election. Last week, the workers won by a decisive majority and now have union representation.
“The relationship between the workers center and our union has been perfect,” said Margarita Klein, staff director of Workers United. “And this is only the beginning.”
Cortez had the following message for other workers in a situation like hers: “If something unjust is happening to you at work, there are organizations like Arise and Workers United that can help protect you.”
The campaign’s success shows the potential for labor’s revitalization at a time when it is in deep distress. Recently released figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicate that union membership is at its lowest percentage in nearly a century, leading many commentators to declare that labor is continuing to die a slow, agonizing death. The Stitches workers’ victory demonstrates this is not the case.
“If you are only thinking of traditional campaigns and old forms of worker organization, you may be disappointed. But when you adopt a broader view, like our point of view on the ground, you see signs of hope and progress. Workers organizing in nontraditional sectors, who are self-organizing, who are striking first–successful campaigns like these show that there are actually very promising signs of life to be found in the movement. Labor can turn the corner with nontraditional organizing strategies like the ones these workers used,” said Adam Kader, Arise Chicago Worker Center program director.
“It isn’t that workers don’t want representation,” said Kader. “Workers are clearly hungry for a voice on the job. Dozens of low-wage sector workers contact Arise Chicago’s Worker Center office daily, detailing incredible amounts of abuse. But many times, these workers don’t have access to unions. Workers, like those at Stitches did, reach out to different organizations–often churches–for help, who are connected to Arise Chicago. When community groups like Arise work together with unions like Workers United, we can help bridge that gap so workers’ rights can be respected on the job.”
In addition, promising gains have been made for labor nationally in states like California, where, over the last year, union membership has actually increased by 110,000 members, largely because unions have taken the organizing of immigrant workers seriously.
For a full revitalization of the labor movement, new member organizing must be paired with political activity and advocacy for stronger public policies to protect workers. The Stitches workers’ win comes on the heels of a major victory for workers in Chicago’s city council: the passage of anti-wage theft legislation that makes it possible for the city of Chicago to revoke business licenses of businesses found guilty of wage theft. Arise worked with Ald. Ameya Pawar (47th ward), the bill’s sponsor, to draft the bill.