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Archive for the ‘Workers centers’ Category

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.

Jorge Mujica, Arise Chicago and Richard Monje, Workers United

Jorge Mujica, Arise Chicago and Richard Monje, Workers United

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.

The rise of alternative organizing strategies nationally shows that many workers want to organize.

“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.

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By: Shelly Ruzicka

On Saturday, June 2nd, Noemi Hernández led a group of over 30 community supporters to confront her former employer at Gislex Bridal, located in the Little Village Discount Mall.  Noemi is a member of the Arise Chicago Worker Center who first came to the center with concerns about working conditions at the bridal shop.  After talking with Worker Center organizers, they discovered she was owed over $9,700 in wages from her 10 months working at Gislex.  Because the store’s owner pays its workers $55-60 per day for a ten hour shift, 5 days a week, Noemi was earning about $6 per hour, far below the Illinois $8.25 minimum wage, and no overtime.  After Noemi presented a letter from Arise expressing concern about the wages and working conditions at Gislex, the employer fired her.  The owner, Maribel Flores, has refused to meet and has not returned phone calls from Arise, prompting Noemi and the Worker Center to hold a more creative action to get the employer’s attention.

Leading a mock bridal party decked out in veils, dresses, ties, corsages, buttoners, and flower bouquets, Noemi carried a hand-made sign that asked customers not to support a business that abuses its workers. One supporter carried an over-sized price tag for the $9,700 owed to Noemi.  Another had a giant receipt for Gislex with line items for the unpaid minimum wage, overtime, and last week of wages.

         

The group entered the Discount Mall to present a letter, the price tag, and receipt to the shop owner.  A Gislex worker told the crowd that the owner knew they were there and was leaving.  This marked the second time owner Maribel Flores had run away from Noemi and Arise when they tried to meet with her.  The group then paraded through the Discount Mall handing out flyers to curious customers and chanting, “Queremos justicia en La Villita!” or “we want justice in Little Village!”  Then Noemi and the  “bridal party” led a picket outside chanting “Follow your vow, pay Noemi now!” and “What do we want? The minimum wage!  When do we want it? Now!” all the while also engaging mall customers.

When the group processed back across the street to where they started, Arise organizers and Noemi debriefed with supporters.  Noemi said that while she first felt nervous approaching her former workplace, the large group of supporters energized her.  One of her friends who attended the action was extremely passionate, saying, “It’s so important we did this to show all the other workers, especially Latinos, that they can stand up.  It’s wrong that this is happening, but even worse that it’s in our own Latino community, right on 26th Street.”

While the owner was not present to accept the demand letter or to speak with her former worker, Noemi said she felt good about the action.   When asked if they thought the owner still heard the group’s message demanding justice, everyone unanimously replied with a resounding “yes!”  Each person also expressed commitment to support Noemi at additional actions if needed.

To stay up to date on Noemi’s campaign for justice at Gislex, subscribe to Dignity at Work and to Arise Chicago’s e-news/action alert list at www.arisechicago.org.

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-Shelly is the Director of Operations at Arise Chicago

-Photos by Shelly Ruzicka.  More photos on Arise Chicago’s Facebook album.

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This article was originally posted on Truthout.

Image by JR of Truthout.org.

By Amy Dean

The last five years have been grim and isolating ones for immigrants and working people, right? Overall, this may be the case, but if you talk with organizers at Fuerza Laboral, an independent workers’ center in Rhode Island founded in 2006, you might get a different impression.

Despite difficult times, the group has taken on some bold and determined organizing. And they have some important victories to show for their efforts.

“Fuerza’s roots are really and truly the essence of what the labor movement is: workers organizing themselves and getting together with their communities to identify some real injustices that are systemic throughout the country,” says Josie Shagwert, the group’s executive director. “They got together to say, ‘How can we put a stop to this? Because the system is failing us.'”

Not long ago, workers’ centers were seen as service providers, staff-driven organizations where individuals could go to have caseworkers help with their problems. That has changed over the past decade, and the Rhode Island group is part of the transformation. “Fuerza Laboral builds worker power,” the organization’s web site explains. “[We] organize to end exploitation in the workplace. We train workers in their rights, develop new community leaders, and take direct action against injustice to achieve real victories.”

This work sounds a lot like what unions do. And, yet, Fuerza Laboral is not formally affiliated with the labor movement. Instead, it is an affiliate of National People’s Action (NPA), and shares with other NPA members an organizing model rooted in communities. Fuerza Laboral’s campaigns show two things: why organizing among workers remains essential, and how the labor movement still has work to do in bridging the gap between its traditional practices and new groups doing cutting-edge organizing, especially among immigrants and low-wage workers.

What Good Are Laws Without the Power to Enforce Them?

When Fuerza Laboral first started organizing, it focused on the abuses of temp agencies in Rhode Island, “employers who were underpaying, not paying, taking illegal deductions,” Shagwert says. Having first coalesced around this industry, the group soon moved to take on other businesses with unjust labor practices – notably a local manufacturer called Colibri. On a cold morning in January 2009, some 280 workers showed up for work at the Colibri jewelry factory, a nonunion shop in East Providence. They found a handwritten sign taped to the factory door reading, “Plant Is Closed. Go Home.”

“Shock turned to anger pretty quickly,” says Shagwert, “with people asking, What kind of treatment is this? People had worked there for 5, 15, 20 years.” One of the workers called a local Spanish-speaking radio station and complained on the air about the closing. The radio host suggested that he get in touch with Fuerza Laboral.

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“For the first meeting they had 12 people,” Shagwert says. “By the time they got together for a second meeting there were 60 people in the living room of one of the workers, crowded in to talk about what to do and what an organizing campaign would look like.”

The group discovered that Colibri’s closing violated the federal Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act (WARN), which mandates that any business with 100 or more employees must give 60-days notice before closing. (The WARN Act was in the news during the December 2008 occupation of the Republic Windows factory by the Chicago company’s laid-off workers, which Kari Lydersen chronicles in her book “Revolt on Goose Island.”) The law affords an important protection for employees. Unfortunately, there is no federal agency to enforce it. The Colibri workers decided that they would take it upon themselves to make the company obey the law.

“The vast majority of those workers had never organized before,” Shagwert says. Yet, in the course of the campaign, they pulled together a 250-person rally at the Colibri site and also began engaging in direct action. “The workers practiced civil disobedience at the auctions [of company assets],” says Shagwert, “which resulted in 13 people getting arrested.”

During the action, one observer told the local NBC affiliate, “I’d like to see them get justice … This is another AIG deal. The rich get richer, and the workers get the shaft.”

The activists subsequently brought 100 people to the headquarters of the private equity firm in New York that had purchased the company, and workers held a sit-in in the firm’s lobby. “As a result of all those actions,” Shagwert explains, “a prominent labor lawyer in Rhode Island, Marc Gursky, felt inspired by this grassroots surge of energy. He stepped forward and said, ‘I know that to enforce the WARN Act you are going to need a lawyer.'”

For two years, Fuerza Laboral pursued the case in court, and it ultimately reached a settlement. The precise terms of the agreement have not yet been made public. Nevertheless, Shagwert notes, “I will say that the workers felt really happy that after two years they were vindicated.”

“Unity” and Unions

Fuerza Laboral’s efforts show why, even with only 7 percent of workers in the private sector of the American economy covered by traditional unions, there is no substitute for organizing among working people. Even with pro-employee laws on the books, there is little hope of justice without a grassroots demand. Prior to the labor laws enshrined in the New Deal, mutual aid among workers was the very essence of union life. With collective bargaining in decline, the revival of this type of action may be important for labor’s future as well.

Asked what Fuerza Laboral takes from the organizing model of National People’s Action, the national coalition of which it is a member, Shagwert says, “Networking and constantly building leadership. It’s a real belief that everyone who belongs to your organization, or wants to belong, has the potential to take leadership.”

In addition to developing leadership through their campaigns, Fuerza Laboral has also actively pursued a program of political education. “The essence of Fuerza Laboral is having the passion to develop leaders who will confront social injustice,” says Heiny Maldonado, a community organizer at the group. “We have a year-round calendar of trainings for our members and leaders.”

Shagwert adds: “Since 2006, we have put at least 3,000 workers through a really aggressive popular education model within which our members and leaders get trained to teach basic workers rights. We also hold democracy schools: a multi-week school that teaches about organizing, the history of the labor movement, and the history of immigration. Many of our leaders have come through those courses. They take a course, get fired up, and then we look for ways to plug them into the regular organizing we do. That feels like a huge victory.”

If there’s going to be a progressive revival in this country, having a broadly inclusive approach to worker education and developing community leadership will be just as important to traditional unions as they are to workers’ centers. Currently, the labor movement is engaged in efforts to reach out beyond its established membership in shops covered by collectively bargained contracts. From the AFL-CIO’s Working Americaprogram to Service Employees International Union’s (SEIU)Fight for a Fair Economy, labor organizations are seeking to expand their reach into working-class communities at large, recognizing that if they are perceived as a narrow special interest that benefits only a few workers, the movement will be destined to permanent decline.

Operations such as Fuerza Laboral represent another strain of organizing among workers that is taking place outside of traditional labor structures. A decade ago, the relationships between emerging workers’ centers in different parts of the country and traditional labor unions tended to be mistrustful – if not outright hostile, as Janice Fine discussed in her book “Worker Centers: Organizing Communities at the Edge of the Dream.” Few ties existed in most cities. Since then, both sides have made inroads into this challenge and have strengthened their relationships with one another. In the past five years, the AFL-CIO has formed partnerships with the National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON) and with Interfaith Worker Justice.

Yet, gaps in organizational cultures and strategies still remain. The relationships between traditional unions and workers’ centers are continually being redefined, and the interaction of the groups represents a vital ongoing conversation.

As for Fuerza Laboral, Shagwert says: “Our board president has started calling us Unity Union. Which is what we are doing: Representing people in terms of grievances, doing a lot of the things a union would do for its members. But we’re not a union. We don’t identify with workers based on where they are working, we identify with them based on the abuses they are experiencing.”

While she cites alliances with unions such as SEIU and labor groups like Jobs with Justice as crucial to Fuerza’s work, she views her organization differently: “It’s the way I compare working on human rights to working on the rights of one small minority,” she says. “It doesn’t feel right to throw our hat in the ring and fight for one particular group of people. We are fighting for all of us because we are fighting for the most vulnerable.”

She adds, “I want to find a way to say this that isn’t critical of unions. Without unions what would our country be? But I see Fuerza as able to be a little more flexible than a union can be because we don’t represent one particular group of workers.”

Fuerza Laboral at once embodies an impulse toward mutual aid that has deep roots in the history of workers’ struggles and represents a new breed of organization that is expanding in areas where traditional union structures have not been able to reach. For a labor movement that desperately needs to make clear its relevance for all Americans, the task of deepening partnerships with such community allies could not be more urgent.

 

Amy Dean is co-author, with David Reynolds, of “A New New Deal: How Regional Activism Will Reshape the American Labor Movement” and is president and founder of ABD Ventures. She worked for nearly two decades in the labor movement and now works to develop new and innovative organizing strategies for social change organizations. You can follow Amy on Twitter at @amybdean, or she can be reached via www.amybdean.com.

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