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“For all of us, this struggle is about respect and dignity,” says Josefina Bonilla, a 27-year employee. “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 them and insult them, the workers say, telling them that they are worthless and threatening to fire them. Supervisors reportedly follow employees to the restroom and wait outside to time them. And many workers say that 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 that they use in the flour, and many more have been burned by the sulfuric acid that 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. One of these involved a 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 that he remained stuck for ten minutes until someone could get him out.

The Occupational Safety and Heal th 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 that he cannot use his arm. Azteca is paying temp workers minimum wage, with no benefits, to replace striking union employees.

Yet the company is not broke. Azteca takes in annual revenues up to $33 million, less than ten percent of which is devoted to labor costs, according to company documents. The owner, Art Velasquez, has also reportedly been bragging that he has purchased a $4 million house. Velasquez declined to be interviewed for this story.

And a Company Union, Too

The 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 that 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 the Windy City alone.

But, in April 2002, Azteca workers stood up to Velasquez and the Duffs, 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. But when Azteca finally 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 five 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 of seniority and re-starting them at the lowest pay rate. Now Azteca wants to fire these employees.

In July, the workers set up an informational picket outside the plant during a shift change, between 2:30 and 4 p.m. Azteca management responded by blockading the road into the plant, stopping all workers on their way in to work, 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 the company 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 (ULPs) 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 ULPs.

Taking It to the Streets

On September 30, seventy-five percent of the 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 is, says Fried, that there are a lot of non-union drivers.

But, since September, Azteca workers have been finding support all over. Strikers have called for a national boycott of Azteca products, including tortillas, tortilla chips, and tortilla shells, which appears to be having an impact. 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 that their efforts have “crippled production” at the plant, which is reportedly down to fifteen 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. And sales, she says, have also been hurt.

The strikers have also been shadowing owner Art Velasquez at the many high-profile charity functions that he regularly attends as a trustee at Notre Dame, a major contributor to the Mexican Fine Arts Museum and elsewhere. They say that they want to expose him for who he really is to people who believe he has a heart of gold.

Both sides in the conflict recently met with a federal mediator, but management is reportedly dragging its feet even in that forum. Meanwhile, community support for the strikers has been overwhelming, ranging from the “usual suspects,” such as 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 have conducted mass on the picket line. All of the workers are Catholic, as is the owner. And 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, and, says Fried, “it has become a metaphor for the workers’ struggle: seeking justice.”

To help, contact the owner, Art Velasquez, at 1 (800) 475-7997, or make a much-needed financial contribution by visiting the union’s website,www.ranknfile-org/1159azteca_home.htm or by mailing a check to: UE Local 1159, 37 South Ashland, Chicago, Ill. 60607. Those who want to become more involved may also call the union at (312) 829-8300, or visit the website, for leaflets to hand out at grocery stores. By Ricky Baldwin Alt Press National Labor Editor

The workers at Azteca Foods in Chicago, the majority of whom are Latina, had endured years of abuse, one third of them for more than 20 years, by the time that they decided to fight back. W hen 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.