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
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
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
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.”
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
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,
Baldwin is a writer, activist, and organizer focusing on labor,
race, and U.S. foreign policy. His articles have appeared in
Magazine, Labor Notes, Extra
! and elsewhere.