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 in Humboldt Park 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.
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 after day the holiday 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.
“All workers have the same rights on the job, whether they’re immigrants or native-born, documented or undocumented,” said Jorge Mujica. “Other immigrant workers can stand up for themselves just like these workers did.”
Workers approached the interfaith workers’ rights organization Arise Chicago, who assisted in organizing co-workers to know their rights on the job. Selecting Chicago & Midwest Regional Joint Board, Workers United/SEIU 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, special projects coordinator 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 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, which will help protect vulnerable workers like immigrants and refugees who are frequently the victims of wage theft.
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 dying a slow death. The Stitches victory shows this does not have to be the case.
“Organized labor must look to its immigrant roots in order to see the path for revitalization in the future. Immigrant workers have been remaking not just the way unions look, but the way that unions form,” said Mujica.
Arise Chicago builds partnerships between faith communities and workers to fight workplace injustice through education and organizing and advocating for public policy changes. Its Worker Center is a community resource for workers, both immigrant and native-born, to learn about their rights and join fellow workers to improve workplace conditions