Tried and True

May 1, 2007

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José Oliva of the Interfaith Workers' Rights Center rallies union supporters in front of a grocery store in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood.

Before joining today's immigration march downtown, hundreds of labor activists will rally in a West Loop intersection once known as Haymarket Square. Haymarket is the infamous site of a deadly confrontation between police and striking workers back in 1886. Many of those workers were immigrants fighting for the eight-hour work day.

Today, some Chicago labor unions are trying to expand their ranks to include new immigrants. As part of our Chicago Matters: Beyond Borders series, Chip Mitchell has a two-part report on why organizing the new arrivals might take some old tactics.

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It's a coffee shop somewhere in Chicagoland.

But Moisés Zavala would rather we didn't reveal anything else about his location. That's because he's organizing for Local 881 of the UFCW, the United Food and Commercial Workers. The union represents most employees of the area's biggest grocery chains, Jewel and Dominick's.

Zavala (cell phone rings): “Oh, speaking of the devil. Qué pasó?”

Zavala doesn't want us to disclose the name of the guy who's checking in on the cell phone either. It's an assistant who got a job at a nonunion supermarket to help win over its employees. That's an organizing technique known as salting.

Local 881 wants to convince the employees to bargain collectively with the store owner -- to have the union negotiate a contract that improves pay, benefits and conditions.

Zavala: “Sí, por qué no te pasas por acá?”

Salting is one of many ways Local 881 has been trying to enter the city's booming ethnic grocery segment, where most workers are immigrants.

The union thought it had an opening three years ago at a supermarket in Pilsen, a Mexican neighborhood in Chicago.

Zavala: “I mean, talk about abuse! People weren't getting paid overtime. People never got all the hours they worked paid. There was physical abuse, verbal abuse. So the employees called us to unionize.”

The staff was almost entirely Mexican. The store's name, Casa del Pueblo, sounded Mexican too. But the owner was Italian-American.

Zavala and two other Spanish-speaking organizers went to work. The union began meeting with store employees. It held rallies out front.

Rally: “El pueblo unido jamás será vencido...”

And the union secured support from local churches and community groups.

But Casa del Pueblo owner Nicholas Lombardi started some organizing of his own. He told his employees he took better care of them than the union would.

Zavala, the UFCW organizer, says the battle wore out many workers.

Zavala: “As one union supporter would leave the store, the company would hire two relatives of supervisors. So when we saw that, we knew where this campaign was headed. And because it was the first campaign that Local 881 had in the Latino community, we weren't about to pull out. We were going to do what the employees were suggesting and stay to the very end.”

The union filed complaints with federal officials that compelled the store to pay tens of thousands of dollars in back wages.

But when it came time for Casa del Pueblo's staff to vote whether to unionize, the owner came out on top. The tally was 45-to-11 against the UFCW.

Zavala says the union did all it could to win. But there's at least one thing it didn't try.

Checkout Lane: “We have a union steward (scanner beep)...”

Eddie Rodríguez scans groceries at the Dominick's on Canal Street.

He's volunteered for Local 881 at this store for years, and says the union does a good job.

Still, he admits no one from the union contacted him to help out with the fight at Casa del Pueblo, just blocks away.

Rodriguez: “No, I can't recall anything about that struggle.”

We spoke with two dozen Local 881 members at the Dominick's and a couple Jewels nearby.

None had heard of the union efforts to organize workers at Casa del Pueblo. Some didn't even know their union existed.

Local 881 could have asked workers like Rodríguez to volunteer for phone banks, rallies, letter writing...

Bakken: “That's how you win fights.”

Jim Bakken is the union's former organizing coordinator.

Bakken: “If UFCW could work to engage their members and have an active, educated, mobilized membership, they could transform the industry in Chicago.”

Transformation may not be what the union's leaders have in mind.

Ron Powell has been president of Local 881 for 24 years. His salary is nearly a quarter of a million dollars. His son Steve, the Number 2 officer, makes almost as much.

Critics say one reason entrenched union leaders don't stir up rank-and-filers is because, once mobilized, these workers tend to challenge the leadership itself.

Oliva: “Where is that going to take the union? How is that going to change the demographics of the union?”

José Oliva co-founded the Interfaith Workers' Rights Center, a Chicago group that connects immigrants to unions.

Ovila: “And how does that then affect the leadership that's clearly an elected leadership? Those are all the questions, I think, that get played out, time and time again, in every single one of these campaigns, in all of the unions that are doing organizing in the immigrant community, where the leadership is not committed -- 100 percent committed -- to the immigrant community, that doesn't understand the immigrant community.”

Powell, the Local 881 president, disagrees. He insists he's worked hard to bring immigrants into the union.

Although he told us he never speaks on tape about union policies, he says he's held onto power for so long only because the union's members like his work and keep electing him.

The reason Local 881 doesn't put much into activating members, Powell says, is that too many are young, transient or elderly.

Thindwa: “There's an inherent contradiction in that assertion.”

James Thindwa directs the Chicago chapter of Jobs With Justice, a group that builds community support for organized labor.

He compares Powell's logic for leaving union members idle to a giant retailer's rationale for paying low wages.

Thindwa: “Wal-Mart likes to come into town and say, ‘Well, these are just school kids making pocket change to buy I-Pods or the senior citizens who are just making extra change.' That is not the case anymore. These jobs have become real lifesavers for these workers.”

Today's immigrants count on service-sector work to feed their families the way newcomers of the past depended on jobs in Chicago's steel mills and slaughterhouses.

Those immigrants formed unions, but companies learned how to break their strikes by bringing African Americans and Mexicans to the city as replaces .

Some workers realized they had to start organizing across racial lines.

Orear: “We came in with one slogan: ‘Black and white unite and fight.' And our logo was a handshake, one black hand and one white hand.”

Leslie Orear turns 96 this month. Back in the 1930s, he worked in Chicago's stockyards.

He helped build the United Packinghouse Workers of America, an ancestor of the UFCW.

Orear: “We packinghouse workers knew the power of the masses. Move the people. ‘It's not a question of how well you leaders can talk to the bosses.' We weren't afraid to have a stoppage.”

Tomorrow, we'll hear whether that kind of militancy works in a largely immigrant union of downtown Chicago.

I'm Chip Mitchell, Chicago Public Radio.

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For archival tape this week, thanks to two shows: Labor Express on WLUW, 88.7 FM, and Labor Beat on CAN-TV, Channel 19.