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Chicago Grocery Teamsters Face Retaliation for Exercising Their Rights

The workers organized their largely Spanish speaking shop with little help from union leadership, now they face firings.

Produce is offered for sale at a grocery store on October 13, 2022 in Chicago, Illinois.

Workers couldn’t wear a sticker or button, because what if it fell into the fruits and vegetables they packaged for the Anthony Marano Company, a major distributor of produce in Chicago and the greater Midwest for restaurants and grocery chains including Aldi’s, Sysco, and Pete’s Fresh Market?

They couldn’t do a red T-shirt day; the temperatures are frigid in the warehouse, and workers must cover themselves in layers to keep warm. But they are allowed to wear hats over their hairnets.

Luckily, there was a crafty person on the organizing team. When Latino Teamsters in Local 703 needed to take collective action to build unity and confidence after the company banned them from distributing union leaflets, they created baseball caps — emblazoned with an equestrian Teamster logo and the Chicago city colors (blue, white, and red).

“We are a big crafty family,” said Brenda Hernandez, the daughter of one of the Teamsters retaliated against for leafleting, and a former worker at the company.

The baseball caps nestled over their hairnets sent management a clear message in February: “Workers United,” or “Trabajadores Unidos,” in their native Spanish.

“The company can have all the money in the world, but without workers, they are nothing,” said Angelica Campa, who started working at the company in 2013 and earns $15.40 an hour.

Weekly House Meetings

The workers began organizing last fall, holding meetings of 40 people weekly at the home of fellow worker Juan Vargas every Saturday to discuss their labor and immigrant rights.

“I have 23 years working at the company,” said Vargas, who was earning $17.20 an hour. “We have a union, and I’m making almost $1 above the minimum wage.”

From these conversations, workers generated a list of shop floor demands — including a raise. They were working six to seven days a week and were barely eking out a living despite working for the company for decades. They began distributing leaflets to agitate their co-workers on pay, the subpar health insurance plan, management harassment, and unsafe line speeds.

“We work from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. on line 4 with some of the heaviest products: cabbage, potatoes, watermelons, coconuts, big squash,” said José Pacheco who has worked at company for 12 years. “For the cabbage, we have to cut off the bad leaves and the root while we’re while packing it. With watermelon, it could be up to 20 pallet-sized crates in a few hours.”

Campa was hesitant to join the meetings, but “I have seen how they treat workers as robots,” she said. Eventually she got involved.

Her main issue was the poor health insurance, which only covers one annual check-up and isn’t accepted by many hospitals in the Chicago area. When she has a health scare, she says, she turns to Cook County’s Stroger hospital, which offers discounts based on a worker’s household size and income.

But one of the most galvanizing issues was the heinous wages. The City of Chicago had announced a boost to the $15 minimum wage last fall. The company and Local 703 agreed to reopen contract negotiations one year ahead of the expiration date in April 2024. “That’s when we began to get even more active,” said Campa. Workers began taking action together, pressing for the demands they had generated earlier in the fall as part of a contract fight.

No Representation

Though they were union members and had worked at the company for many years, they had hardly ever seen Teamster business agents. And when they did land eyes on one, the B.A. couldn’t communicate with the hundreds of grocery workers who are monolingual Spanish speakers.

So they began organizing themselves — taking all the help they could get from family members and community groups, including Chicago Community and Workers’ Rights (CCWR), and Teamsters for a Democratic Union.

Having outlined their workplace issues, workers demanded a meeting with Local 703 business agents in December. For Campa, this was the first time in her 10 years at the company that she had met her business agent outside of the workplace. Two hundred workers participated.

The demands included affordable insurance, an end to mistreatment, and “a union for all,” said Campa, meaning to bring workers in cleaning and other departments into the Teamsters. Other demands had to do with pay compression. Despite over two decades at the company, Vargas said that many workers earned the $15.40 minimum wage pay of a new hire. They also asked for interpretation at meetings and translated materials. Most of the immigrant workers are from Mexico and Central America.

Company Retaliation

Workers started leafleting in the parking lot and cafeteria about their bargaining demands. Marano Company retaliated against four of the members who appeared on the leaflet with bargaining demands, moving them from their work areas and taking away their bonuses.

Carlos Hernandez earned double time when he worked on Sundays, plus a $150 bonus for cleaning work, including washing dirty water canals in the repack area of the warehouse, according to an affidavit filed with the National Labor Relations Board. Once he began distributing flyers agitating for a strong contract, the company removed him from Sunday work, losing his boosted earnings.

Before workers clocked in on January 17 — his day off — Hernandez had brought in some flyers. His daughter Brenda had helped design them. He handed them out to workers in the company parking lot, inviting people to a meeting to learn about their labor rights. A supervisor saw him and told him to leave as it was his day off.

“I think my cleaning work was taken from me on January 20 because the bosses saw me handing out flyers,” said Hernandez in the Labor Board filing. “There cannot be any other reason — and also because my name was listed on the flyer as a contact.”

Campa’s name was also on the flyer. She was hauled before human resources and told that she was “demoted.”

“They said that I wasn’t qualified,” she told me in Spanish. Campa speaks a bit of English, but not enough to understand what the word ‘demoted’ meant. Her lack of English was used against her as part of the explanation for why she would no longer work in the quality assurance department, which involved her training other workers to inspect vegetables and fruits. The job had bumped her hourly rate up by $1.60.

The company posted flyers telling workers solicitation wasn’t allowed on company property. Under the National Labor Relations Act, workers have the right to distribute leaflets, so long as they do so off the clock and in non-work areas. But workers said the illegal company flier is still up.

Many Leaders

In February, 70 grocery workers at Marano attended a workshop organized by Teamsters for a Democratic Union and CCWR on building a contract action plan with clear bargaining demands. Juan Vargas was one of the workers who participated and later joined the bargaining team to press for the very demands first brainstormed in his basement.

The company’s retaliation hasn’t stopped workers from forging ahead with their organizing. They organized a contract unity action, which drew 150 Teamsters, donning their “Workers United” hats.

Next, the company came after Vargas. A few days after the workers’ action, management had workers attend a series of Local 703 meetings held at the company. In front of management, the union business agent denounced workers for wearing hats and holding meetings at Juan’s house. The very next day Vargas was fired.

“The company found out about the meetings at my house, and they suspect that I am the leader of the group,” Vargas said. “But in reality, we are all leaders -– because we want something better.”

Campa suspects the company hoped the firings and demotions would have a chilling effect. “I forgot to tell you that many of us feel intimidated because we have relatives who work there in other areas/departments and we are afraid that they too will be affected,” she said in a follow-up text in Spanish. Carlos Hernandez is her brother-in-law.

But she also remains undaunted.

“The company can’t fire us all, especially because we are not doing anything wrong,” she said.

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