Labor fightback news

Stories from places as diverse as Chicago, North Macedonia, and Portland, Oregon (plus some good tidings for CEOs)

Chicago — Sandra Fernández, seen speaking, was one of the three people fired for union organizing at the El Ranchero factory. PHOTO: Jacqueline Serrato / South Side Weekly
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Chicago: Fired tortilla chip makers demand jobs back

In March, workers at El Ranchero, a tortilla chip factory in Chicago, began meeting to learn about their rights. They were inspired by the victory of workers at the nearby El Milagro tortilla factory that resulted in over $1.3 million in collective wage increases, a halt to an illegal seven-day work week, anti-sexual harassment training for managers, and air conditioning in lunch rooms. The companies’ low-wage workforces have commonalities: most are immigrants, many only Spanish-speaking, and historically vulnerable to illegal working conditions — all worsened with Covid.

When several El Ranchero workers were fired in retaliation for organizing, they sought out Arise Chicago, a labor rights organization. Sandra Fernández, a quality control worker, is one of three employees who were fired shortly after getting in touch with Arise Chicago. The firings’ intent was to chill organizing, but instead, workers got fired up!

A press conference in April denounced unjust firings, abusive managers and inhumane working conditions, including verbal and physical abuse, no raises or regular breaks, and retaliation for speaking up. Robust public pressure won immediate verbal agreements from El Ranchero management for: $1 raises across the board, an additional 25 cents for workers with seniority, training for managers, correcting problems with breaks and lunch breaks, and improving sick leave policy to stop requiring medical proof or prescriptions before the third day of absence.

But as of mid-April, terminated workers had not been reinstated, although the company has offered to bring them back if they agreed to a gag order. Negotiations continue for Fernández’ reinstatement and workers are ready to mobilize to hold management accountable. There’s no going back — as Fernández stated, “The company did not give us proper breaks, the managers were abusive and workers were afraid. But we are afraid no longer. We are standing up for our rights!”

North Macedonia: Rising costs fuel teacher strike

A landlocked portion of former Yugoslavia, North Macedonia’s annual inflation hit a 14-year high at nearly 9% in March. This small Balkan country of about 1.8 million rebounded from a 6.1% recession blamed on the pandemic in 2020 to 4% growth in 2021, but the rate of unemployment remained high at 15.8%. The government responded to mounting pressure to ameliorate the skyrocketing cost of living by increasing public worker minimum wages by 18%. Teachers’ wages, however, remained stagnant, fueling a three-week nationwide strike beginning April 11 for salary increases, in correlation with the increase given to minimum-wage public sector workers. Teachers asked for 18.4% wage increases over the next two years. In North Macedonia, around 4,500 teachers are employed at the preschool level, followed by around 20,000 teachers at the primary level and 8,000 at the secondary school level.

The Autonomous Trade Union for Education, Science and Culture has support from the Independent Academic Workers Union, which represents university faculty professors, and the European Trade Union Committee for Education. The ETUCE statement touched on North Macedonia’s EU membership aspirations and noted, “The European Pillar of Social Right Action Plan sets objectives for EU Member States, of absolute relevance to candidate countries as well, such as the reduction of early school leaving, a higher participation in upper secondary education, and better reconciliation between professional and private life of teachers and supporting stronger labor market participation of women. These goals cannot be reached without the improvement of working and salary conditions for teachers.”

When the government improved their offer to the teachers from 10% to 12%, some teachers agreed to return to the classroom, but negotiations and the struggle continues.

Young mechanics organize in Portland, Oregon

A young, diverse crew of mechanics and lube technicians at Jim Fisher Volvo in Portland, Oregon, want to improve their workplace and pay. So, they filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) for union recognition with Machinists District Lodge W24The International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM-AW) represents car dealerships nationally, but none are in the Portland area. Unionization could bolster an organizing wave and bring a fresh generation of workers into the labor movement.

According to Northwest Labor Press, workers at this dealership pay to attend Volvo mechanic school because they are promised a well-paying job when they graduate. Instead, most of them make slightly over minimum wage, have no job security and must buy their own tools. Mechanics starting out at $17 per hour spend as much as $40,000 on tools, and are responsible for replacing them if stolen from the shop. The mechanics want pay equity with mechanics in California, who receive a base hourly rate plus a flat rate per repair job. Jim Fisher forces mechanics to choose between an hourly rate or a flat rate based on a job completion estimate. In response, workers demand regular pay increases, a tool stipend and tool insurance.

Volvo management responded to the voluntary recognition request by immediately hiring a union-busting consultant and scheduling mandatory anti-union meetings. This backfired by strengthening machinists’ resolve.

Management then tried to dilute the pro-union majority and demanded that non-mechanic workers should be included in the union election vote. IAM-AW organizer Jon Irvine took that as an invitation to speak to those workers. He managed fifteen minutes of conversation before being evicted from the property.

Ballots will be counted June 1 and based on the robust March support demonstration outside the Jim Fisher Volvo dealership, these workers have plenty of community solidarity to see them through the struggle.

50 years of progress … for CEOs

In 1970, the average income of a CEO of a Fortune 500 company was that of 20 employees combined. In 2020 it was the income of 350 employees combined. Source: Economic Policy Institute.

Graphic: Gordon Frazier / FS

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