Azteca Strike Ends, Boycott Continues

In May, striking tortilla workers at Azteca Foods in Chicago marched up to the plant gate, chanting, “Sí, se puede!” after the employer admitted guilt in all outstanding unfair labor practice (ULP) charges. “They scared the crap out of the company,” said staff organizer Leah Fried of the United Electrical Workers (UE). The workers’ struggle, however, is still far from over.

“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 labor, and Azteca Foods has grown to be large and profitable.”

Profitable is right. Azteca takes in annual revenues up to $33 million, spending less than ten percent on labor costs. And the owner, philanthropist Arthur Velasquez, brags that his house cost $4 million.

CRUMBS FROM THE TABLE

For years, Azteca employees have earned at least two dollars below the industry average, safety violations were rampant, and many of the mostly Latina workers have severe rashes or burns from the bleach and the sulphuric acid they mix into the flour and dough. Workers allege that Azteca’s all-male, mostly white supervisors routinely yell at and insult the women, threatening and harassing them during breaks and at lunch.

The workers knew they needed a union. Unfortunately, they already had one-a union with a cozy relationship to the boss-Distillery Workers Local 3, run by the Duff family. “The president and the reps were all from the Duff family,” says Fried. “They represent some of the poorest workers in the city, and they run a temp agency that basically supplies scabs to the same employers.”

That agency is Windy City Temps, currently under investigation on various counts of fraud and kickbacks from the bank where union funds are kept. And John Duff Jr. has already served 17 months for embezzling union funds.

FIGHTING BACK

But in April 2002, Azteca workers stood up to the Duffs and owner Velasquez. By a margin of 3-1, the workers voted to join UE Local 1159. But the owner said he would rather die than give the workers any more than they had, says Fried. True to their word, Azteca proposed sweeping cuts in employee and union rights, as well as a 700% increase in health insurance costs, effectively lowering wages.

Workers set up an informational picket outside the plant in July. In response, Azteca blockaded the road into the plant, stopping every worker on their way to work, and illegally threatening to fire the picketers.

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Undaunted, picketers marched to the gate, demanding that everyone be allowed back to work and advising management to call their lawyer. They did, and no one was fired.

But the ULPs kept piling up. So on September 30 75% of the workers walked off the job, calling for a national boycott of Azteca tortillas. Azteca threatened to replace them permanently, so the union filed another ULP.

During the strike, not a single striker crossed the picket line. Union drivers refused to make deliveries to the plant, and community support was overwhelming. The Hyde Park Co-op chain stopped carrying Azteca products, and several parishes of the Catholic Church provided food for strikers and conducted mass on the picket line.

Then the boycott began to show results. Azteca production dropped to 15%, according to UE, and the company was forced to subcontract to out-of-state suppliers. Even strikebreakers inside the plant spoke out. The company paid them minimum wage, and one strikebreaker lost the use of his arm in an accident that highlighted Azteca’s chronic safety problems. Throughout April, workers and supporters leafleted grocery stores and held public rallies.

Finally, Azteca decided to settle the ULPs-but not the contract, despite a mediator’s efforts. Velasquez was determined to bust the union. In response, strikers voted May 5 to return to work but not to end the boycott. By the end of the week, all workers were back on the job except 10 machine operators, laid off due to decreased production and eligible for unemployment benefits.

“Que viva la lucha para la justicia!” shouted the returning workers (“Long live the struggle for justice!”). But the workers say they still need help. “It’s hard to support and educate my family on what I make at Azteca,” says Juana Rosales, a 24-year employee. “We deserve a fair contract now!”

Ricky Baldwin is the former labor editor for the Buffalo Alternative Press and has published articles in Labor Notes, Extra!, and Z Magazine.