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On the picket line

November 1, 2002 | Page 11

Plainfield, Ill., teachers

Azteca Foods

By Héctor Reyes | November 1, 2002 | Page 11

CHICAGO--As their strike entered its fourth week, the workers at Azteca Foods remained determined to win respect and a decent contract from the company.

Azteca Foods makes tortillas and takes in more than $30 million a year in revenue. Yet as much as a third of its workforce has worked for Azteca for more than 20 years and earns only $9 per hour.

The workers were represented for decades by a corrupt, mob-connected union that never tried to enforce a real contract. So when the workers got tired of this rotten deal and asked United Electrical Workers (UE) Local 1159 to represent them, Azteca owner Arthur Velásquez refused to acknowledge the union.

"Mr. Velásquez is not used to respecting a union because he is used to dealing with plainly corrupt unions," said striker Angelina Díaz. "Now that we have a real union, he doesn't want to accept it."

While Velásquez expects the workers to absorb a 700 percent increase in the premium that they pay for their family health plan, he is offering no salary increase in the first year of the contract and a pitiful five-cent increase per hour each of the following two years. This amounts to a wage cut.

All of the 63 strikers are Latino immigrants. They're quick to point out the contradiction between Velásquez's image in Chicago's Latino community as a benefactor of community and cultural organizations and the tyrannical and greedy way in which he treats his employees.

"Mr. Velásquez puts up a beautiful face for the community, but for his workers, look what he got us into--begging for food," said striker Josefina Bonilla. "He has no shame. He goes around offering 'help,' and yet those of us who made him rich are begging for food."

In spite of this, the workers have received plenty of support from Latino community and religious organizations and from other unions. UPS workers and truck drivers have also refused to deliver to Azteca.

To support the Azteca workers, contact UE Local 1159 at 312-829-8300.

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By Elizabeth Schulte

THE TEAMSTERS' three-year strike to win a contract at Overnite Transportation trucking company officially went down to defeat last week. Teamster President James P. Hoffa announced October 25 that it was ending its contract fight. But the fact is that the Overnite fight has been over for a long time already.

When Hoffa took office in 1998, he promised to win Overnite's 8,000 drivers and dockworkers a fair contract--and strengthen the union's long-haul freight division. The Hoffa administration called workers out in October 1999, with the idea that the strike wouldn't "take more than three weeks," in the words of Teamsters Freight Director Phil Young.

But Overnite--a vicious union-busting company--wasn't going down without a fight. It refused to budge, brought in teams of scabs and used its political connections to win National Labor Relations Board rulings.

Hoffa blamed these obstacles--and the anti-labor Bush administration--for the loss at Overnite. But it was Hoffa--a lawyer with no strike experience--who called workers out to the slaughter with no strategy and little support from the union.

Many workers ended up returning to work before the strike's end. And the same Hoffa who now criticizes Bush for being anti-labor has been making overtures to the Republican since before he took office, such as giving Bush the Teamsters backing for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

If Hoffa is passing out blame for the disaster at Overnite, he should offer himself up a heaping helping. The Overnite defeat puts Teamsters in a weaker position in upcoming negotiations for the Master Freight Agreement, an agreement that covers 65,000 workers, down from half a million in the 1970s.

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Plainfield, Ill., teachers

By Nicole Colson

PLAINFIELD, Ill.--About 1,200 members of the Association of Plainfield Teachers took to the picket lines October 28, a day after contract talks with Community Consolidated School District 202 and a federal mediator broke off. Waving signs stating "We want a fair settlement" and "Good teachers deserve good benefits," teachers shut down classes at 18 schools.

Plainfield teachers have been working without a contract since June 30. The biggest sticking points in the contract negotiations have been salaries and changes in health insurance. Plainfield teachers are among the lowest paid in Will County, Ill., and the school district is currently trying to force them to pay more out-of-pocket for their health care.

The union membership overwhelmingly rejected a tentative agreement October 17 and agreed to talks with a federal mediator. Under the rejected agreement, the starting salary for teachers was to go to $32,220 a year from $27,272--yet that is still far below the average starting salary for teachers in the area.

District officials claimed that the agreement would have added $2.1 million to a $9 million education fund deficit. Of course, the administrators weren't volunteering to take a pay cut themselves.

The school district accuses teachers of not caring enough about their students--because the strike could keep the Plainfield High School football team from going to the state playoffs. But if administrators really cared about the students, they would pay Plainfield teachers a fair wage.

The relatively low salary means that many teachers leave Plainfield for higher-paying jobs in nearby districts. "I see the seniors I teach having three different band directors, having had coaches come and go in virtually every sport they play over the last four years," union spokesperson Nancy Eichelberger told reporters. "I've seen two award-twinning teachers in social studies, teachers of the year, leaving for higher pay."

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