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On the Picket Line

August 22, 2003 | Page 15

Chicago Teachers
Azteca Foods

Tyson Foods
By Eric Ruder

JEFFERSON, Wis.--About 250 workers, their families and supporters gathered for a rally against Tyson Foods' corporate greed. The workers--members of United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 538--walked out of the plant February 28 after Tyson demanded 10 major concessions from the union, including a two-tiered wage structure, cuts in vacation and sick pay, health care cuts and reductions in pension benefits.

Cars carrying supporters came from Madison, Wis., Chicago, Rockford, Ill., and other towns. A group of about 10 workers from a Swift plant in Omaha, Neb., where they recently won a union organizing drive, made the eight-hour trip to show their support for the Tyson workers.

Speaking from the podium in Spanish, they pledged to come back for the next rally with at least as many people--just as they had for the two prior rallies. A striking worker from the Congress Hotel in Chicago also addressed the strikers, saying that Tyson was trying to get the same concessions that the Congress is asking for in Chicago.

Local 538 announced that they will be launching an outreach campaign to take the story of their struggle and their appeals to support a boycott of Tyson products on the road. "To the East, to the West, to the South, we'll spread the word," said T.J., a staffer with the UFCW International union. "We'll go to Europe if we have to."

Three counties in south-central Wisconsin have now passed resolutions condemning Tyson's greed and pledging to end any purchases of Tyson products until the labor dispute is settled favorably for the workers.

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Chicago Teachers
By Jesse Sharkey, Delegate, CTU

CHICAGO--"The process is working" was the cry on the lips of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) leadership at a special summer meeting where many union members came to discuss contract strategy. The old agreement expired June 30, but is automatically extended until the two sides reach an impasse or a new agreement.

CTU President Deborah Lynch said that the union and the board have reached tentative agreements on "dozens" of issues, and she characterized the negotiations as "positive." So far, the strategy of CTU leaders has centered on maintaining a "friendly" dialogue during bargaining.

For example, the union refuses to publicize its case for substantial raises, reduced class size, preparation time for elementary teachers or other issues, saying that it won't "negotiate in the press." When members have questioned a strategy that has consisted of little more than creating an e-mail list and asking members to wear a "CTU for Kids" sticker, the leadership has responded, "Trust us."

"I don't agree that we have to start flexing our muscles in order to win a good contract... the process is working," lead negotiator Bob Pieckert told the leadership caucus the day before the delegate's meeting. But Lynch contradicted her own assessment of the process when she reported that the board and the union are far apart on "economic demands."

And if the union's strategy in "good-faith" negotiations doesn't work? Few people seemed to be asking that question, and the leadership was vague, referring both to a "mediation process" and to a "work-stoppage strategy."

But the road Lynch seems to be traveling--towards cooperation and respectability--is a slippery one. The union could well wind up in a new state-sponsored mediation process if she has her way.

This would be a disaster--and leave the union's fate to politics and back-room deals. We need to speak up for the future of our union and organize to fight--including a strike if that's what it takes.

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Azteca Foods
By Héctor Reyes

CHICAGO--Three months after the workers at Azteca Foods returned to work following a seven-month strike, they continue fighting for a decent contract. In May, having won a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruling, the workers--members of United Electrical Workers (UE) Local 1159--decided to end the strike and continue their fight for a new contract from inside the plant.

UE had filed unfair labor practice charges in response to company threats against union militants that included one-on-one interrogations and acts of surveillance, such as the videotaping of picketing workers. Azteca settled the charges, but admitted no wrongdoing and must post notices in the plant that it pledges to obey labor law in the future.

However, the company's intimidation tactics against its unionized labor force have continued. After the workers returned to work, Azteca refused to reinstate their health insurance benefits--claiming that the strikers were subject to a four-month re-enrollment waiting period. UE has filed a new NLRB complaint against this.

They continue to struggle for a decent contract, rejecting the company's cruel demand for a 32-cent per hour increase in the workers' health insurance premium. Coupled with a miserable 5-cent per hour wage increase offer, workers' income would drop by $60 a month--this from a company with revenues of more than $33 million a year.

After returning to work, workers have held vigils outside the plant and successfully pressured management to change work assignments to meet their needs and to give them new uniforms.

To support the Azteca workers, contact the union at 312-829-8300 or email [email protected]

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