Lessons from a strike in Alsip

January 18, 2011

Workers at a small company in the Chicago suburbs quickly won wages owed to them with a strike--an inspiration for all of us in similar circumstances, says Rory Fanning.

THE STORY broke a few days before Christmas on the local ABC affiliate here in Chicago. The employees of an appliance refurbishing company, Consumer Products Services (CPS), in the southern Chicago suburb of Alsip, staged a sit-in after going weeks without a paycheck. "The pressure to buy Christmas presents and pay bills became too overwhelming, we had to do something," said one worker.

Chris Kroplewski, an employee at the company, said that this was not the first time CPS failed to pay him on time. "Actually, a few of my checks bounced," he said.

This was the second time employees walked out of work due to CPS's labor theft. The first time, management tried to corner the workers with a contract noting "tardiness" and "work stoppage" as "grounds for termination."

Rob Madden, vice president of operations at CPS, flew in from New York once he got word employees were standing on the front lawn of the Chicago branch of his company with protest signs, while news cameras took in the scene. "We will cut the checks by tomorrow, at the latest," Stephanie Stern, a CPS spokesman.

Consumer Products Services workers picketing outside their workplace
Consumer Products Services workers picketing outside their workplace

I confirmed by phone, that yes, they were cut the next day. It turns out that a lack of money to cover the paychecks wasn't the issue.

The reason for the late paychecks is that CPS is in the process of expansion. And growing the company and hiring new employees became a greater priority than taking care of the employees CPS already had.

Even as a company reinvests its surplus in expansion, it's not unusual that workers also suffer. Since "1970, and for the next four decades, as productivity skyrocket 70 percent, hourly wages hardly budged, rising a mere 4 percent," according to a recent CBS News report citing the research of Larry Mishel, a labor economist with the Economic Policy Institute.

Not only did CPS management want more; they needed more. Companies, large and small alike, must abide by the physics of capitalism: grow larger through speculative and risky reinvestments or risk being overrun by the competition.

THE CPS story grabbed my attention not only because, as a socialist, I'm inspired when workers unite to fight against exploitation, but also because my employer had been withholding multiple paychecks from me.

I was making decent money in tips as a bartender at a North Side bar in Chicago. Many bartenders see their paychecks as supplements to their tips, not the other way around. It sounds ridiculous, but I kept my mouth shut about the owner's lack of due payment. Fresh out of the unemployment pool, my own need to pay bills made maintaining calm waters at work seem more important than admitting to myself that I was betraying the principles I claimed to be standing for as a socialist by not speaking up.

The Alsip strike was a reminder of that old labor adage that "an injury to one is an injury to all." In this climate of ever-increasing worker exploitation, my silence was affecting others, both at my workplace--other employees were working without pay as well--and in the larger context.

I was missing an opportunity to increase awareness and solidarity among nonunion small-business workers experiencing the same exploitation and labor theft. Organizing a picket, reaching out to labor advocacy groups and writing articles can be an effective way of uniting workers who otherwise feel isolated.

If the labor movement is strong in general, conditions for individual workers will improve, whether they are unionized or not.

I confronted my boss the day after learning of the Alsip strike.

"I don't want your money," the owner said. "The checks were sent out by my accountant a few days ago. They should have been here already." I told him I spent much of my free time standing up for workers' rights, and that his failure to pay me and the rest of his employees was something I took seriously.

The practice of withholding paychecks was not new at the bar. The owner, recognizing the high levels of unemployment and the increasing challenges for workers trying to find a job, had told other employees who had complained about checks that they should be grateful to have a job. Some stormed out without claiming their pay; others went quietly back to work.

The next day, I picked up my checks--but it was a fraction of what I was owed. My patience ran out. I threatened to organize a picket in front of the bar by calling on members of the socialist organization I belong to, and to write an article exposing the exploitative conditions at the bar.

"Stop acting so immature," was the owner's reply.

"Not only is it immature, but it is criminal to steal," I responded. "And what you are doing is stealing labor from your employees...I'll expect my proper pay." I received the correct amount of pay shortly after the exchange.

Workers in nonunionized small businesses are torn in multiple directions. The intimacy of the small business environment, where the boss is often hovering, complaining about finances and a lack of business in the slow economy, can give employees a case of Stockholm Syndrome, in which hostages come to identify with their captors. And given that only 10 percent of the work force in the U.S. is unionized, there are millions of workers in these situations.

As illogical as it seems, we as workers can end up feeling sorry for our employers. We don't want to create added stress and financial strain for the boss. We also don't want to risk having to look for a new job in this economy.

No one likes to be thrown into the unemployment pool. Swimming through the waves of interviews wearing nothing but a game-show-host smile for the sake of a wage that barely pays the bills and leaves little room for the unexpected expense of, say, a medical bill can really drown the soul.

There is also the competition factor. Are the favored employees complaining about being overworked and underpaid? Usually not. But as the Alsip workers demonstrated, employers are responsive to collective action.

It's reasonable to expect management's grip to get tighter--as businesses try to stay afloat by turning out bigger profits, and when the only way profits are increased is by exploiting labor.

The art of the strike is something we must all learn and prepare to do more of--because it is labor that will continue to bear the cost of Wall Street's gambling debts and the cutthroat pressures of capitalist competition.

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