Federal mediation demanded in Azteca strike

CHICAGO – Elected officials, trade union and community leaders joined striking workers here Feb. 3 to demand Azteca Foods accept federal mediation to end a four-month strike.

“These workers want a fair and decent contract,” said Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) “We join the workers in demanding that [Azteca owner] Art Velasquez come back to the bargaining table.”

Sixty-three workers have been on strike against Azteca Foods, a leading maker of tortillas, tortilla shells and chips, since Sept. 30. In May 2002, the workers, mainly Mexican Americans and immigrants, got rid of a company union and voted in the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers (UE). When they entered into contract negotiations, Azteca demanded give-backs including raising insurance premiums by 700 percent, stripping seniority rights, protections for union activity and the right to fire immigrant workers for incorrect info on their job application, despite having legal status.

Those present also vowed to step up a consumer boycott of Azteca Foods, whose products are distributed nationally.

Gutierrez, along with other Illinois Democrats, Reps. Jan Schakowsky, Jesse Jackson, Jr., Danny Davis, Bobby Rush and William Lipinsky, charged that Azteca was violating labor law.

“The NLRB has already filed a complaint against Azteca,” said Schakowsky. “The company has engaged in acts of surveillance, threatened to permanently replace the workers, ignores OSHA regulations and refuses bilingual translations. These practices deny workers their legal rights and should be ended at once.”

Velasquez is known widely in Chicago for his philanthropy. Jesus Garcia, former state legislator and president of the Little Village Development Corporation, pointed out the hypocrisy. “For three months these workers have tried to convey that they want to meet and discuss the issues of the strike. I had confidence that a dialogue would result. But now my patience has run out.”

Jeff Clinger, representing Seminarians for Worker Justice, said the workers toil under extremely stressful conditions and are subject to many injuries. But when they complain the company takes no action.

“Mr. Velasquez may be a generous man, and although he claims to be a man of faith he needs to live the life of a Christian,” said Clinger. The workers, many of whom have been at Azteca for 20 years, make only $9 per hour.

John Donahue, executive director for the Coalition for the Homeless, pointed out that to maintain a two-bedroom apartment in Chicago and put food on the table requires at least $14 per hour.

Not one striker has crossed the picket line at 51st and Nagle, which has remained solid 24 hours a day, seven days a week, despite the severe cold.

The company is attempting to operate using scabs. “We are disappointed the company won’t sit down and give us a fair contract,” said striker Maria Montes. “But we are staying strong. We will fight until we win.”

For more info on the Azteca boycott or to contribute to the strike fund, write: UE Local 1159,

37 S Ashland Ave. Chicago IL 60607, call (312) 829-8300 or visit their website at http://ranknfile-ue.org/1159azteca_home.html

The author can be reached at jbachtell@cpusa.org