Immigrants built this country, strikers say

HIGHWOOD, Ill. – A black coffin was placed beneath the speakers’ platform by pallbearers made up of striking Carousel Linen workers. The coffin signified scab labor, low wages and rotten working conditions, which strikers are determined to bury.

This symbolic act opened the Nov. 9 rally in solidarity with the 40 industrial striking laundry workers. Joining the strikers were 100 religious leaders and trade unionists, including members of the USWA, IBEW, UE, and teachers, along with students and community supporters.

“What are we fighting for?” asked Joe Costigan, district political director for UNITE, the union organizing the workers. “Justice against poverty wages of $5.15 an hour, justice against a company that is a bad citizen in this community. It’s shameful.”

Rabbi Robert Marks, president of the Interfaith Committee on Workers’ Issues, was one of several religious leaders who spoke. “Let me echo Jeremiah: ‘They have eyes but see not,’” he told the strikers. “There are people who see not that you can’t feed children and support a family. We stand against those who oppose you.”

Rev. Donna Atkinson of the Bethany Methodist Church in Highland Park recalled that her grandfather was a railroad worker and had been part of the 1918 strike for higher wages.

“I come from the faith tradition that supports the rights of workers for collective bargaining, safe working conditions and just wages. We are with you until you win,” she said.

The strikers, all Mexican immigrant workers, have endured anti-Mexican insults before and during the five-week strike.

“We are here to win,” said strike captain Miriam Perez. “We won’t put up with abuse for $5.15 an hour. Why does the owner oppose us? Because we don’t speak English? Because we are Mexican? What makes him think he can violate our rights?”

“[Carousel owner] Scott says we are family. But who else in his family makes such miserable wages?” asked striker Olivia Castro. Salvador Cerna brought greetings from Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.).

In response to those who called the workers unpatriotic for striking during a national crisis, Cerna said, “Mr. Scott, you are unpatriotic, un-American, and you must come to terms with the workers. This company was built by working men and women like you, by immigrants.”

Tim Leahy, assistant to Chicago Federation of Labor President Don Turner, brought greetings from the 500,000-member council.

“You are not alone. You will win this battle. We see a lot of stickers on cars that say ‘United we stand.’ Everyone who has such a sticker should join you. You represent the best of the trade union movement.”

The rally was also called to expose the use of scab day labor to break strikes by Chicago area temp agencies. One such company, Remedy, is sending day laborers to scab at Carousel.

Sandra Moralles, of the Jobs with Justice’s Day Laborers Project, called the temp agencies an “outlaw industry” because they are herding unknowing day laborers into unsafe working conditions and strikes. She noted that scab day laborers have been used against electrical workers and currently in strikes at V & V Supremo (see story page 5) and Coach and Car.

Dan Keeler, also of the Day Laborers project, called for passage of a day labor ordinance, currently in the Chicago City Council, that would end such unscrupulous practices.

“Jobs with Justice is organizing visits to Carousel’s clients,” said Sarita Gupta, director of Chicago JwJ.

“Today we mourn the miserable working conditions and wages. May they rest in peace.”

With that the pallbearers hoisted the coffin and led the entire crowd on a march to Carousel offices.