Laundry workers strike for union recognition

HIGHWOOD, Ill. - Thirty-eight Mexican immigrant industrial laundry workers went on strike Oct. 5 in this northern Chicago suburb. The workers are on strike against Carosel Linens to gain union recognition and for better wages, benefits and working conditions. They seek to be represented by UNITE Local 969.

'Many of us have been working for 8-12 years at this place and have never gotten a raise above the minimum wage,' one worker told the World.

The workers, mostly women, make $5.15/hour. 'The bosses told us, 'you want a raise, learn to speak English and I'll give you a raise,'' she recounted angrily.

Over 2000 industrial laundry workers have been organized by UNITE in Chicagoland over the past three years. The standard union wage is $8.75/hour. The workers at Carosel clean linens for high end weddings and corporate parties, including places like the Merchandise Mart and Abbot Industries.

'Sometimes they make us work 12-hour shifts, irregular hours, and give us no warning about overtime. On holidays they make us work extra hours at straight pay,' she said bitterly.

'It gets very hot in the summer. You can imagine how hot it is in here when it's 100 degrees outside. They will force us to work for days without water,' said a worker.

'When we are working with soap or other dangerous chemicals they never give us goggles or proper equipment,' said another worker. 'When I got chemicals in my eye they wouldn't take me to the hospital. They said 'wash it out with water.''

UNITE organizers are being harassed and intimidated by company supervisors, who have also turned to using anti-Mexican racist insults.

UNITE Local 969 represents workers down the street at the Skokie Laundry. Many of the workers who work at Carosel have family members who work there. It was through them that they contacted UNITE.

The strikers are gaining support from the labor movement, especially the Chicago Jobs with Justice and also growing community support.

'This is a strike for recognition,' said Peter Demay, UNITE organizer. 'It's not the normal route, but we find it's the most effective. The workers are united and form a very powerful force. We are very optimistic about victory.'