CHICAGO – “What’s disgusting? Union Busting! What’s outrageous? Sweatshop wages!” chanted 100 BBJ Linen workers and their supporters. The protesters were picketing at the main gate of the Lincoln Park Zoo July 12, while wealthy patrons in their finest sheepishly slipped from stretch limousines to attend the Annual Gala Ball.

The protesters were at the zoo to draw attention to sweatshop conditions at BBJ Linens in Skokie, Ill. The annual ball, hosted by the Women’s Board at the zoo, was being catered by renowned chef, Wolfgang Puck, who chose BBJ as his linen provider.

Most of the industrial laundry workers at BBJ are Mexican immigrants. The workers have been organizing with the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE) for higher wages and better working conditions. BBJ is the last of the major industrial laundry facilities to be organized.

“While BBJ is making a fortune we are being paid poverty wages,” said Judith Pineda, a leader of the workers. Guests to the Gala Ball paid $375 a plate to attend. The average BBJ employee would have to work one-and-a-half weeks at the laundry to earn that amount.”

Pineda continued, “BBJ treats us like crooks. Every day they check our bags to see if we have stolen something. We think this is unjust.”

The workers described not being allowed by their bosses to bring in water during a recent hot spell. The next day one of the workers fainted on the job.

“We work under very dangerous conditions and it’s very hot,” said another worker. “Stacks of big crates are leaning over and the fire exits are blocked.”

Every time the workers have a complaint they take it to the company’s human resources department. But they get no response, so they have turned to the union for help. To date, five workers have been fired for supporting the union.

“This is just the beginning of our struggle for justice,” said another worker.

The author can be reached at jbachtell@ameritech.net

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