Chicago day laborers balk at strike-breaking

CHICAGO - On Aug. 9, 65 members of United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers Local 1114 went out on strike against the Coach and Car Company of Elk Grove Village, a Chicago suburb.

Grievances of the mostly Mexican-American work force include the company's demand for a giveback of health insurance benefits and serious pension and wage cuts.

Workers also accuse Coach and Car of unfair labor practices, including improper subcontracting, setting up a phony parallel operation with minimum wage workers, and refusing to disclose to the union information vital to contact negotiations.

Coach and Car has contracted with a number of Chicago day labor agencies to provide strikebreakers, mostly Mexican immigrants also. According to the union and the Chicago Day Labor Organizing Project of Jobs with Justice, these day laborers were not told that they were going to be transported across picket lines.

The striking Coach and Car workers have received considerable community support. Illinois State Senator Miguel del Valle, in whose district many of the workers live, has been especially vocal.

At a press conference in downtown Chicago Oct. 10, del Valle, members of the union, and representatives of other groups denounced the abuses committed both by Coach and Car and by the sleazy day labor agencies that have contracted to provide the 'substitute workers.'

Abel Diaz, a Coach and Car worker for 20 years, described how workers at the plant helped the company get a contract with the Metra rail transportation system to make coach seats, only to see the company use the money to hire strikebreaking day labor agencies.

According to Eduardo Perez, of the Chicago Day Labor Organizing Project, some of the agencies involved in the Coach and Car situation do not have required state licenses, overcharge workers to be transported in overloaded vans without state safety inspection stickers, discriminate against women workers and commit blatant wage and hours violations.

Del Valle pointed out that there is already a law in Illinois, almost never enforced, that forbids the use of 'professional strikebreakers.'

Del Valle and a colleague in the lower house, State Rep. Willie Delgado, have been trying for several years to pass legislation that will specifically forbid the use of day laborers as strikebreakers.

Two years ago, del Valle was able to pass legislation requiring licensing and other rules for day labor agencies, but the Illinois Manufacturers' Association successfully lobbied to excise language forbidding the use of day laborers in strikes from that law.

Last year del Valle tried again, but the Republican leadership in the Illinois Senate stopped the bill. He promised to return to the legislature in January with another bill to put an end to the practices that are going on at Coach and Car, and to increase penalties for day labor agencies that violate the law.

'If that sounds like a threat to these people,' said del Valle, 'it is because it is.'