Illinois workers fight racist, anti-union harassment

BEDFORD PARK – Workers at Commercial Forged Products (CFP) have had enough. After signing a new contract last year, 60 members of USWA Local 2154 have endured a constant stream of attacks and African American and Latino workers have been targets of racist harassment. They are mounting a fight back for workplace dignity and equality.

Chicago Jobs with Justice and other labor, community and religious activists joined the workers on a spirited picket line in front of the company recently while jets from nearby Midway airport thundered overhead.

“I’ve been here for 14 ½ years, said Charles Gilyard, Local 2154 president. “The last three years the company has decided to attack the workers on civil rights. They have no concern for individual rights.”

Gilyard described how a former plant manager once held up a hangman’s noose to an African American worker. “This is what I used to do when I lived in Mississippi,” the manager told him. The company, which once had a majority African American workforce, also tried to remove the MLK holiday and civil rights committee from the new contract because African American workers were no longer the majority. This upset all the workers, African American, Latino and white. They also saw it as a scheme by the company to sow division.

The workers went on strike when the company sought contract language to limit the local union’s president leave to one term in office, whether re-elected or not.

“They wanted to weaken our union,” said Bob, a retired white worker. “Charles Gilyard is one of the best presidents we’ve had. The company hates him because he’s a fighter.”

Said Gilyard. “And I have fought for the rights of the workers and cost the company a lot of money. They want me out.”

Over 150 grievances have been filed against the company in the last three years. In the 11 other workplaces that make up the amalgamated local, only 80 grievances have been filed.

Workers also charge the company with ignoring the contract including bypassing the seniority system. On the day of the picket line, the older workers were sent home early while the younger ones were kept working.

“They don’t use the contact, said JC Moore, who has worked 36 years at the plant. “We came back (from the strike) to a lot of hostility. They said it was a ‘new day’. They broke into lockers, stole legal papers, picked people they wanted to work. “All we want is the right to be treated equally and to make a fair living regardless if you are Black, Hispanic or white,” said Moore.

“One of the managers wants to run the company like it’s his manor, said Jose Leon, a 5-year employee. “There are cameras inside. Workers are afraid to go to the bathroom and to talk to each other.”

Lorenzo McDonald brought greetings from the Illinois Federation of Teachers. He said the raw racism “sent me back to a place I’ve never been – the 1950s. That’s a shame. That’s why Barack Obama is in office – people want a change.” Scott Marshall, an activist in SOAR told the crowd, “To see this crowd of Black, Brown and white united saying no to racism gives one hope in the future. This is the face of the future.” Marshall urged everyone to fight for the Employee Free Choice Act to counter the attacks of the company.

A leader of the UAW Region 4, Mark Haasis, called for greater solidarity. The UAW was under attack too, he said. “I hope you’ll stand with autoworkers and whenever there’s a fight we’ll be there with you.”

“No more rich getting rich on the back of the workers,” shouted Pastor Chisholm of the Englewood Pastors Association. “We will stand united. God will support us.”

Chicago Coalition of Black Trade Unionists president Robert Simpson also joined the picket line. Simpson told the World the company “was trying to turn back the clock. But we fought too long and too hard and we bled too much. You can’t just take away rights and not expect them to fight. CBTU will stand with workers fighting anywhere and everywhere.”

CFP is a division of Wozniak Industries, a $100 million family owned business and maker of parts for John Deere and other farm implement companies.