In tiny RI, jewelry workers fight mighty battle

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EAST PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Jobs with Justice has launched a national campaign for justice for 280 workers here who found their workplace padlocked with no warning two months ago.

Thirteen of the workers were arrested March 19 as they protested the auctioning off of their plant’s assets.

As bidders drove into the company parking lot in Mercedes and BMWs, about 200 picketing workers and supporters greeted them chanting, “Pay us what you owe us. We’ll go away when we get our pay.”

In waves, workers sat down in the road before they were handcuffed and taken away in police vans. Among those arrested was Shirley Samayoa, a silver-haired grandmother who had worked at the plant for 27 years.

After being held in cells for several hours, the 13 were charged with disorderly conduct and released. Greg Pehrson, an organizer with Fuerza Laboral, a local worker rights group, said the workers would plead “not guilty” at their March 26 court date, “as we believe Founders Equity are the only ones guilty of a crime here.”

The non-union Colibri Group factory was shut down by Founders Equity, a New York private equity firm that acquired control of the company a few years ago. The workers at Colibri, a manufacturer of jewelry, cigarette lighters and clocks, received no advance notice, and were paid only through Jan. 14, the day of the closing. They and their supporters say this is a clear violation of the federal Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act, passed in 1988 and known as the WARN Act, which requires 60 days’ notice for layoffs involving 100 workers or more.

A court-appointed receiver conducted the auction of the company’s assets, and will use the proceeds to pay off the firm’s debts.

The Colibri workers say they should be first on the list to be paid.

Organized as Colibri Workers for Rights and Justice, they have won the backing of the Providence City Council and the Rhode Island General Assembly, which this month passed resolutions supporting their struggle.

At a rally here two days before the auction, some workers wore homemade headbands declaring, “Founders Equity broke the law.”

“They wiped their feet on us and told us to go away,” said 33-year Colibri worker Evelyn Rozzero. “We’re not going away.” Founders Equity “robbed this company, destroyed it,” she said angrily. “They took the money and ran.”

Her coworker Joyce Burnham described the “terrible” feeling when she received a phone call telling her the company would close the next day. “I’m going to be 62,” she said. “Who’s going to hire me?”

“So many times we went to work when we were sick, to help them get rich,” Yannery Sarit told the crowd, speaking in Spanish. “They have no respect for our dignity as workers.”

Samayoa told how the workers came together to fight for what they are owed. She compared it to “the story we tell our children of the tortoise and the hare.” The tortoise “took little steps that get us to the finish line,” she declared. “That’s what the Colibri workers have to do.”

“We have to band together,” she said.

They were joined by AFL-CIO and SEIU leaders, legislators and other supporters. Mark Mancinho of the state AFL-CIO announced the federation was donating $1,000 to the workers’ campaign and said it was “prepared to stand, sit with you until economic justice is achieved.”

Last month, a judge confirmed two big banks, HSBC and Sovereign, as “secured creditors,” putting them first in line to be paid from Colibri’s assets.

HSBC received more than $3 billion in taxpayer money from the federal bailout of insurance giant AIG last fall, according to documents released this month by AIG.

“The courts are auctioning off Colibri’s assets — equipment, goods, and licenses — to pay back the banks, HSBC and Sovereign, while Colibri workers have been promised nothing,” Jobs with Justice notes.

“It’s the same story everywhere today. The banks get bailed out and paid off, while the people who made the products that built the Colibri Group’s internationally known name, people who dedicated decades of their lives in service to Colibri, are left with nothing.”

The Colibri workers are a diverse group, including Latinos, whites, Haitians, Southeast Asians, East Asians and Portuguese people.

They are filing claims collectively with the receiver through a pro-bono attorney, said Pehrson. The lawyer is also preparing a federal WARN Act violation lawsuit against Founders Equity.

At Providence City Hall earlier this month, Councilman Luis Aponte thanked the workers for taking a stand.

“There is a belief by those in power that workers are a resource that can be done away with — a disposable and dispensable part of the global economy,” Aponte said. “The fact that you are standing up and saying … that workers are the ones who make the wealth and cannot be tossed away like a used up resource — thank you. I am in awe of you and impressed by your willingness to fight for the justice you deserve.”

The Jobs with Justice campaign supporting the Colibri workers is available at www.unionvoice.org/jobswithjustice.

suewebb @ pww.org