HIGHWOOD, Ill. – They were all smiles here June 21, as Carousel Linen workers, their families and friends celebrated their victory for union recognition. The 37 industrial laundry workers, mostly young Mexican immigrant women, had been on strike for eight months and had fought for recognition of the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE).

The new contract calls for a 32 percent increase in wages and a 401(k) plan by the third year. Workers had been eligible for individual health care coverage through the company, and for the time being, family benefits can be purchased from the UNITE clinic. The workers also won a grievance procedure with arbitration and for the first time are guaranteed paid sick leave and birthday holidays. The contract calls for immigrant rights protection and contains strong health and safety language.

Not all of the workers were called back to work, because of the economic downturn. They will be placed on a lay-off list.

“These are real heroes,” said Peter Demay, a UNITE organizer, to a packed hall festooned with red, green and white, the colors of the Mexican flag. “We want to recognize what the Carousel workers have done for all of us and especially for other low-wage workers and immigrant workers. You are a beacon of hope that says, ‘yes, you can form a union and win dignity and respect.’”

The workers struck right after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 and endured months of anti-immigrant hysteria. They were repeatedly told by Carousel owners that they were being unpatriotic. The workers won after they launched a boycott of Carousel, convincing corporate clients to drop their business until the company recognized the union.

The strike had received widespread solidarity from labor, religious, student and community groups and elected officials in Lake, McHenry and Cook counties. “This was a strike the union and workers of Carousel couldn’t have won alone. It was only through a broad coalition of labor, political, religious and community groups that we were able to win this important victory,” said Demay.

The workers presented plaques expressing their appreciation for the support they received, including to Sarita Gupta and Chicago Jobs with Justice; photographer Tom Gradel, who documented the strike; Erica Hade and the Illinois Federation of Labor; the Chicago Federation of Labor; the Chicago Federation of Musicians; Hank Perritt, a congressional candidate in Lake county; the UNITE retirees organization; the Interfaith Committee on Workers’ Issues and the Illinois District of the Communist Party.

The workers singled out organizers Eddie Acosta, Adan Jesus Quavez and Demay for special thanks. Acosta told the crowd, “As an organizer our job was a lot easier because the women were totally committed to winning this strike.”

Miriam Perez, a strike leader, thanked all those who gave their solidarity. She and all the workers who spoke especially thanked their sister workers at Skokie Valley Laundry, a neighboring union shop. It was through relatives and friends there that the Carousel workers got in touch with the union. They told the Carousel workers what to expect, and by the time the strike started they were ready. The Skokie Valley workers never missed a day coming to the picket line on their lunch break.

“You could count on us throughout the strike and you can always count on us as you build your union,” said Inez Martinez, the shop steward at Skokie Valley. Martinez said new struggles are awaiting the workers. She called for unity against Highwood’s attempt to rezone the location of both laundry shops to make way for restaurants.

“Together we are going to fight the racist attempts of the city of Highwood to shut down our laundries,” she said.

The struggle continues. But on this day, congratulations to the Carousel workers!

The author can be reached at jbachtell@ameritech.net