Interfaith solidarity boosts Pilsen workers

CHICAGO — A string of yellow school buses brought interfaith religious leaders to the La Casa del Pueblo supermarket in the Pilsen community May 23 to demonstrate their support for workers who have been leading a campaign to organize a union there. They were among about 200 hundred people gathered at the store in this largely Mexican American neighborhood. Participating were community members, Pilsen-area churches, and clergy and religious activists from around the country who were in Chicago for the Third National Interfaith Worker Justice Conference.

As the religious activists stepped off the buses, carrying signs saying, “All religions believe in justice,” they were given red carnations by organizers of United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 881. The flowers symbolized the workers’ tireless effort to unionize. The crowd began to sing, “We shall not be moved,” and chanted, “What do you want? Justice! When do you want it? Now! Si se puede!”

“The workers at La Casa del Pueblo have stayed true to their values of justice and hard work throughout this campaign despite all they have been forced to endure,” said Moises Zavala, Local 881 organizer.

Kim Bobo, Interfaith Worker Justice executive director, told the gathering, “We bring hundreds of religious leaders to Pilsen to stand with these workers so they know they are not alone in this struggle. No situation better demonstrates the need for the Employee Free Choice Act — the legislation to ensure workers the right to organize — than the situation here at La Casa del Pueblo.”

Nelson Johnson, an Interfaith Worker Justice member from North Carolina, said, “We come as Christians, Muslims and Jews to show our support for the workers. When one of us is suffering we are all suffering.”

The participants joined in a group prayer: “We pray to a God of justice, toward peace and reconciliation, to protect the workers and organizers involved. We pray for hope and confidence, a greater justice with a deeper understanding.”

Workers from La Casa del Pueblo, most, if not all, undocumented immigrants from Mexico, contacted Local 881 organizers about a year ago and began working toward union representation. Since then Local 881 has been meeting with store employees weekly, informing them of their legal rights as workers and helping them to prepare to enter into collective bargaining with store owner Nicholas Lombardi. The store has reported profits, with sales exceeding $3.5 million each year since 2000.

The workers have faced continuous harassment, intimidation, discharges, and other retaliation against their efforts to organize. They recently scored an important victory when Lombardi offered to settle the 40 complaints they had brought before the National Labor Relations Board for nonpayment for hours worked, physical violence and threats of violence, violation of federal and state minimum wage and overtime laws, scheduling of seven-day workweeks, violations of OSHA standards and denial of workers compensation for on-the-job injuries. The proposed settlement includes the awarding of $32,000 in back pay for workers whose rights were violated and the reinstatement of two illegally fired workers. However, the anti-union intimidation continues.

A group of religious and community leaders met with Lombardi to inform him that the workers are unionizing and ask that he recognize Local 881 as their union upon submission of union authorization cards. Lombardi refused, saying he would rather close the store than negotiate with his employees’ union. Since then, workers say, Lombardi has threatened workers with termination and closing the store, cut hours of union supporters, fired four workers for union activity, forced union supporters to take unpaid leave, interrogated and spied on union supporters, and forced workers to sign authorization cards for an “independent union,” Amalgamated Workers Union Local 711.

On the morning of May 11, La Casa del Pueblo worker Alfonso Diez’ car was burned in front of his house. Diez is a union organizing committee leader. Apparently someone had thrown an incendiary device into the back seat. The incident is still under investigation.

“They can threaten us and even physically attack us, even burn our cars, but nothing will scare us enough to stop fighting for justice or our lawful rights!” Diez said during the rally.

Pilsen Alderman Daniel Solis of the 25th Ward and Congressman Luis Gutierrez (D), though not present at the rally, have expressed full support for the workers.

In front of the store, participants set up a shrine in honor of the workers, placing the carnations there at the rally’s end.