Quick Hit Ashlee Rezin Monday February 4th, 2013, 11:57am

Chicago Textile Workers Organize To Fight Unfair Labor Conditons & Low Wages

Workers at Artistic Stitches in Chicago’s Westside neighborhood of Ukrainian Village voted in favor of joining the Workers United union last month, claiming lack of holiday pay and other wage issues.

Labor representatives and community activists gathered in front of the embroidery factory at 2639 W. Grand Ave. last Thursday to announce the decision by the 59 Artistic Stitches employees.

The predominantly Latino workers approached Arise Chicago claiming they were forced to work Thanksgiving without holiday pay. After a walkout, and working with the organization for more than two months, Arise facilitated an introduction with the Chicago & Midwest Regional Joint Board, Workers United union, an affiliate of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU)*.

A petition for a union election was filed with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) on December 14.

“Arise suggested that maybe the best possible way to go was to try to get a union because only under a collective bargaining agreement would it be possible to solve the many, many, problems the workers had,” said Jorge Mujica, an organizer with Arise Chicago, at Thursday’s press conference.

Mujica said through “legal, but unfair” work cycles, Artistic Stitches employees get laid off every year around December, then re-hired in January at lower wages, sometimes at an apprenticeship wage which is below the minimum wage.

The union victory at Artistic Stitches comes at a time when union membership nationwide is at its lowest percentage in nearly a century. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, last year’s total number of union members fell to 14.3 million, a 400,000 membership decrease from 2011, even though the nation’s overall employment rose by 2.4 million. The percentage of workers in unions fell to 11.3 percent, down from 11.8 percent in 2011.

The embroidery factory’s election took place on January 25. Of the 59 workers, 57 voted and 31 were in favor of joining the union.

Margarita Klein, special projects coordinator of Workers United, said the workers endured a heavy campaign against unionizing from management.

“People were intimidated by the owner, and I think the threat of union dues deterred a lot of people from voting in favor of joining,” she said. “But joining the union was the best way to go for these workers, they were working without good conditions or job security.”

Klein also said employees would not attend Thursday’s press conference because they were scared they would be locked out of the building.

Company president Ed Mancini could not be reached for comment.

Richard Monje, international vice president for Workers United, said he spoke with Mancini on the phone Thursday morning, and that Mancini promised to sit down with union representatives in a couple of weeks, after a vacation.

“I told him we could sit down and plan negotiations,” said Monje. “Or I could get my lawyer and you get yours and we could go to legal war ... But he’s going on vacation tomorrow so we’ll sit down after that.”

Artistic Stitches' web site boasts that the factory operates more than 300 embroidery machines, and is open seven days a week, 24 hours a day. According to a 2008 article by Stitches, an embroidery trade publication, Artistic Stitches brought in more than $1 million in revenue in 2006.

In a press release from Arise, following Thursday’s conference, Juana Cortez, an Artistic Stitches worker, said joining the union enables the workers to protect themselves against unjust work practices.

“Now, we can defend ourselves from the mistreatment, have paid vacations and holidays,” she said. “Now, there can be equality.”

* The SEIU Illinois Council spronsors this web site.

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