Tortilla flap

Tortilla flap – New Voices

Sarah Karp

Frustrated with their boss, most of the 90 workers at Azteca Foods walked out of the tortilla factory at 5005 S. Nagie Ave. Two months ago and have not returned.

The workers say they got the courage to strike after changing unions this past spring. The United Electrical Radio and Machine Workers of America now represents them.

The union charges that company owner Arthur R. Velasquez has engaged in unfair labor practices, such as threatening to fire the workers responsible for changing unions. Workers also are upset at a proposed increase in health care costs.

Velasquez denies engaging in any unfair labor practices, and says the health care increases are fair, considering how little he has asked the workers to pay in the past.

The workers and Velasquez have negotiated since May. Both sides blame the other for refusing to budge on key issues.

Velasquez is a second-generation Mexican American, and most of his workers are first-generation.

Both sides say the fact that the showdown pits Latinos against Latinos makes it even more painful.

On a street corner near the Azteca Foods plant, Josefina Bonilla sits on a green folding chair inside a tent made out of plastic sheets and old wool blankets. A space heater gives off a frothy heat and warms a stew of tomatoes, boiled chicken and noodles.

Although Bonilla is 50 years old, her plump face and loose ponytail make her look young. But her small creased hands, which she keeps pressed against her chest, show her age.

She stayed on her feet for hours at a time in the hot factory; and the frequently dangerous job has left scars on her arms.

“It is very hard work,” Bonilla said through a translator.

Bonilla makes $9 an hour, a little less than her husband, Pedro, who does the same kind of factory work for another company.

These days, Bonilla spends her time marching outside the tent on West 51st Street and South Nagle Avenue or huddled inside below a large picture of the Virgin Mary. Nearby, a generic bottle of aspirin and a paper cup hang by a string.

When asked about it, Bonilla and the other workers laugh. They explain that the worry that comes with being on strike often leaves them with headaches, so they keep a ready supply of aspirin. Anytime a worker takes one, he or she is asked to drop some change in the paper cup.

How long have you been at Azteca Foods?

I worked there for 28 years, ever since I was 22 years old. I came to Chicago [almost 30 years ago] from Mexico for a better life. When I first started working for Azteca, it was nice. Now it has changed. It was small back then. It was like a family. We have all grown old together.

What made you decide to go on strike?

It is very hard to work in the Azteca company; especially because they have no respect for the workers. It is very bad. They insult us all the time, and it is very hard work. In order to call attention to a person, the foreman whistles instead of calling us by our names. They call us stupid and say that we are no good. And they say if we don’t like the way they talk to us, we can just leave. They forbid us from talking to certain people. At lunchtime, sometimes if your machine needs attention, they make you stop your lunch and come back. They don’t care how they treat us. Sometimes if your children have doctors’ appointments, they make you stay [and work]. I have two children, now 20 and 22. When they were little, I was forced to work overtime.

It wasn’t very difficult to decide to go on strike. We liked the union people because they said they would teach us to fight for our rights. At first we were afraid to lose our jobs, and [company owner Arthur R.] Velasquez threatened us. But now we got the new union, and they are for the people. That is why we are not afraid. The only reason he is really mad is because we changed the union. But with the old union we were always abused. We didn’t know what our rights were. We didn’t know how to defend ourselves.

What do you think of Velasquez?

He is very good in the Latino community. He is friends with the priests. He gives the priests money, but he refuses to help us out. He should share with us because he built this company on Mexican backs. It is 98 percent Mexican workers. We have made him rich. When he first started, he was a good person, even though he paid us little. When he began to make money, he began to care more and more about that money. He never loved us. We are poor people and we are just trying to fight for our rights. It hurts even more that his roots are Latin. His family comes from Mexico. Now that we are on strike we see him a lot. Sometimes he drives by five times a day. He drives very slowly. He is very upset.

How has the strike affected you and the other workers?

We do this work to live, and it hurts not to have a check. All of us have children. The union has been very helpful in paying some of the bills and for the gasoline so that we can get here. They also give us a little bit of food. I make $400 a week with overtime. But my son goes to college, and I have no way to pay for it.

And the 30 people who didn’t go on strike with you?

I feel sorry for them. They are like slaves. I wish they would open their eyes and start learning their rights. There are laws that protect them.

Are you worried about going back to work when the strike is over?

I am not. We will go back with our heads high.

Arthur R. Velasquez slowly drives up to the corner of West 51st Street and South Nagle Avenue in his silver Lexus sports car, rolls down his window and–half in Spanish, half in English–tells a group of four men that they can make money if they come inside.

The men shake their heads and look away. Velasquez eventually drives on, disappearing into the network of factories and parking lots that surround this Southwest Side industrial park.

The Azteca Foods workers’ strike has embarrassed, angered and saddened Velasquez. He points out that he is not a faceless corporate executive, but a man who grew up in Pilsen and cares about the Latino community.

Now a 64-year-old grandfather of 11, Velasquez remembers that his own grandparents were Mexican immigrants who made a living working in steel mills, on farms, and in restaurants. His father and mother owned a small business in Pilsen.

Velasquez said his parents instilled in him the value of giving back to the community.

In 1974, he was elected to serve as a University of illinois trustee, making him the first Hispanic in Illinois to hold any statewide elected office.

He founded and later sold a Spanish language radio station, WOPA, because he believed Latinos needed a way to communicate with each other. He has served on the boards of a number of organizations, including the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund, Catholic Charities, and the Mexican Fine Arts Museum in Pilsen.

How did you start Azteca Foods?

Some of the people felt that we needed to start a business in the inner city, in Pilsen, where we could show and prove out that we could start a small business. We wanted to sell a product outside of the community and bring economic development into the area. We didn’t put the factory in Pilsen. We put it in the Southwest Side of Chicago, but many of the first employees were from the Pilsen community, and we have been in business for 32 years.

There were 10 original investors. They met at the Azteca Lion’s Club, [a civic group founded by Velasquez’ father in 1967]. And, because I had just gotten done with business school at the University of Chicago, they kind of looked at me to put a business plan together. We all put our life savings in, about $8,000 each, and started Azteca with about $80,000. We decided we wanted to create a market for tortillas and sell them to supermarkets. It started to take off in 1973 and ’74. Then we sold the business in 1984 and bought it back in 1989. We bought it with a partner, and my wife and I bought our partner out in 1996.

What are your thoughts on the strike?

I really and truly think the leaders of the union wanted publicity for the union, and they didn’t have the best interests of the people in mind. It is hard for me to believe [anything else] when they went to these tactics almost Immediately. I haven’t made my last offer. The last few meetings they wouldn’t move, so what do you do? I am not going to negotiate against myself.

The women workers said supervisors had told them they were stupid-

Of course not. If I had heard that anyone was being mistreated, I would have fired the supervisors. Then they also say we take advantage of them because they were undocumented. But I paid for the lawyer to help these people get their papers when amnesty was offered. I mean, it is crazy.

What about the health insurance?

Health insurance has been going up dramatically, 15 to 20 percent per year for years. Right now [at Azteca], a single person pays nothing, and the person with a family pays $10. But I pay $300 for singles and $700 for families. We say, ‘You pay 10 percent, and we will pay 90 percent.’ What kind of company would give you this kind of plan? Give me a break.

It seems like you have realized the American dream, but a lot of these people are still struggling.

They are letting you believe they are only making $9 an hour. Some are. Some are earning more, when you take into account the benefits and their overtime. The cost of the company is three times my competitor’s cost. So yes, it is difficult for them. But many of their children are in college or out of college, and they are realizing the American dream. You should see the cars they are driving. These are $35,000 cars, and most of them have a home. So they are not poor, poor people. They are people who have been able to establish themselves firmly in the community. Why? Because they had the benefits. They all go back to Mexico once or twice a year. They all have homes; they all have cars. Some are doing much better than others. They are not living in poverty.

COPYRIGHT 2002 Community Renewal Society

COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group