Why a group of Guatemalan workers voted to join the UFCW

In this issue Common Ground takes a close look at why and how the immigrant workers at Bob’s Tires, a tire recycling facility in New Bedford, Massachusetts, voted to join Local 328 of the United Food and Commercial Workers union in September. It is a story that spans international borders and decades of history, from escaping terror and genocide in Guatemala to successfully fighting back against intimidation and theft in the American workplace; from hot-button debates about immigration to the practical implications of recent National Labor Relations Board rulings.

Interview: Adrian Ventura, CCT

We conducted this interview on October 23rd at the Centro Comunitario de Trabajadores office in a New Bedford storefront with Adrian Ventura, executive director of the organization, and Dr. Lisa Maya Knauer, Chair, Department of Sociology and Anthropology at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, a longtime supporter of CCT.

Dr. Knauer translated questions and answers as Ventura responded in Spanish, and also provided extra historical context to the discussion. Many thanks to Anne Geller for transcribing the Spanish responses and doing additional translation of the English text into Spanish.

The Geopolitical Backdrop

Prof. Knauer: It starts with the civil wars, the civil war in El Salvador, the civil war in Guatemala, people start coming. It coincides with the busting of the unions in the (New Bedford) waterfront in the 1980's. There were good jobs, there were union jobs that paid $12/hour in the 1980's. There was a lockout, the companies all banded together and that happened to coincide with the arrivals of the first Central American refugees.

Once you have somebody here, word gets back and people continue to leave because of the armed conflict in Guatemala, and continue to leave even after the war ends. So the companies start to say, "Oh, you did the work. Do you have a cousin, an uncle, a sister?" So in the period after the civil war ends -- 1996 is when they signed peace accords -- there is still a lot of destabilization in the country. People come in the 2000's. The situation in Guatemala continues to suffer from both poverty, which is an endemic problem, and violence -- both from the aftermath of the civil war. The fact that the basic issues have not been resolved continues to hurt people.

What's also interesting about Bob's Tire is that the workers are almost all K'iche', and they're from the same town, San Andrés Sajcabajá, one of the towns that was hardest hit during the armed conflict. It is a place where there were massacres. It is significant that who has come here are people who are from the specific communities. It is not just a random selection. People who speak the same language (K'iche') come to the same area. This kind of chain migration of people from the same home town, from small communities where everybody knows each other, everybody is related in some way, so to me it is very significant that San Andrés was the site of massacres.

It was also the site where there had been peasant organization in the 1970's and 1980's, and those organizations were smashed. They had a pretty strong union movement localized in specific areas in the 1940's and 1950's, organizing in the banana industry and the coffee industry. A lot of people in the area of San Andrés Sajcabajá are subsistence farmers. There's not a lot of wage work there. People do work in the off season, a lot of really poor families go and work on plantations. You'd spend six months working on a plantation picking bananas, picking coffee, picking cotton, cutting sugar cane, and then go back and tend your fields, next year take the kids out of school and the whole family migrates. People had that experience of wage work, but the unions were really smashed after the 1954 coup and the 1980's again. There's a whole history of repression of unions in Guatemala. The peasant organizations that started to organize in the countryside in the 1960's and 1970's were destroyed.

Centro Comunitario de Trabajadores (Community Workers Center)

I'm Adrian Ventura, the director of CCT. The vision of CCT is that we educate, we organize, and we take action. We try to educate workers who come to our offices (in a New Bedford storefront). When they come we put various options on the table. We have allies in different areas. We have one connection with Catholic Social Services, which as a connection to Boston and also the national level.

Our people, I'm Guatemalan, I'm K’iche’, and I know that our people have confidence in the leadership we've developed, a mutual trust in both directions. A lot of people think the K'iche' don't have a kind of strength, a force of will, to organize ourselves, but what we're doing with this is breaking down this idea. We do have that strength, what people have been waiting for is recovering from the Michael Bianco raid in 2007.

In 2006 there was an immigrant organizing effort in downtown New Bedford. In 2007, ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) comes and does a raid on a factory called Michael Bianco.

It is out of this raid that CCT was born, to have a place that would address the issues of immigrants and immigrant workers as the grassroots base of the organization. I'm K'iche', indigenous from Guatemala, but we have members from Honduras, El Salvador, Mexico, from Latin America and the Caribbean, Puerto Rican, Dominican.

In Guatemala we have this kind of cancer inside us, that we think that you start talking about unions, and then they kill you. Most of the people who work in this industry are K'iche', and people are just terrified of talking about unions. We've been talking, taking very preliminary steps, trying to lift people's sense of fear so they can decide what option is best for them, whether to try to organize a union or to organize some other form of organization of workers within the workplace.

I also worked in the fish processing industry, cutting lawns, I worked in tire recycling. I only lasted three days working in tire recycling. You have to stack the tires up and one of them came tumbling down, and they were 250 pounds, and I just went running. I said "I'm going to die here." I said to the guys I was working with, "You guys stay here, I'm going to find a different job." They didn't pay me for those days. I had a lot of debt at that time.

In 2009 I was granted political asylum.

CCT has recovered over the years about one and a half million dollars in back salary for different workers. We do direct action, we've gone to the attorney general's office, for workers in construction, painting, landscaping, fish processing, the needle trades and stitching, embroidery. Individual cases we've helped. We've totalled it up and it is about $1,500,000 in big and small settlements.

Prof. Knauer: We have a new settlement that is at one of the seafood processing companies. The NLRB was able to get unjustly fired workers' lost salary from Norpel (one of the companies). We're going to have a press conference in early November to announce the settlement.

We work with Fuerza Laboral in Rhode Island, we're allies with them. They're very good people who do the same kind of work. We began during the same time. We coordinate, we support them.

Bob’s Tires, a tire recycling company in New Bedford

I worked at Bob's Tires around 1995. The different positions there, those who take the tires off the trucks, those who make the selection of categorizing them, others who clean them. There are those who test them to decide if they are going to resell or recycle them. They wash them, they clean them, and they sell them around here. They're also the ones who go out on the trucks, and pick up the tires. They completely take them apart, they take the rims off, sell the metal, they grind up the tires into shreds and they sell the rubber to other companies. He has 23 trucks, so that they go out daily.

Bob's Tires has recruited some white workers, some Puerto Rican workers, but his workforce is all Guatemalans. The people who work in the office and drive are white, and the rest are Guatemalans. They don't have a table to eat on, there is only one bathroom for all the workers, they're really inhuman conditions there. You really can't ignore those complaints, and when you talk to one of the workers you are just filled with anguish.

In January, we had three people from CCT who were inside this company. We said what you guys should do is get together and talk to the owner. So the owner said to them, in the summer I will give you an increase, but I really want to see production, you guys have to work fast. They did everything, and the time came, and they asked for the increase, and what did he do, he fired the guys who had led this. So they came here, and in August we made a delegation, and we went to them and said "What you are doing isn't right." (Knauer) I was there, I was a witness to that.

So the workers had all asked that he rehire Tomás, one of the leaders, so they brought Tomás back the next day.

At this point they didn't really know anything about unions. When Tomás went back to work, that victory brought everybody here to celebrate that day, and so when UFCW representatives were there they said the only way you can guarantee this will not happen again is to have a contract, and so we explained and they said OK, they understood.

They began to sign union cards. They had faith that everybody would advance with this, it would be good for everyone. Meeting together brought changes. (The boss) started treating people better, he wanted to destabilize the union. The workers said you already fooled us once. For the K'iche's, we're a different culture, we don't always write things down, but we're very faithful to what we say. It is very shameful is someone doesn't comply with what they say they are going to do, and that's what's pushed us to keep on moving forward.

We're now talking to the lawyer to be able to see this through. The workers have also asked if CCT can be part of the negotiations. They themselves asked for that.

Since the year before, UFCW has been working with us on this project in the fishing industry. Tom Clarke (director of UFCW’s Region 1) and Jim Riley (Secretary-Treasurer of Local 328) from the local came and visited here, and said "We're here to help you if you're ready to move forward."

This is the first time in Massachusetts that UFCW brought together a temporary agency and the company for negotiations. The NLRB had some questions about this, but they understood.

The workers at Bob's Tires are very content with what's happening with this new step. Yesterday we were at a dinner. They were telling us there were some changes in the company since the union election. Now they're giving some uniforms and some gear where in the past they had to buy their own gloves.

(Stability) has been really beneficial to us, we learned something about the process. I've been an organizer since 2006 here in New Bedford. We haven't had the experience of working side by side with a union. UNITE/HERE is also working here, and we talk and support each other, but the UFCW has really put someone on the ground here. Now that we've achieved this for workers, this is sort of a pilot project, it is the first time we've done this, and involved a temporary agency.

After the vote, they've started the process (of planning the workers' demands), meeting and taking big pieces of paper and writing down the things that they want, for the benefits, the things they'd like to have, and there is a lawyer that's going to be representing them throughout the process. That's where they're at.

They need gloves because their hands just get cracked. They want basic training in health and safety. There are a lot of people who get injured. The same day of the voting a guy got injured at work. One of the machines grabbed part of his arm, and he lost some flesh there. That's the kind of thing that we want to prevent. So they have a kitchen, microwave, water, so if it is raining they have some protection from the rain. Although the factory owner is really angry.

Prof. Knauer: Observing this process has been an interesting mesh between the union and this particular community, because there is a different culture of organizing. So the union came and said, "OK, we want to find out what the demands are, and the way we're going to do it we have these little forms, and the committee members we want you to take these and go one by one and talk to your fellow workers one at a time so that everybody can be heard." So their idea of inclusivity is that we do it one on one. And the Guatemalans said "This isn't how we do things in our culture, our culture is collective." And so people said "What are you talking about, we don't want to do this isolated. We feel it is more inclusive if we all sit." And of course, the American perspective that if people are all together the herd mentality and groupthink will prevent other voices from being heard. For the Guatemalans it is the confidence and the security of feeling that they're in collectivity, that they're in discussion and dialog, and don't isolate us one by one.

Fishing for Justice

We're doing the first steps of education with workers in the fish packing industry. We have a organizer who is with UFCW, his name is Aspacio, he's Spanish speaking. He has been talking with some of the workers. In this industry workers know nothing about unions. They don't know anything about this. So he's explaining to them very methodically, educationally telling them what the benefits are and what the process is, so we're in the initial steps of that.

We have a commitment to work at the 28 fish packing companies in New Bedford. These are very vulnerable workers, facing racial attacks, exploitation, discrimination, sexual harassment, and wage theft. This industry is really controlled by a mafia, that's what we call it. Underneath these companies there is a kind of mafia that controls the waterfront. They tell the city government that they don't have any money, that they're broke, that they're falling apart, but that's not really the case. But we can say, from the survey we did together with the Worker Institute at Cornell university that they are earning millions of dollars off the backs of the workers they're earning millions of dollars [As part of the Fishing for Justice Campaign CCT surveyed more than 150 workers in the seafood processing industry and did some other research on the industry. The Worker Institute helped design the survey questionnaire and analyzed the results] .

That's what we're doing with a project that's called Fishing for Justice. We're recruiting allies, people from the academic community, people from communities of faith like Father Marc [Fr. Marc Fallon from Catholic Social Services], from the unions, so that we all come together to work on behalf of vulnerable workers. We have a committee that's monitoring these companies.