News Column

Azteca Foods Strike Heats Up for Velasquez

December 6, 2002

James B. Arndorfer

Arthur Velasquez of Azteca Foods.
Arthur Velasquez of Azteca Foods.

The union representing striking workers at Azteca Foods Inc. is turning the walkout into a personal fight with company founder Arthur Velasquez, one of the city's highest-profile Hispanic businessmen and a civic leader.

Local 1159 of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America is pleading its case to elected officials, businesses, church leaders and community groups in an effort to pressure the Chicago-based maker of Mexican foods to meet its contract demands. The union represents 90 Azteca production workers, 63 of whom have been on strike since Sept. 30.

In October, the union staged a rally in front of LaSalle Bank N.A.'s downtown headquarters urging the bank to drop Mr. Velasquez, Azteca's president and CEO, from its board of directors. Last month, union members talked to Cardinal Francis George when he attended a fund-raiser for a Roman Catholic organization at the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum, where Mr. Velasquez is a director.

Now, the union is targeting the University of Notre Dame, Mr. Velasquez's alma mater, where he now is a trustee. The union is working with students who are in the process of organizing an effort to pressure the administration to urge Mr. Velasquez to reach a settlement or drop him from the board.

"He obviously cares about his reputation in the community," says Electrical Workers organizer Leah Fried, who says the union is seeking wage increases, seniority rights, paid sick days and better retirement benefits. "He's going to be concerned about that."

A LaSalle spokesman would say only that "Mr. Velasquez continues to serve on our board." A spokesman for the Archdiocese of Chicago says the cardinal "may look into it further" but "there's no indication he's going to get involved in any direct way."

A spokesman for Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., says, "The administration is not going to insert itself into Art's business matters."

No sign of cracking

Mr. Velasquez, who insists that Azteca's pay and benefits lead the tortilla industry, says the union's demands are extravagant and the company is seeking a fair contract.

"I'm dealing with people who are trying to destroy me and my company," says Mr. Velasquez, who founded Azteca in 1970 and has been active in professional and civic organizations throughout his career. Azteca posted $35 million in sales in 2001.

"We're not trying to destroy the company," Ms. Fried responds. "We're essentially saying, until he treats his employees right . . . people shouldn't do business with him."

The union's current "corporate campaign" involves trying to enlist community and business support to put pressure on the company while parties are at the bargaining table.

"The goal is to create negative publicity and get to the point where the business deals with you to stop (the publicity)," says Ron Bigler, a research analyst at Labor Research Associates, a New York-based consulting firm that works with unions.

Mr. Velasquez hasn't shown any sign of cracking. He disputes union claims that a current boycott is hurting sales and that the strike has hindered production at Azteca, and vows the union's tactics won't work.

While the union has enlisted support from a range of community, workers rights and religious groups, such as Jobs With Justice and the Chicago Interfaith Committee on Worker Issues, it's unclear whether the campaign has hurt Mr. Velasquez's image.

"I don't think people look at Art in a different way," says Carlos Tortolero, executive director of Chicago's Mexican Fine Arts Center.

The Electrical Workers union started representing Azteca workers in April, after employees booted their previous union, Distillery Workers Local 3. Talks have gone slowly since then, with each side accusing the other of not budging.

The union is seeking a $2 hourly wage increase over three years for workers who now earn between $9 and $11 an hour, and a bonus for future retirees equal to $250 for each year of service with the company, which currently provides a 401(k) plan.

Accusations before NLRB

The company has offered raises ranging from 10 cents to 70 cents an hour over three years, depending on an employee's job classification. Mr. Velasquez declines to comment on the retirement bonus, but acknowledges that the company proposed boosting employees' share of monthly health insurance premiums to $70 from $10. Even with the increase, Azteca still would be paying 90 percent or more of the premiums, Mr. Velasquez says.

He says Azteca has absorbed rising health care costs in the past and notes that the company's proposal was "not the final offer."

"They came in with a very, very high laundry list and we came in, of course, lower," Mr. Velasquez says. "That's the process of negotiations."

The process has also led to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), with each party making accusations about the other. The board will hold a hearing in February on a union charge that the company illegally threatened to terminate workers for union activity over the summer. The company denies the charge and has accused the union of picket-line intimidation.

Citing insufficient evidence, the NLRB has already dismissed charges that union members menaced and threatened employees and followed workers leaving the factory. Without admitting wrongdoing in other charges, the union promised to follow the law in its conduct of the strike.

*View Propaganda from UE 1159

Source: ©2002 Reuters

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