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Hispanic Heritage Month Spotlight: An Interview with Esther R. Lopez, International Vice President and Director of the UFCW’s Civil Rights and Community Action Department   

Esther LopezAs part of the our ongoing celebration of Hispanic Heritage month, we sat down with UFCW International Vice President and Director of the Civil Rights and Community Action Department Esther Lopez to talk about the important relationship of the Labor movement and the achievements and contributions made by Hispanics.

 

What does your Hispanic Heritage Month mean to you? 

There are nearly 53 million Hispanics in America.  It is an opportunity to acknowledge, affirm and celebrate the contributions of Hispanic communities across America.   One of my favorite quotes is “diversity is a blessing not a burden,” and Hispanic Heritage Month is a celebration of diversity.

 

How and why did you become involved with the labor movement?

If you have a vision for a future of opportunity and hope, then you see a future where all workers can join a union.  Unions are the difference between working families that thrive and working families that merely survive.   Unions are especially critical to Hispanic workers – workers earn more, are more likely to have health insurance, and less likely to get injured on the job.  Unions are essential to our future progress.

I connected with the labor movement as a volunteer in high school.  We were working to register and move Hispanic voters to the polls. Because I was bilingual, I did phone banking.  There was no turning back.

 

Immigration reform is an important issue for the Hispanic community.  What is the Civil Rights and Community Action Department doing in terms of helping workers get started on the pathway to civic participation and citizenship in preparation for the passage of a comprehensive immigration reform bill?

Nearly 9 million individuals are eligible to apply for U.S. citizenship.  The Union Citizen Action Network (UCAN) is a program to assist legal permanent residents to become U.S. citizens.  We are training members, stewards, union staff, and community and faith allies to assist UFCW members to apply for naturalization.   We are expanding access to affordable legal services by building strong partnerships with affordable legal providers.

Our goal is for UFCW members to see our union as the first place to get accurate and timely information about immigration issues.  I believe the workplace is the space where immigrant and refugees become fully integrated into our overall community.

 

As one of the highest ranking Hispanic leaders at the UFCW, what suggestions do you have for other Hispanics who want to become more involved in the labor movement?

Hispanic workers are the fastest growing sector of the workforce, and Hispanic members are over 25% of our union.  We have a very special responsibility to grow the labor movement and to grow our union.   There is something profoundly powerful about workers coming together to make decisions about their workplace.  In short, it means we become active members of our union.
How would you say union membership helps to narrow the income and equality gap—something that disproportionately affects Latinos and other minorities?

The evidence is indisputable.  If you are a member of a union, you earn more, have better benefits and more job stability.   Low-wage, non-union jobs are a sentence to poverty – and this is why we have to talk about the difference between union jobs and non-union jobs at our dinner tables and churches and to politicians and community leaders.  More importantly, we have to organize workers.

 

Finally, why is Hispanic Heritage Month so important to you and do you have any favorite union-made Hispanic heritage family recipes that you would like to share?

Let’s celebrate diversity in the workplace.  I invite UFCW members to use Hispanic Heritage Month to create opportunities to share our racial, ethnic and cultural richness with their coworkers. Organize an event where we can learn and share history and culture with each other.  Invite coworkers to community events.

And all cultures have their version of “fried dough” – and let’s face it – it is delicious.  So here goes mine.   We call them “sopapillas” (so-pa-pi-yas).

Union Made Sopapillas

1 pkg Red Star dry yeast

1/4 cup warm water

3/4 cup milk (plenty of union-made choices, like President Choice)

4 tbsp Domino sugar

1 tbsp Morton salt

2 tbsp Land O’Lakes butter

3 c Gold Medal flour

About 2 inches of any cooking oil, like La Preferida

 

Soften yeast – set it aside.

Combine milk, sugar and salt – bring to boil

Remove from heat – stir in butter – cool to lukewarm.

Stir in beaten egg, add yeast, gradually add flour,

Cover dough with cloth – allow to rise to about double in size – about an hour.

On floured board knead until dough is smooth,

Let rest for 15 minutes.

 

Roll to about nearly 1/2 inch and cut into 2 inch squares,

Heat oil to about 350 – make sure oil is nice and hot.

Cook sopapillas a few at a time – browning on one side and turning once.  They will puff up.

 

Drain and serve with honey or powdered sugar. I like honey.

 

 

To share your own stories of Labor and Hispanic heritage, or your favorite union-made recipes, hit us up on facebook or tell us here: http://www.ufcw.org/resources/members/share-your-story/

 

Market Basket Workers Secure a Win For CEO – But The Best Guarantee For Workers Is a Union

10563144_10150570831129945_3415508911030324359_nFor the past few months, it’s been hard to escape news about the unprecedented actions of employees at the New England grocery chain Market Basket, who risked their jobs to stand up for their ousted CEO, Arthur T. Demoulas.

After feuding within the family-owned chain’s leadership, “Arthur T.” as he was known by Market Basket workers, was ousted from his position. This set off the chain of events in which workers demanded his return, saying that under his leadership, Market Basket provided good jobs.

Now, in what is being touted as a huge worker victory, Arthur T. has been reinstated as head of Market Basket.

However, upon closer look, Market Basket workers still may not be in the best position. A recent In These Times article points out that:

“Looking closer at much of the glowing press about Demoulas’ management style reveals that many of his most vocal supporters are managers, even senior management. The testimonials at We are Market Basket come almost entirely from management.

According to Dennis Desmond, a part-time night cleaner at Market Basket Store 48 in Haverhill—whose hours, like those of all the part-time workers, were cut to zero during the strike—management helped coordinate the action. ‘At my facility, and at the [New Hampshire] facility, employees were paid [by management] to hold protest signs,’ he told In These Times in an email.”

This information begs the question: If rank and file workers are being told not to report to work by their direct supervisors, are they really on strike? It also makes the outcome of the strike’s outcome a bit cloudier–who benefits from the worker action?

And UFCW member Jeff Goldhaber has worked for the Stop & Shop supermarket chain, also New England-based, for 21 years, and works full-time. He recently told Labor Notes about his experience talking with Market Basket workers:

“For the last week or so, I’ve been speaking with workers from Market Basket stores. What I heard from these hourly workers was very different than what you hear in the press from striking managers.

These workers are very dedicated to their customers and their jobs. However, they are also outright scared about what the future holds for them, their families, and the company they all seem to like working for.

The majority are part-time and have been laid off during this struggle. Without paychecks, some have had no money coming into their households.

Talking to these workers, I realized the movement to ‘Save Artie T.’ and the movement to ‘Save Market Basket’ were never quite the same thing.”  

To see Jeff’s full testimony, about why having a union has made his job at Stop and Shop, as well as 45,000 other brothers and sisters, a good job–and why it would do the same for Market Basket, click here.

The In These Times piece says that:

“These questions—as-yet unanswered by the media and the campaign’s most vocal employee representatives—are why it’s important for observers on the Left to take care when referring to Market Basket ‘workers.’ Normally, when progressives discuss labor disputes, those in charge are clearly labeled as management. In the case of Market Basket, managers’ decision to take industrial action has led the media to recast them as ‘workers,’ although they still wield power over rank-and-file workers and enjoy significantly higher compensation and benefits. And while laid-off managers and full-timers immediately got their jobs back from Arthur T., part-timers received no assurance that their hours would be fully restored.

The obvious counterbalance to managers who may or may not have the workers’ best interests at heart is a union.”

None of this undermines the fact that workers stood together, and achieved something huge when they stood up for their rights. As the UFCW said in an earlier statement, “Market Basket workers have an unassailable right to engage in collective action in defense of their benefits and working conditions. These workers deserve a guarantee that their livelihoods will not be jeopardized by a change in management.”

To truly guarantee those rights, Market Basket workers could stand together, just as they have been doing – this time to form a union at Market Basket. The UFCW has listened to the concerns of hundreds of Market Basket workers who have reached out to us through our local offices, our websites, and through social media. With the support of UFCW members at Stop and Shop, we have been helping workers weigh their options going forward. The UFCW will continue talking to any workers who are interested in bargaining to gain more meaningful assurances from Market Basket that their families will not suffer through another lay-off because of a future family feud.

The Way They Worked: UFCW International Secretary-Treasurer Marc Perrone Shares How His Grandparents Shaped His Work Ethic

D10782_C_0687This Labor Day weekend, Jobs with Justice has launched a series of stories called The Way They Worked to collect and share stories from people in the labor movement about how their grandparents worked, and what they learned from them. We sat down with our own UFCW International Secretary-Treasurer Marc Perrone to hear about his grandfather Joe and grandmother Gaetana:

My grandmother arrived in America through the port of New Orleans and my grandfather through Ellis Island, both immigrating from Italy.

Before my grandmother Gaetana met her future husband Joe, she stayed for a while in Louisiana among other Italian immigrants, and her brother worked in the cane fields. Unfortunately, Gaetana’s brother died while working out in the fields one day. The people who employed Gaetana’s brother never notified his family, and buried him in an unmarked grave.

This sad occurrence was just one example of the experiences many immigrant families faced in those times.

Eventually, both of my grandparents and their families moved to Texas where they became sharecroppers and farmers. Joe and Gaetana eventually met and married.

As immigrants, my grandparents and their families experienced a good deal of discrimination. They would always tell me a story, and it has really stuck with me all these years. Before they were sharecroppers, my grandfather and his younger brother had heard that the railroad company was laying track and that there were jobs to clear the land. They walked over to the job-site but were told that since they did not own any tools, they couldn’t get the job. So, my grandfather and his brother walked into town and went to a hardware store. They didn’t have any money, but they talked to the store owner to work out a deal where they could each buy an axe on credit so they could work. Finally, the store owner agreed to the deal and gave them the axes on the condition they pay him back. The brothers then returned to the job-site to talk to the foreman about hiring them, since they now owned the appropriate equipment. However, the foremen simply told them, “we don’t hire Italians here.”

The brothers protested, saying they had been told if they got the tools they could work, but the answer was the same. The brothers were forced to return to the hardware store and return the unused axes, but the store owner refused to take them back, leaving the brothers in debt to him, with no foreseeable way for them to pay him back.

My grandmother Gaetana also had been teased so much about her Italian name in school that she changed her name to Agnes, and was harassed so badly for being an immigrant that she dropped out of school and never learned to read or write.

Despite these hardships, my grandparents worked very hard as sharecroppers and were eventually able to scrape enough money together to buy a plot of land, which they farmed, raising cattle and other farm products. They were up at 5:00 every morning and out the door, checking on the animals, plowing the fields, baling hay, and keeping things going.

The main thing I learned from my grandparents was that if you wanted something in life, you had to work really hard to get it. But if you did that, and respected people, then good things would come to you–and that you could in fact make it, even if you started with nothing.

The other thing I learned, was just how important family was. In addition to working hard on the farm and garden, my grandmother always made sure we had a big traditional Italian Sunday dinner, with home-made spaghetti sauce. And my grandfather always told me, no matter what it was about, I could always come to my family with a problem or if I needed help.

Seeing discrimination and experiencing it themselves, my grandparents were believers in respecting people–treating them fairly and decently, and that had a big impact on me. For many people, families are often your only support system. Today, so many people come to America for a better life, and have to find work and face all kinds of barriers, including discrimination. Many come all by themselves, and their families are far, far away. In these situations, who becomes your support system when you are treated unfairly at work? When workers stick together, that support system is each other. When you are going through the same experiences, or living in worker housing together, people learn to rely on each other and work together to make things better. I think that’s a big part of why I started getting involved in the union.

America’s economy benefits from the hard work and contributions from immigrants, but they are often taken advantage of, discriminated against, or left vulnerable by a lack of protections in the workplace. Both in the days of my grandparents, and today, employers try to drive apart immigrants from different countries or races, or pit them against each other, so that it is harder for them to unite in dealing with issues in the workplace. But when workers stand together they have the power to change things that aren’t right, and even the playing field.

That’s why, as a union, we try to help immigrants however we can–whether it’s creating  a path to citizenship, or bargaining for important workplace protections. Your union is truly your family when your support system is far away, and even if it isn’t. When my father died, I had been working for our union, the UFCW, for 33 years. I was walking out of the church from his funeral, and saw the former director who had hired me to work at UFCW coming in. He was over eighty years old, had been retired for 20 years, and had traveled over 100 miles to be there. That really demonstrated to me how union people are your family.

Whether someone is an immigrant or not, unions are avenues and vehicles for people to improve their lives. They are made up of groups of people that provide physical and psychological support, and can be the difference in feeling like you are powerless to change something, to feeling empowered to make a difference.

Tell us about your grandparents’ work story! Send submissions to Submissions@ufcw.org, post on our facebook page, or fill out an online form here.