Workers' rights at stake at El Centro de la Raza
By Julio Sánchez and Ligia M. Farfán Special to The Times The dispute Ricardo Sanchez and Jocelyn Weiner refer to in a Times commentary on May 10 ("Lingering dispute sours spirit of Cinco de Mayo") is about workers' rights denied by El Centro de la Raza when El Centro's employees attempted to exercise their rights.
The purpose of the Cinco de Mayo fund-raiser at Machinists 751 Hall was to aid United Farm Workers in their current struggle in Washington state. It was fitting to honor César Chávez, a man who began the long struggle to gain workers' rights for some of America's most exploited workers, with a fund-raiser to continue his efforts.
In 1997, over 60 percent of us, the workers of El Centro, stated a resounding "si se puede" (yes, it's possible) when we requested voluntary recognition of our union from Roberto Maestas, Ricardo Sanchez (no relation to Julio Sánchez) and the board of directors of El Centro. In doing so, we lay claim to the legacy of César Chávez, Dolores Huerta and countless other workers before us. In response to the organizing efforts by employees, El Centro mounted an anti-union campaign using harassment, threats and coercion.
In 1998, the National Labor Relations Board found 21 violations of federal law, including: retaliation, interrogation, threats, coercion, wrongful termination, isolation, onerous working conditions, restriction of communication, and withholding promised wage increases.
Two years later, another attempt by El Centro workers to organize met with similar tactics.
"My decision to resign my position was made only after a vicious campaign by my boss, Roberto Maestas, to get rid of me," wrote Sally Roccobonno, executive secretary to Roberto Maestas in her letter of resignation on October 2000. "Because management seems to operate El Centro as a family owned business, as well as it being non-union, this kind of employee treatment goes unchallenged. Employees are left no recourse other than to tolerate the abuse or leave. For the sake of my health, I chose the latter."
Now, Roberto Maestas, Ricardo Sanchez and their cadre, using the familiar tools of half-truth and innuendoes, pretend to honor the memory of César Chávez while thinly disguising their anti-union campaign. Perhaps now is a good time for Maestas and Sanchez to take notice of one of the guiding principles of El Centro, the one that advocates the right of the workers to organize. If El Centro had followed this principle when we requested, it would have been the best possible way to honor César Chávez.
Employers who violate workers' rights to organize through firings, layoffs and intimidation are often placed on labor's "Unfair - Do Not Patronize" list. El Centro is not different from Gallo Wines or J.P. Stevens in that respect. Those employers stayed on the list for years until they got it right and allowed workers to organize and bargain a union contract.
El Centro's claim that the union did not allow workers to vote is a serious misrepresentation of the facts.
"Voluntary recognition" is a term used by unions for an expedited process of determining whether a group of workers wants to be represented by a union. Workers sign union cards indicating they authorize the union to represent them. When a majority of employees have signed cards, the union then requests voluntary recognition pending a neutral third party checking the cards. Signing the cards is the vote.
Unions often seek this method of gaining recognition because it eliminates a lengthy and tedious process with a federally monitored election. Many progressive employers accept voluntary recognition as a more efficient means to allow worker rights than a National Labor Relations Board election.
In fact, one of the honorees at the Cinco de Mayo event, SeaMar Community Health Clinics, recently granted voluntary recognition for its 450 employees after a neutral third-party card check. SeaMar walks the talk.
Healing the rifts in the Latino community will not come from turning our face the other way as our brothers and sisters suffer in silence, in constant fear for their livelihood. Healing can only come when people of conscience in the community tell all employers who abuse their power, "That's enough!"
Healing can only come when Roberto Maestas heeds what we are saying: We expect more from you. You have done much good, but you need to do the right thing by your own employees - not just friends and family who work there.
We expect just treatment from Boeing, Wal-Mart and farmers, why should it be any different for El Centro de la Raza?
Ligia M. Farfán was an employee of El Centro de la Raza from 1986 to 1990, director of the Minority Juvenile Justice Improvement Project and appointee on the Governor's Working Task Force on Disproportionality in Juvenile Justice. She is currently a union representative at OPEIU 8. Julio Sánchez was an employee of El Centro de la Raza from 1996 until November 1997. He is currently a co-producer for the Spanish program Acentos, bringing news and information to the Latino community. Julio works as a LELO volunteer educating workers on rights to organize and globalization.
Copyright © 2001 The Seattle Times Company
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