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Chicago Cooper Lamp Workers

‘When you fight, you can win’

by staff |
September 1, 2005
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Tony holding sign saying, "Fair Elections."
Tony Caldera of the New Leadership Slate. (Fight Back! News)

Chicago, IL - The company and the union officials agreed: The workers would get nothing. These workers that had made the company owners rich by making lamps to be sold to wealthy people around the world, these workers, would now get nothing. The company was being sold and their jobs would be eliminated. Most had worked in this factory for more than 25 years and now they would get nothing.

The owners of the Frederick Cooper Lamp Company had sold the company name. They had sold the factory building to a developer who intended to turn the property into luxury condominiums. While this would make millions and millions of dollars for the owners, it would leave more than 100 workers without a job. The plan was to take the money and run. Give the workers nothing.

The owners thought that they had it made. The officials of Teamsters Local 743, which represents the Frederick Cooper workers, had agreed to the deal. “Whether they are stupid, corrupt or some combination, we are not sure, but the effect was the same, we were being sold out by the union,” said 21-year employee Esmeralda Cuevas, “and we were not going to take it.”

The workers voted down the closing agreement. Not once but twice. The union told them if they did not accept it they would lose all their vacation time and the annual bonus that had been negotiated five years earlier. Despite this, the workers said “No!” in overwhelming numbers. As he was leaving the factory after the vote, Local 743 business agent Jimmy Burns said, “Dumb Mexicans, now you will lose everything.”

This insult from the their union official outraged the workers. Many of the workers were immigrants from Mexico, as well as Poland and many other countries. Many were born in Chicago or somewhere else in the United States. But they all understood that they would have to stick together in solidarity if they were to make any gains.

A meeting was organized by the 743 New Leadership Slate (743 NLS). Frederick Cooper workers Tony Caldera and Esmeralda Cuevas had run for union office on the 743 NLS ticket and had the respect of all the workers. The 743 NLS helped the workers organize a list of demands and reach out to allies in the community.

The workers found out that the community did not want the factory to shut down either. They appreciated the union jobs in the area and did not want high-price condominiums to change their working-class neighborhood. The workers at the Cooper and Logan Square Neighborhood Association, along with community leaders, religious leaders and others formed the Cooper Task Force. The goal was to fight for a good severance package for the workers as well as to keep the land zoned for manufacturing where Frederick Cooper is located. The community wanted to keep living wage jobs in their neighborhood.

First Ward Alderman Manny Flores was asked to support the demands. At a ward meeting called by the alderman and again at a Cooper Task Force speakout, hundreds united to support the demands of the community as well as a call for a decent severance agreement. The alderman spoke in favor of the demands that the workers and community put forward.

The workers, led by the 743 NLS, decided to call for an informational picket one day after the first shift. The hope was to pressure the company before its big lamp sale. The alderman and the community showed up to voice their support, but the real story was the solidarity of the workers. Chants in Polish, English and Spanish showed everyone that these workers could not be divided. Many had never been on a picket line before, but their voices became stronger and stronger as they grew more confident. Because of the wide press coverage the union heads finally felt compelled to do something.

Local 743 executive board member Reginald Ford told the workers that if they did not have a good agreement by the time of the company lamp sale that they would go on strike. The workers were cautious of his words because they had been sold out by these officials so many times.

After Ford’s announcement the union disappeared. With a possible strike looming, the workers started to organize themselves. Where would the pickets be put up? How could we have the biggest impact on the lamp sale? Who would contact the press? They would need to translate everything into several languages. How would this be done? Who would get the materials to make the signs?

The company got the message that the workers were serious and planned to frustrate the lamp sale. The owners, afraid of losing their own ‘severance,’ finally made an offer. The alderman and Ford emerged to present the offer just before the workers had said that they would strike. The offer included $2000 for each worker, their vacation, profit sharing and two months of health insurance paid for by the company. Also, when the parking lots around the factory were sold, the workers would get a portion of the money from the sale.

“When you fight, you can win,” said Tony Caldera, “our union leaders think too much like the bosses. We need to change our union so that they fight for the workers instead of always making deals. Our labor made millions of dollars for the owners of Frederick Cooper, yet we had to fight all out against the company and the union to get any severance at all.”