“Have A Heart for Immigrant Women.” That’s what immigrant women workers from Chicago Workers’ Collaborative (CWC) and their supporters called for on Valentine’s Day. The rally in front of Walgreen’s Chicago Loop store highlighted the complaint to the Economic Equality Opportunity Commission that CWC filed that day, charging the labor supply agency Staffing Network with age discrimination. Staffing Network supplies workers to Norelco, manufacturer of shaving products that were being featured at Walgreen’s as an attractive Valentine’s Day present for that special guy.
The Valentine’s Day rally focused on women whose intersecting oppressions based on their class, gender, age and, for some, their immigration status, make them vulnerable to exploitation. But these women, working through the CWC’s Women’s Committee, have banded together, fought back and sometimes won.
The workers report that, when they reach age 35 to 40, Staffing Network replaces them with younger women. “I have worked at Staffing Network for years, never missing work and helping make Staffing Network and Norelco a lot of money,” says Maria Guadalupe, CWC member and a plaintiff in the case. “And now I am tossed aside like a broken piece of machinery. We deserve better for our loyal years of service.” CWC’s International Women’s Day message notes that another CWC member, Adela, “was once told to get out of a staffing agency van which was taking her and others to work. She and other ‘old’ women were told only young women could go to work that day. A couple women were ordered out of the van right there, on the side of the road, far from home.”
The age discrimination suit is only one of a number of campaigns waged by CWC’s Women’s Committee. The committee was formed after CWC member Airsa was sexually assaulted by her Burger King manager and successfully fought back. Hers is not the only victory. Another CWC member, Leonila, recently won a large discrimination settlement stemming from a sexual assault at her workplace. ‘I went through hell in the past months,’ [she said],'” but with the help and support of the Comité, I had the power to hang on and win the charges. I feel much better for fighting back and showing other women that it is possible to win if we stay united and support each other.'”
Temp work is a growing sector. Currently, staffing firms hire nearly 13 million temporary and contract workers annually. Hiring temp workers through staffing firms enables employers to cut costs, for example by not offering benefits. As the American Staffing Network website advises, “The most important step companies can take to protect themselves is to amend their benefit plans to clearly exclude staffing firm [i.e., temp] employees.”
Formed in 2000, CWC organizes to improve conditions for low-paid workers, primarily temp staffing workers. It’s a membership organization, but not a union. CWC uses a variety of tactics. Direct action, such as this rally at Walgreen’s and another at a Norelco assembly plant outside of Chicago in January, spotlighted problems with the companies that use temp agencies to avoid the obligations that they would incur with full-time, permanent employees.
Legal protections provide another angle from which to work. “Due to our legislative work at CWC,” says Executive Director Leone Jose Bicchieri, “the laws in Illinois allow us to hold the client companies liable for the actions of their staffing agencies, so our legal pressure is usually pretty effective in terms of creating change at client companies. Through this legal pressure, and through our direct actions and direct worker organizing, we can improve the lives of the 350,000 staffing workers in Illinois, and we can also help open the door for organizing at the client companies.” Through its Working Hands Legal Clinic, CWC has brought actions against 24 staffing agencies, resulting in $15 million in settlements.
CWC offers skills training to its members. And, although many of its members are Latino immigrants, another focus of CWC work is building bridges between Latino and African American workers. In addition to several Workers’ Centers that primarily serve Latinos, CWC has an office on Chicago’s South Side whose primary clientele is African-Americans.
Listen to an interview with CWC’s Executive Director Leone Jose Bicchieri on Chicago DSA’s podcast, episode 18: http://www.chicagodsa.org/audarch6.html
Photo credits: Chicago Workers’ Collaborative. Image 1: CWC members and supporters at Valentine’s Day event protesting age discrimination. Image 2: Rosa, a co-founder of the Women’s Committee, displays the check she received from her lawsuit.
Peg Strobel is a member of DSA’s National Political Committee.