The day before Thanksgiving, and more than six months after they went on strike, it finally looked as if the workers at V&V Supremo Foods Inc. would all be heading back to their jobs. About a quarter of them–some 30 drivers and warehouse employees–now had a contract in hand, and V&V, a Pilsen-based manufacturer of Mexican cheeses and sausage, had announced that it would no longer oppose union representation for any of its workers. There were promises to quickly negotiate a first contract for the remaining 88 production employees.

Because matters seemed to be moving forward, the striking production workers took a risky step: they voted to go back to work while their contract was being negotiated. Community leaders called off a boycott. The planned Thanksgiving eve rally became a victory party. The workers looked forward to drawing a paycheck before Christmas.

“As a gesture of goodwill, the production employees made an open-ended offer to go back to work,” explains Robert Cervone, attorney for Teamsters Local 703, which won the right to represent V&V’s distribution workers in October 2000 and its production workers last May. “We honestly felt that because one part of the deal was done, we were starting a good relationship, that we could go back, we could negotiate the second contract and learn to live with each other.”

Thanks, but no thanks, said company principals Philip and Gilberto Villasenor, who are cousins. The day after Thanksgiving, they issued a formal return-to-work notice to their distribution employees. But at the same time the Villasenors announced that they’d be locking out the striking production employees until their contract was negotiated and signed.

“The company closed the doors on us,” says Mario Pallares, a production worker who’s been at V&V for nine years and has been representing employees at the negotiating table. Pallares says V&V employees voted to unionize and later strike “because of the injustices being committed against us.” V&V workers were obliged to work shifts of up to 16 hours, he says, with managers demanding a frenzied work pace. The company paid overtime, says Pallares, but overtime was mandatory. “We were responsible for a certain output, and we had to keep working until we met that goal. They gave us our breaks during the first eight hours, but after that they wanted us to work without stopping. They assigned someone to check on how many times we went to the bathroom and how long we spent there. If you complained about something the response was ‘Well, there’s the door.'” Pallares, a father of three who lives across the street from V&V’s nondescript factory on 21st Street, says there were weeks in which he’d see his children only on Sundays.

Workers were caught off guard by the lockout, but the real slap in the face came at the negotiating table. Pallares says the company’s contract proposal “divided us all into categories. All the strikers were put in category four, the lowest category.” Of the 88 production workers at the time of the strike, 50 had joined the picket line, 30 had crossed the picket line to continue working, and 8 had left. V&V locked out only those workers who’d participated in the strike, and Pallares says it then placed them in the lowest-paying categories of its proposed new contract–regardless of seniority or prior work experience. Workers who crossed the picket line were put in higher-paying categories. According to Pallares, the company’s proposal actually amounts to a pay cut for most striking workers; the union had asked for a $5 increase over three years. “Before the strike I was making $8.60,” he says. “With this contract I’d make $6.35, and after three years I’d make $7.30.”

“It was ridiculous, absolutely ridiculous,” says Tom Stiede, head of Local 703. “The meeting lasted about 15 minutes after the economic proposal was tendered. We told them, ‘Don’t even contact us until you’re serious.'”

Though the company had promised to negotiate daily, talks broke off when its economic proposal was presented, and no more are scheduled. The Villasenors responded to phone calls for this article by faxing a press release dated November 23, the day the company announced the lockout. “The company informed Union officials…that it had decided not to call back to work those represented production employees who were participating in a sympathy strike to support the drivers and warehouse employees striking in support of their bargaining demands,” reads the press release. It quotes Philip Villasenor as saying, “We are doing this simply to further our position at the bargaining table, to encourage a prompt resolution, and to ensure that production and product quality are not interrupted while the parties work to conclude the agreement.”

Pallares says the production workers have never been on a “sympathy” strike. “For strength, we walked out at the same time [as the distribution workers],” he says. “But from the beginning we’ve been fighting for a contract for ourselves.”

Local 703 has filed an unfair labor practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board that argues the lockout is unlawful for a number of reasons, among them the fact that it’s limited to the strikers. “We view that as blatant discrimination against people who exercised the protected federal right to strike,” says Cervone. He seeks an injunction that would force V&V to let the strikers return to work.

Meanwhile, the AFL-CIO has provided a part-time field organizer to rally public support. “A lot of people you talk to in the labor movement these days say, ‘Man, you can’t win with a strike,'” says Nelson Soza. “No, you can’t win with a strike alone. There has to be a community around it. You’ve got to build a campaign.” Soza vows to hit the Villasenors hard. Some of the churches and community groups he’s organizing expanded their boycott this week to include Jewel Foods, which has refused to take V&V products off its shelves.

Pallares estimates that about 80 percent of the V&V employees–nearly all of whom are Mexican–are working illegally in this country, something he says the Villasenors use to their advantage. Knowing that undocumented immigrants are desperate for work and less likely to complain about pay or working conditions out of fear of deportation, employers often pay them lower wages or ignore labor laws. According to Local 703, more than half the V&V employees earned less than $7 an hour before the strike. The distribution workers’ contract resulted in 20 to 30 percent pay raises.

The involvement of major labor unions in this fight–the Teamsters have sent money and strategists, the AFL-CIO’s Soza devotes about half his time to it–reflects a sea change in labor strategy. Until recently, undocumented immigrants and organized labor eyed each other suspiciously. Labor unions had complained for years that undocumented workers depressed wages, and it wasn’t long ago that they were encouraging Washington to crack down on undocumented immigrants. But as Latinos have come to make up an increasing percentage of the laborers in this country, unions have done an about-face. Last year the AFL-CIO came out in favor of amnesty for undocumented workers, and many unions have begun to see low-paid Latino workers as prime candidates for recruitment into their ranks.

According to Stiede, Local 703 will be looking for more companies like V&V. “We have every intention of using this as a springboard,” he says. “We have one employer in the same business as V&V where we’ve got 40 percent of the workforce signed up. There are people we’ve talked to from tortilla factories in Pilsen. There are produce companies that have made inquiries.”

But Local 703 has by no means won the fight at V&V. The picket line has gotten steadily thinner over the months, as strikers–who have received no strike pay–looked for other work, many at day-labor agencies. “I hate to put it in such unbelievable terms,” says Stiede, “but we have done a very good job making sure these guys at least eat once a day.”

Meanwhile, V&V has hired a high-powered attorney, John Raudabaugh, a George Bush Sr. nominee to the NLRB. Stiede believes V&V spent over $100,000 challenging Local 703’s certification to represent the production workers, a challenge that dragged the strike out for months but that the company eventually lost. MADI, a security firm that exclusively services companies in labor disputes, has provided round-the-clock security since the strike began. MADI’s forces, flown in from around the country and put up in hotels here, dress in combat gear and sit guard in minivans with tinted windows or patrol from V&V’s roof. “They’d rather spend what they could buy five contracts with and try to keep the union out than try to settle and give the guys who work some dignity and respect on the job,” says Stie

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.