By Sridhar Pappu

John Agrela, president of the Sheet Metal Workers Local 115, is not a happy man. He coughs his way through the daylight hours, and his nose has turned a sickly pinkish red. He takes pills for his high blood pressure, a condition aggravated by his work, which this morning has brought him to a picket line outside of Safe-Air of Illinois, Inc., a small louver and damper manufacturer in Cicero. The plant lies just south of the large, nearly vacant General Electric factory where both Agrela and his mother once worked.

The shifts on the Safe-Air picket line are just about to change when Agrela drives up at 11 AM. The first shift began at 7 or 7:30 AM; the second will last until 3 PM. Of the original 74 workers who went out on strike July 7, only 4 have crossed the picket line so far. But 46 have already accepted work elsewhere, leaving a paltry 8 picketers for each of the three-to-four-hour shifts.

The factory is a one-story brick building with windows boarded up to conceal the replacement workers inside. A banner out front says there are “open positions available” and gives a phone number to call.

“It’s terrible, you know,” Agrela says. “I think if this was a different time, different era, it would have been a major problem out there for that employer. These workers are very humble and they just sit there. It’s sort of sad to see. They just sit there.”

Among those still on the picket line is Alfredo Caro, the union steward. “One of the guys who found another job,” he tells Agrela, “he’s now back in there.”

This hits a sore spot with Agrela, who considers scabs “the worst people in the world.”

Caro came to the U.S. from Mexico eight years ago, and he’s worked at Safe-Air for the last three. As shop steward, he feels a special responsibility. “I have to get through this for the other guys,” he says. “I just can’t quit and find another job.” He has two young children–four and five years old–and his wife works as a housekeeper. Since the strike began five months ago, she’s had to “work a little bit harder,” Caro says. “She understands what I’m doing. It’s not going to be forever.”

When Safe-Air and the local began negotiating in September 1997, the company offered a 75-cents-an-hour pay increase spread over three years; in return it wanted the right to test employees for drugs and alcohol and permission to hire temporary workers during peak production times. The local, whose members make an average of $9.40 an hour and have no pension, countered with a ten-point proposal, highlighted by an immediate hourly wage increase of 80 cents (later reduced to 50) and a demand that the company join the union’s insurance plan to provide medical and dental benefits for their families.

“It hasn’t gone anywhere,” Agrela complains. “In fact, it’s gone backwards. They had offered $200 to all the workers as a signing bonus to return. Now they’ve taken that off the table.”

Agrela says the main stumbling block remains health benefits–which the workers receive but their families do not. To join the union’s health plan, he says, would cost Safe-Air $134 per month for each worker, only $12 more than the average merit bonus given out by the company to most workers every month. The local had offered to trade the bonus for family health insurance, with employees making up the difference. Agrela says Safe-Air would even save money by no longer having to pay FICA taxes on that cash.

But, says Safe-Air attorney Joshua Holleb, under the old agreement the company’s insurance plan covered 100 percent of an employee’s premium and gave each worker an option to buy family coverage for $180 a month. While that may seem like a lot, Holleb says it’s not uncommon; he cites 1995 figures showing that 67 percent of all employees in the U.S. make some sort of payment toward their own health insurance and 78 percent help pay for their family’s coverage. And by putting the merit bonus directly into the language of the contract, Holleb says, the company would lose a valuable production incentive, making the bonus expected rather than earned.

“We have a fair offer on the table,” he says. “The union has chosen to do something other than bargain.”

When the strike began, Agrela says, “I thought it would last a couple of weeks.” But negotiations went nowhere. For his part, Agrela has done all his members could ask. He visits the pickets twice a day. He was arrested on a battery charge for putting his hand against the lens of a camera used by a plant supervisor attempting to take pictures of picketers (the charge was later dropped). In late September he brought in AFL-CIO president John J. Sweeney and convinced the union to double the workers’ strike pay from $100 to $200 a week. He also started to talk of a national boycott. Nothing worked.

“The health benefits would resolve the whole dispute,” Agrela says. “They do not want to bargain the bonus procedure. They feel that that’s not part of the contract. They feel it’s sort of their own carrot given to the employees, which has become a divide-and-conquer, union-busting tactic.

“The strike in 1969 at GE was much different,” he says, referring to the nationwide strike that would become a pivotal event in his life. “The workers were much more aggressive and more capable of trying to stop the scabs. We don’t have that philosophy here with these workers.”

At the time of the 1969 strike, John Agrela was just 22, only nine years removed from what he still calls the “old country,” Madeira, an island about 400 miles off the coast of Portugal. Agrela’s father, George, was born in the United States, but his family returned home during the Great Depression. In Madeira, George married his wife, Maria, and they had four daughters and John, their only son. In 1958 George quit his job and followed his brother Frank back to the States for good.

George found a job in Chicago making bowling balls and moved in with his brother, who lived in Pilsen. In 1960 he borrowed enough money to bring his family over. John Agrela recalls taking a boat to Lisbon, where they caught a plane bound for the U.S. in July. School started that September, but neither he nor his sisters could speak English. Spanish came easier to him, and most of his friends here were Mexican.

Agrela had a couple of tough years. He says he was “hanging with the wrong crowd” and “getting into fights”; these problems would lead to his expulsion from Harrison High School in 1965. Agrela appealed to his future father-in-law, who worked for the CTA and who had a brother at General Electric. He had his pick of good jobs; he only had to pick the one that paid more. He drove his 1958 Chevrolet, which he drag raced in his spare time, from Pilsen to Cicero–where Sunbeam and Western Electric and Victor Gaskets all had plants–and he started installing refrigerator liners for GE, certain that he’d be working there for the rest of his life.

Agrela was a skinny kid, 120 pounds, and after a couple months he started getting hassled. His supervisors moved him to a job picking up “some heavy-duty liners” whose weights he could not bear. He complained to the union–the now defunct Local 571–which helped him move to another job. He was paying union dues, and on a Sunday afternoon in 1966 he went to his first local meeting, at a hall on Laramie. What he saw there was a group caught in the margins; the local’s largely white leadership wasn’t dealing with the problems of its growing black and Hispanic ranks. Agrela joined a coalition of disgruntled members; they helped elect him steward in 1967.

By that time his father had moved from making bowling balls to assembling hot water heaters, but the family still couldn’t afford much more than their apartment in Pilsen. Agrela’s mother asked him if he could find her a job at the GE plant, and despite his father’s misgivings (“in the old country mothers don’t work”) he found her an entry-level spot on the assembly line. Her earnings would eventually help buy a bungalow at 58th and Damen.

“I remember her coming home,” Agrela says. “My mother was a small lady–is a small lady. She’s not even five feet–four nine or something like that–and her feet were always tired. My sisters and I would sometimes massage her feet.

“It was hard, because she was not used to that type of work. She had grown up on a farm. But she survived.”

Back then unions were strong, and strikes were still viewed as a viable method for wresting concessions out of employers. On October 1, 1969, there were a combined 20 strikes in Milwaukee, Indianapolis, Minneapolis, Peoria, and South Bend. On that same day, five strikes were called in Chicago, and 10,000 people stayed off their jobs. There was money to be made, benefits to be won, and everyone–the International Association of Machinists, the United Auto Workers, the College, University and School Employees Union–knew this was the way it was done.

A coalition of 13 unions was stalled in talks with GE. In the final days before their contract expired on October 26, they saw all their demands dismissed by the company. They wanted a dollar-an-hour increase in wages and benefits over three years (the average worker earned $3.25 an hour), but GE called this “superinflationary.” The company stood by its original offer–an immediate raise of 20 cents an hour, with wages renegotiated at the start of each year. The coalition’s plea to settle the dispute through binding arbitration was ignored. Without a deal, the unions sent 147,000 workers in 135 cities to the picket line on October 27.

There were 50 picketers outside the Cicero plant within minutes after midnight. By morning, there were 500, ready to confront anyone who might cross the line.

The strike would drag into winter with no resolution. There were flashes of violence: a driver for a GE supplier was attacked and pulled from his truck by three strikers at the Taylor Street plant in Chicago; three nonunion workers were beaten when they tried to cross the picket line in Schenectady; replacement workers were escorted into a plant in Elmira by police with clubs and riot gear; Floyd Baker, a welder at the Cicero plant for 23 years, returned to work and was shot above both knees with a .32 caliber automatic in the doorway of his home.

Union members were rewarded for waiting out the strike. When it ended on February 2, 1970, they had won a 32.3 percent increase in wages and benefits over the next 40 months. In addition, they received what one union spokesman called “to hell with it days,” extra days off when an employee wasn’t sick but didn’t feel like working. GE, for its part, estimated the contract would cost the company $1 billion over the next three years.

The strike helped raise Agrela’s status in the union. The rank and file saw him shouting on the picket line every day, though he never got arrested because, he says, he was “young and foolish and fast.” Soon after the strike was settled, Local 571 elected its first Hispanic president, Ernesto Suarez, and Agrela was elected to the local’s executive board.

But with power came a kind of institutional laziness. Black and Hispanic members had long felt shut out of the union, Agrela says, but once they gained power their leaders began to mimic the people who had controlled the local through 1969. Agrela and other disillusioned members formed a caucus to argue for a better grievance procedure; in 1980 this group helped elect him president of Local 571.

By the time Agrela moved into the local’s threadbare storefront office in Cicero, the union no longer had the kind of power it had held in 1969. Agrela would be more aggressive, pulling five strikes and winning more than $1 million in arbitration. But he would also be the local’s last president, the shepherd to lead the union to its end.

Soon after Agrela took the helm, GE moved its washer and dryer division from Cicero–costing the plant 600 jobs. Then on September 3, 1987, the company announced a plan to consolidate its refrigerator lines, which were produced in plants in Cicero and Decatur, Alabama. Within 30 to 60 days, one of the factories would have to go.

“I feel we can compete against Decatur,” Agrela told the Tribune at the time. “If it is necessary to change work rules, we are willing to consider that.”

Youth and thrift were on Decatur’s side. Its plant was built in 1977, and its nonunion workforce made an average of $9.83 an hour. Cicero had a much larger assembly line that had been in operation since 1953; union members there averaged $11.58 an hour. If Cicero lost the refrigerator lines, the plant would lose its biggest operation, and with it 1,250 jobs.

“We built this plant brick by brick,” Agrela said on September 8. “The company has made millions off it, and we will do everything to keep it open.”

Everything included enlisting the help of some political heavyweights. Jesse Jackson, then a presidential candidate, and Chicago mayor Harold Washington both came to Cicero. Governor Jim Thompson, scheduled to meet with General Electric CEO John Welch on September 21, vowed that Illinois would match or top any offer. Thompson told the Tribune that the state would assist in “any way possible” in order to win.

But the decision had already been made. A week later GE officially announced it would invest $160 million in the Alabama plant, adding 900 workers to that facility over the next three years. Agrela responded by promising to take his case “to the consumers.” He had retirees picket in front of Welch’s house, and he spoke before the company’s annual shareholders’ meeting. He went to the AFL-CIO convention in Miami Beach seeking support and got $2 million from the Sheet Metal Workers International to launch a boycott. He passed out boycott T-shirts and bumper stickers at shopping malls and community meetings. He brought back Jesse Jackson, fresh from winning five primaries on Super Tuesday.

But the deed was done. Eighty-five percent of the affected employees were minorities and Chicago residents with an average tenure of 20 years. What they got in place of their jobs were one week’s pay for each year they’d worked and up to $7,500 in tuition refunds for retraining. There were only 350 jobs left in the Cicero plant, which at one time had provided work for 3,400. The state and federal government helped set up a job retraining center, but when it closed on March 2, 1990, 750 of the laid-off employees still needed work.

“That workforce is as dysfunctional as you can get,” Robert T. Jones, then assistant secretary of labor, told the New York Times. “You have the anomaly of people coming out of a long successful job history and not being able to meet entry-level requirements of other jobs. It’s a worst-case model.”

Agrela says it is also a model that’s about to get even worse. “Now the company has threatened to shut down completely,” he says. “GE has told me that it’s going to shut down a line in Louisville, Kentucky, that we supply parts to. That line is going to go to Mexico.

“So we’re trying to negotiate plant closing benefits,” he says. “They’re going to give us approximately another three to four, maybe five years to stay on.”

With the refrigeration lines gone, the Sheet Metal Workers International dismantled Local 571–merging it with another local, 115, based in Oak Park. Here, Agrela was one of four business agents, bored with his sole duty of looking after what remained of the GE workforce and appalled with the passivity of the union when it came to pursuing grievances.

He used the latter as a platform for a successful presidential bid in 1992. But he soon found Local 115 was far different than 571. There was no more big contract, no one employer. There were 28 shops with union membership ranging from 2 to 260; 70 percent of the ranks were Hispanic, and 90 percent were production workers with easily replaceable skills.

“His responsibilities have changed a lot,” says Local 115 attorney Irving King. “But I have seen no evidence that his commitment to justice for the workers has changed at all. He will not settle for less than what he believes is the very best that he can do for his members just in order to get a quick solution to a problem and move on to something else. That’s not his style.”

But Agrela is the first to admit that pursuing every grievance carries a high price. In September, the union’s legal bills topped $12,000, with $90,000 left in reserve. Due to financial problems, Local 115 had to let go of its business agents, leaving Agrela to deal with numerous contracts and arbitration cases alone.

“We are not financially strong,” he says, “but I do not want to raise union dues to a point where members can’t afford it. If there’s an injustice being perpetrated against one of my members, I’ll spend the money, even if I have to go bankrupt. I have a lot of legal fees to pay, absolutely. But that’s our job. Our job is to represent our members.”

He’s less adamant about the secondary cost. “I’m worried,” he says. “I’m slowing down. My health is not good. I cannot afford to retire. I want to send my daughter to college. She’s 14; she just entered high school. If I did not have a daughter in school, I would have taken a much earlier retirement.”

Back in November, Agrela and I are sitting in his office in Oak Park. He begins to explain why the “jury is still out” on the Safe-Air strike. He hands me a sheet of paper with two versions of his union’s label on it.

“This is what people in the field look for,” Agrela says. “The journeymen, as well as the members of other unions, they look for that label. If the employer ships these goods without a label, the products aren’t going to be installed.”

Two months later, Agrela says the labels have made a difference. He credits their absence for a decrease in Safe-Air sales and for the company calling the union back to the negotiating table, where they reached a settlement late last week.

“We weren’t truly aware of the solidarity that existed,” he admits. “But the other people in the field apparently were refusing to put in the work without the label.”

When local members began going back to work on January 4, they had an agreement that called for a $1.25 increase in wages over the next four years. Though the company had replaced all the union workers, everyone who went out on strike will be back to work by March 31.

However, the disputed bonus procedure will remain in effect, and workers will receive no back pay for their time on the picket line. They’ll also continue to work without health insurance for their families.

“I felt upset, bitter in a way, because this was one of the items we were striking for,” Agrela says. “However there’s another day. You know, I think we have to lead, to show the workers, that look, not everything is won in one day. And therefore, I told them, take it at this particular time, and then let’s see what we can do.”

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