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Letter Reporting Efforts to Settle Issues —
Catholics Work Toward
Azteca Resolution

The following letter provides a glimpse of an ongoing effort by Catholic clergy in the Chicago area to mediate a settlement at Azteca.

February 22, 2003

Dear Pastors:

With this letter we wish to report on our efforts to facilitate a peaceful resolution to the labor conflict between the workers of Azteca Foods, Inc. and the owner, Arturo Velasquez. I am enclosing the final copy of our letter presented to Mr. Velasquez, expressing our concerns, and a similar letter we presented to the workers.

On Monday, January 21, Mr Velasquez called Chuck Dahm to invite him to hear his position. (Previously, Mr. Velasquez had declined to meet with Chuck as part of a small delegation.) Chuck asked if other priests could participate in the meeting, but he agreed only to receive Fr. Brendan Curran. We met with him on Wednesday, January 23 for nearly two and half hours. For the first hour, Mr. Velasquez explained his history and position regarding the workers’ demands and strike. In the second hour, we asked questions, and then he showed us the plant. We were happy to hear his side of the story and his answers, and we expressed optimism at the possibly of significant agreement since it appeared to us that the two sides were closer together than either realized.

We then met with the workers and their union representatives to share what we perceived to be good news for them. They noted that if indeed Mr. Velasquez’ position was what we reported to them, in some important regards it differed from what his lawyer had been telling them, and it was close to their own position. As we had with Mr. Velasquez, we asked them what concessions they would be willing to make. Like he, they expressed willingness to give up certain demands and soften others.

Thus, we called Mr. Velasquez to arrange a second meeting to discuss possible agreements on numerous points still officially on the bargaining table. Although he failed to return several calls, we persisted and finally talked to him. Unfortunately, he declined to meet with us, claiming the workers could hardly be sincere since they were still leafleting against him at events where he was present. We explained that the workers were continuing their campaign until some actual agreements was reached.

We then asked the workers to suspend the leafleting against Mr. Velasquez which they had scheduled for a fund raiser where he was to appear. They agreed. The following day we called Mr. Velasquez to ask that he meet with us since the workers had shown the good faith he wanted by suspending the leafleting. He again declined to meet with us, claiming there are many things we do not know about and which he did not want to share with us. He preferred to let the process continue in the hands of his lawyers. We expressed our regret. The workers were also saddened by his unwillingness to take advantage of the mediating efforts of the priests.

In our conversations with Mr. Velasquez, we asked him to accept a federal mediator, which had been a recent demand of workers. He also rejected this idea, claiming that mediators are not sufficiently informed and are thus not particularly helpful. However, after the event reported in the Chicago Tribune (see enclosed article) and a few calls by dignitaries, he agreed to accept federal mediation.

While our conversations with Mr. Velasquez involved many disputed points of a technical nature, we want to share with you some observations. When we urged him not to take away or reduce financial remuneration, benefits, or conditions that the workers had enjoyed under the previous labor contract, he stated that he was not doing so. However, when we reviewed the list of contested points with him, he admitted that what he was presenting at the bargaining table were in fact "take aways." These included the following:

* refusal to support a union shop, i.e., all workers are represented under the union contract and therefore must pay union dues.

* refusal to accept union dues check off, i.e., deduction of dues from workers’ pay checks.

* curtailing of union leafleting to non-work area (the previous union did it anywhere).

* the previous union could name as many shop stewards as it wanted, and now Mr. Velasquez wants to limit them to one per shift.

* previously he had paid workers for time spent in grievance proceedings (a matter of hours per grievance) but now he refuses.

* while he seemed to agree to the union’s position on selecting overtime workers by seniority, his lawyer has not accepted it at the bargaining table, which constitutes a take away.

* Mr. Velasquez wants to reduce the number of paid call-in hours form 4 to 2 hours for those workers who come to work but do not work because of a lack of sufficient workers to run the lines.

* Previously he allowed production workers to apply for warehouse jobs on a seniority basis, but now he does not want to.

* He offers no increase in salary in the first year of the contract and a 5 cent increase in the second and third years, whereas in the previous contract, he says he has given a 25 cent increase every year. While he says that his low offer of salary increases are just a starting position, the union has come down in its request, but he has failed to increase his offer since September 2002.

* He has asked for a substantial increase in the workers’ share in paying for health insurance, and the workers expect to pay more. The point at issue is how much will they pay. His request from the workers would more than wipe out the small pay increase he is offering. Thus, the workers would lose significantly in income under his current proposal.

As we mentioned above, the workers were willing to make concessions on a number of these points as well as on others. He also indicated areas which he would be willing to concede. Unfortunately, Mr. Velasquez was unwilling to continue the dialogue with us in order to reach some agreements and thus end the strike of 63 workers.

Tragically, on February 20, a day-laborer at the plant got his arm caught in a machine and it was totally crushed.

If any of you would like to call Mr. Velasquez to encourage him to bargain in good faith in order to resolve this strike, you can reach him at Azteca Foods, 708-563-6624. If you have any questions, please feel free to contact us.


Charles W. Dahm

Brendan Curran, O.P.
Associate Pastor

cc: Francis Cardinal George
Bishop John Manz
Rev. James Miller, Dean
Katherine Bissell
Rev. Michael Boehm
Rev. Pedro Campos
Rev. Lawrence Craig
Sr. Rayo Cuaya Castillo
Rev. Matthew Foley
Rev. Gary Graff
Sr. Alicia Gutierrez, S.H.
Rev. Michael Herman
Rev. Timothy Howe, S.J.
Rev. James Kaczorowski
Rev. James Kastigar
Peter McQuin
Rev. Marco Mercado
Rev. Michael Michelini
Rev. Donald J. Nevins
Rev. David Pavlik
Mr. William Purcell
Rev. Ezequiel Sanchez
Rev. Edward Shea, O.F.M.
Rev. Maina Waithiaka

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and we are not asking anyone to cease picking up, delivering or transporting
any goods, or to cease performing any work or services.”