BY HARVEY McARTHUR
CICERO, Illinois - After eight months on the picket lines, strikers at Lenc-Smith here returned to work over the course of March. At a March 2 meeting, officials of the International Union of Electronics Workers (IUE) told the strikers they had accepted the company's wage demands and called off the strike. The officials told workers the bosses had agreed to call them all back by April 5 and remove the many strikebreakers then working in the plant.
Workers at the plant, however, said in mid-April that less than half the former strikers are now working and a majority of the plant's workforce is made up of former strikebreakers.
"Some of us decided not to come back because they had found other jobs," said Reyes Flores. "But I know of some who were never called back by the company. And they ignored seniority when they did call the people back."
Lenc-Smith workers faced a tough employer determined to undermine the union and slash wages by up to $3 per hour. Three years ago they accepted a 17 percent pay cut. Workers at a nearby plant owned by the same company accepted the deeper cuts without a fight in early 1998.
Lenc-Smith manufactures big cabinets used for video games for arcades and game rooms. Many strikers had 20 or more years at the company. Many are women and most are Mexican or Black. Laborers faced the biggest pay cuts: those who over many years had worked up to a wage of $8-9 per hour before the strike faced a cut to as little as $6.25 per hour.
When the workers voted to strike and walked out July 1, 1998, the bosses quickly started hiring scabs and turned to the Cicero police for help. Off-duty cops served as Lenc- Smith security guards, escorting the strikebreakers in and out of the plant. On several occasions cops arrested strikers on trumped-up charges of disorderly conduct and resisting arrest.
One day before a negotiating meeting last December, a convoy of six police cars and a fire truck swooped down on the picket line. The cops extinguished the strikers' fire barrel and threatened to arrest them if they lit one again.
The strikers responded with determination, maintaining their picket lines and beginning to reach out to other fighting workers for mutual solidarity. Only three crossed the picket line over the course of the strike. On December 19 they rejected a proposal from IUE officials to end the strike on the company's terms by a vote of 72-9. They kept their fire barrels going and held impromptu picnics on the picket line as bitter winter weather settled in.
On three occasions in February Lenc-Smith strikers traveled to Peoria and Pekin, Illinois, to support striking auto workers at Tazewell Machine Works. A group of 10 Lenc- Smith strikers also joined a picket line cookout and rally of striking Steelworkers at the Tool and Engineering Company in Chicago in late-February.
On January 13 union officials called a meeting and told strikers they had called off the strike and had an agreement with the bosses to return to work under the old contract while negotiations continued. The next day, however, IUE officials made an offer of an unconditional return to work. It was an offer the bosses rejected, instead locking out the strikers.
"Our union representative then told us that since we were on lockout and not on strike, we could no longer picket or yell at the strikebreakers," said Alex Gonzalez. "They said we would be arrested if we did." Union officials removed all the signs workers had put up outside Lenc-Smith, and told strikers to just sit in their cars outside the plant.
The IUE did organize a strike rally in downtown Chicago February 3 when Lenc-Smith shareholders held their annual meeting. Strikers made dozens of picket signs that they and supporters carried in the noisy and enthusiastic rally.
Regular picketing at the plant did not resume until mid- February, however, after a half dozen strikers traveled to Pekin to join a rally of striking auto workers. The next day one of them went to the IUE office, picked up a stack of picket signs, and encouraged others to get out of their cars and resume picketing in front of the plant.
"The strikers in Pekin told us we had a right to keep on picketing," Angela García said at the time. "And if we don't, Woody [the plant manager] will think we are just giving up."
Return to work
Strikers at the picket line initially reacted angrily March 1 when they heard IUE officials had agreed to end the walkout and that the workers would have no right to vote on the decision. The union meeting the next day was more somber, however. "It was very sad, not like the other meetings we had had," said striker Lupe Sertuche. "The picket lines had been getting smaller during the last few weeks. Some people were just glad to be going back to work at all."
"There was nothing else to do," said Miguel Mora, after returning to work a few days later. "I think we could have held out longer, but the union officials pressured us to go back. I don't think they wanted to pay the strike benefits any longer."
Strikers who have gone back to work say the bosses have stepped up the pace of production demanded of them, and some say they face harassment from the bosses and some of the former strikebreakers.
"They probably want to make us quit," said Angela García, "especially those with lots of seniority at the company."
"I think the company is breaking the agreement with the union, but we have never seen anything in writing," she said. Union officials have not called a meeting since the return to work, "and we don't know what the contract says. The officials recently closed their office early so when we tried to go there after work to get information there was nobody there."
Workers at the plant report that some are circulating a petition demanding IUE officials call a meeting to explain the contract and to help them stand up to company harassment on the job.
And a few say they continue to seek to join other workers on their picket lines. "We had never been on strike before," notes García. "But we've learned a lot, we've become different people."
Harvey McArthur is a member of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 100A.
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