At major Northwest Side bakery, labor issues pit blacks vs. Hispanics
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A major bakery on the Northwest Side once known for making Little Debbie snack cakes was sold earlier this month after an immigration audit cost the company about a third of its workers.
About 800 employees of the main Cloverhill Bakery on the Northwest Side and the company’s bakeries in Cicero and Romeoville lost their jobs when the audit found many were hired after presenting fake or stolen IDs.
The owner of Little Debbie walked away, saying its orders no longer were getting filled on time by Cloverhill, and revenues fell for the bakery’s corporate owner, the Swiss food conglomerate Aryzta.
Finally, Aryzta had enough and sold the bakeries. Hostess Brands said it’s buying Cloverhill’s Chicago bakery from Aryzta.
Some might see what happened at Cloverhill as a sign of things to come under the Trump administration, with fears in corporate America and among immigrants of increased government crackdowns.
But the story of the 137,000-square-foot bakery in Galewood on the Northwest Side of Chicago appears to be more complicated than that. It precedes the Trump administration and involves tensions between African American and Hispanic workers, according to current and former employees, a former company consultant and a worker activist group.
“They’re being pitted against each other, so they don’t get along,” says Dan Giloth, a community organizer on the West Side. “We believe this is a divide-and-conquer strategy.
“Unfortunately in Chicago, there is a widespread segregationist employment model to contract out most of your production work through temporary agencies and look the other way when they target employees by race or immigration status,” says Giloth, a former union organizer who is project manager for the group Coalition Against Segregation of Employees. “The goal is to create a very vulnerable workforce — and keep the wages low.”
Tracy Stecko, a spokesman for Aryzta, declined to comment except to say, “Our company briefly owned that bakery operation but no longer does, so you may want to ask your questions to more appropriate parties, such as ICE or the union that is the legal bargaining representative for most workers at that bakery.”
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement hasn’t responded to a request, filed months ago, for public records on the audit, and a spokeswoman for the agency wouldn’t comment.
Nor would representatives of the temporary-employment companies that provide workers to Cloverhill.
A Hostess spokeswoman didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Aryzta bought Cloverhill in 2014. At the time, according to bakery employees and community organizers, most of the employees were natives of Mexico, most who’d been hired through Labor Network, a temporary-employment agency.
But many of those workers weren’t temporary in the dictionary sense of the word. Most were so-called “permatemps” — temp workers who actually were permanently employed at Cloverhill. Most had been there for years, at least, and some for decades.
In 2015, under the Obama administration, ICE inspected the documentation of Labor Network’s employees at Cloverhill. In May 2017, the Trump administration sent letters to about 800 employees, saying they weren’t authorized to work in the United States, records examined by the Chicago Sun-Times show.
Those Hispanic employees didn’t return to work, leaving the bakery desperate to fill their jobs. So the company turned to another placement agency, Metro Staff Inc., and it provided Cloverhill with workers screened through the government’s “E-Verification” program. Most of those new employees are African American.
Ed French, owner of Elgin-based Metro Staff Inc., says his company became the main provider of workers for the bakery and that about 80 percent of them are black. According to French, workers at the bakery were paid slightly less before his company was hired two and a half years ago — with wages up by about 25 cents an hour, to just above minimum wage.
He says everyone hired through his company is permitted to work in the country and has passed a background check and drug test.
According to a former consultant to the bakery, MSI paid the black workers $14 an hour, versus the $10 an hour the Mexican workers were making through Labor Network.
The consultant, Felix Okwusa, says the bakery offered its remaining Hispanic workers a $1-an-hour premium to train the black replacement workers.
But Okwusa says Cloverhill soon ran into problems. In a memo to the company, Okwusa, who is African American, wrote that the black workers “displayed a higher turnover rate of over 40 percent and a lower efficiency rate than their Hispanic co-workers.”
Okwusa included his memo in a lawsuit he has filed against Aryzta in an effort to recover a bonus he says he was promised. Aryzta won’t comment.
“One of the facts of the case — and a reality in America — is that the immigrants do the work for less than an American will,” says Okwusa’s lawyer, George Oparanozie. “It shows the dynamics of immigration in this country. Many of these Hispanic workers have been here a long time, pay taxes in a lot of instances, and many of them could now be kicked out of the country.”
Attorneys who represent undocumented immigrants say they haven’t heard of any former Cloverhill employees being placed in detention for deportation to Mexico.
In the past, most of the workers at Cloverhill were Hispanic. Now, most are black.
Lynne Lane, a union steward at Cloverhill, says there are tensions as the two groups work side by side. Lane, who is black, says it was black workers at the bakery who called a government hotline to report the Mexican workers to immigration authorities.
“It was [African American] workers in the plant that saw, you know, like I said, that had been treated unfairly and treated like secondary-class citizens” by Hispanic workers, Lane says. “So it was a whole lot of employees in the company. Well, they was given a number, as far as I know. They was given a number to call … to call Immigration.”
ICE would not say why the audit of the bakery’s workers began.
Lane started working at the Chicago bakery as a packer at the end of 2015. Now, she tracks waste in the bakery’s production of Danishes.
Black workers couldn’t communicate well with Spanish-speaking Mexican workers and supervisors, according to Lane, who blames the company for the resulting confusion.
“When I first started, and when they first put me in as a packer, I asked the question, ‘Do they speak English?’ ” she says. “And they said: ‘Everybody.’ But when I went to communicate with them, no one spoke English.”
Lane says she also felt Mexican workers got better assignments and weren’t required to work as hard as black workers.
Still, she says she also feels solidarity with Mexican employees — over pay and the long hours required of everyone.
“You’re thinking this agency is paying the same as the next agency, and you come to find out one’s paying $11, and . . . the other one’s paying $14, and here we is, and one is paying $10 something, and . . . we all doing the same job. That’s unfair.”
She says she works 12 hours a day, six days a week, and only recently was able to take Sundays off to go to church.
“I go to work at 2 a.m., get off at 2 p.m., go home at about 3 — I’m asleep at about 5 or 6,” says Lane. “I get up the next night to go back to work. The pay is OK. I’m not complaining about that. … It’s mainly the hours. You have to be on your feet 12 hours a day with steel-toed boots on.”
Lane estimates that 90 percent of the workers in the Chicago bakery were Hispanic when she started working about two years ago and now about 90 percent of the workers are black.
A Hispanic woman who formerly worked at the bakery says the ICE audit cost her husband his job. But she says she didn’t feel tension between Hispanic and black workers because, “In the time that I worked there, honestly, I didn’t see any black workers. They came later.”
She says she came to the United States in 2001 from Hidalgo, Mexico, and heard about the bakery from uncles in Chicago. She worked as a packer from 2001 until she got pregnant in 2008. Her husband worked there from 2000 until he was forced out because of the ICE audit.
The woman asked that her name not be used because she crossed the border without documentation and fears she might get in trouble with immigration officials.
In an interview in Spanish, she says the long hours at the bakery were tough, but says, “We had no other choices.”
Since her husband was fired, “The truth is that it has been very hard,” she says. “He’s had jobs where he was not paid or the check bounced. He’s unemployed now.”
The ICE audit was devastating, she says: “We knew we could not prove he had authorization to work. We felt disappointed. Seventeen years working there, and suddenly they tell you this?”
Giloth, the community organizer, says other Chicago-area factories also have used temp agencies to recruit Hispanic workers over black workers. He points to Ferrara Candy Co. in Forest Park, which was sued in 2013 by black job applicants who said they were passed up for jobs given to Latino applicants.
Ferrara settled for $1.5 million, according to court records. Nearly 900 potential black employees were eligible to share in the fund, with the rest of the money to go to the West Side Health Authority, which Giloth is affiliated with, to provide job training for African Americans.
“They were marketing aggressively to the African American community but shutting them out of jobs,” Giloth says of Ferrara Candy. “We met with them, and they said they would make this right.”
Ald. Chris Taliaferro, whose 29th Ward includes the Cloverhill bakery on the Northwest Side, says he has heard complaints from workers there but has had little contact with bakery executives.
Under Aryzta, Taliaferro says, the owners didn’t communicate with his office, unlike other major employers in the ward he points to, including Radio Flyer and a Mars candy factory.
“Cloverhill is very shut off,” Taliaferro says, adding that he hopes to have better relations with Hostess. “With Radio Flyer and Mars, I could go in any time I want. But if you try to get in to Cloverhill, it’s like you need top-secret government clearance.”
Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th) says he has met with immigrant workers at Cloverhill about the bakery, which is across the street from his ward boundary, and has been working with Communities United, an organization that helps immigrants.
Villegas says blacks have been pitted against Hispanics in the day-labor world “for quite some time. African-Americans were discriminated against because day-labor agencies knew they could take advantage of the undocumented workers. Everybody who wants to work should have a fair opportunity and not be taken advantage of.”
Villegas says companies that hire the day-labor agencies also shoulder some blame.
“Those companies that participate in that type of practice need to be held accountable, too,” he says. “They should be treating everybody the same way, regardless of their status. They’re pitting one ethnicity versus another. It’s just not right.”