Former and current workers at a large commercial bakery in Galewood, along with various activist groups from Chicago and Oak Park, say that recent reports about the bakery's losing more than one-third of its employees in an immigration clampdown have obscured its history of labor abuses — which, the workers and activists claim, include wage theft, unlawful termination and racial discrimination.
Bloomberg first reported last month that the Cloverhill Bakery, 2035 N. Narragansett Ave., which makes baked goods for restaurants and grocery stores, lost 800 employees after federal authorities came down hard on immigrant workers "without sufficient documentation." Cloverhill is owned by Aryzta AG, a company based in Zurich.
Bloomberg reported that Cloverhill's immigration issues "led to a 7 percent decline in Aryzta's sales from North America in the three months through October," according to information provided by Kevin Toland, the CEO of Aryzta, in a call with analysts.
Cloverhill, which opened in 1961, was owned and operated by a River Forest family before it was sold to Arytza in 2014. In addition to McDonald's hamburger buns, Cloverhill also produces low-cost packaged products like glazed donuts and honey buns.
Bloomberg, in addition to multiple media reports, called the immigration action a "raid," but according to Tracy Stecko, an Aryzta spokesperson, the immigration enforcement action, which she said took place earlier this year, "was not an immigration raid."
"From our perspective, it was a very orderly enforcement process, conducted over a number of weeks several months ago, and was smoothly administered between ICE and a professional staffing agency with which we contract," Stecko said.
Bloomberg reported that Aryzta "wasn't able to verify that the workers had the necessary documents to work because they were brought in by a staffing agency," according to David Wilkinson, Aryzta's interim chief financial officer. Wilkinson, Bloomberg added, said that the company's board of directors "wasn't aware of the extent of the risk that existed to the business."
In a letter sent to the Coalition Against Segregation of Employees, an activist organization that has been protesting Cloverhill's labor practices, Donad Van Tassle, a division vice president with Aryzta, wrote that, after the loss of workers, Cloverhill had to "immediately hire a large number of new people in a very short period of time, and we did so in a completely non-discriminatory manner consistent with our Code of Conduct."
According to interviews with activists and former and current Cloverhill workers, some of whom preferred to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, the staffing agency that ICE audited is named Labor Network. The activists and workers say that Aryzta knew about the agency's practices and that, since the audit, the company has parted ways with the staffing agency. Workers say that the company has relationships with three other temp agencies.
Neither Stecko nor Van Tassle would confirm the identity of the staffing agency because of competitive reasons. They also did not confirm whether or not the company still contracts with the agency.
"The company is trying to play the victim here," said Dan Giloth, a project director with CASE. "They do a quarterly revenue report to their shareholders and they had to explain why they didn't have larger revenue in North America, so they're blaming the plant in Chicago.
"Although they lost lots of workers through the ICE audit, their response has been hiring lots of workers, mainly blacks, giving them little training, working them excessive hours and giving them mandatory 12- to 16-hour shifts," he said. "When workers get hurt, they're essentially thrown away."
Giloth added that the bakery has harmed both Latino and black workers with a "segregationist employment model." He said that Aryzta "systematically fired hundreds of Latino workers in May and June after the ICE audit" before aggressively recruiting black workers — who "had been underrepresented in the work force for years"— to replace them.
"Now, those [new workers] are running into issues and are reporting to us," Giloth said.
Lisa Pintado-Vertner, a member of Oak Park Call to Action, said that employees have told her that Aryzta tries to "pit groups against each other, because if you divide you can conquer," she said.
"We hear stories from African Americans who say Latinos won't speak English to me and Latinos who say blacks are lazy, but everybody is getting exploited because the folks without documentation are getting their checks shorted," Pintado-Vertner said.
"Some workers have been at that bakery for 20 years and are still working through a temp agency," she added. "If you're a temp worker, you're less than at-will. If you complain or retaliate, they can just let you go. They're not training the workers. They just throw a bunch of people in and see who lasts. People are being injured. It's another world inside of there."
Nayland Walker, 45, who was hired to work at Cloverhill from the end of August to September, complained of what he said is the bakery's rampant racism and poor working conditions. Walker added that he feels he was arbitrarily let go
"They said I couldn't work there because of company policy, but there are other people working there with felonies," Walker said, adding that during his employment at the bakery he witnessed an atmosphere of rampant racism and unsanitary working conditions.
"There is so much that goes on in there," Walker said. "I won't even eat the products up in there and those products are in every gas station in our neighborhood. I've seen them repackage stuff they should be throwing away.
"Workers are supposed to wash their hands and put on gloves before going to work, but I've seen people come out of the bathroom and walk right out of the door to go deal with food."
CASE and other activist organizations, including Black Workers Matter, Fight for 15, Westside Health Authority, Peace Makers and Oak Park Call to Action, have staged at least two protests outside of Cloverhill since October.
During an Oct. 7 demonstration, which was attended by state Rep. La Shawn K. Ford (8th), Geraldo Suarez, a former Cloverhill employee and a leader with the activist group Communities United, recalled his brief employment at the bakery last year.
"In 2016, I was working with my brother here and they weren't paying us the minimum wage," Suarez said. "When I figured out what they were paying, I got out. When I went to the office and asked why they were doing that, they told me it was only for a training period.
"After that, I was supposed to go to the union," he said. "I never made it to the union, because I quit. To have us work too many hours, seven days a week, [for less than minimum wage] wasn't fair."
"There was some blatant racism towards us, although some people tried to be subtle with it," Walker said. "There's a lot of yelling and arguing between dark and brown workers. And there's a lot of racism toward the people on the floor doing work."
Giloth said that workers and activists have been trying to arrange a meeting with Van Tassle for months in order to discuss the working conditions inside of the bakery, but have gotten the runaround.
The only response they've gotten, Giloth said, was the letter Van Tassle sent them, in which the Aryzta executive explains that Aryzta "is a good employer" that provides "good job opportunities with very competitive compensation. We are an organization built upon Care and our people are our priority [sic]."
Van Tassle added that the bakery "has a large and diverse workforce and our contracts with outside employment agencies have specific provisions that require vendors to be in compliance with all state and federal anti-state discrimination laws."
He also said that most of the bakery's employees, "including both direct employees and third party agency workers, are part of a collective bargaining agreement. If workplace issues come up, our regular established approach includes addressing them directly with the local union that represents our employees. We have a good working relationship with the union."
Giloth said that most worker complaints haven't been about pay; rather, they've centered on the working conditions inside of the plant and the larger issue of economic fairness. Giloth said that Aryzta is just one of many companies on the West Side who receive tax subsidies, particularly from being within the city's Tax Increment Financing districts, without being accountable to the people who live in those areas.
According to data they obtained from the city of Chicago, the activists said that a minimum of $191 million in taxes have been diverted to four area TIF districts — including Galewood-Armitage, Fullerton, Pulaski and the Northwest Industrial district.
The activists also noted that only one in 16 jobs goes to residents in the city's TIF districts, according to a 2013 study by the Grassroots Collaborative.
"There is a glitch in the law," said Ford during the Oct. 7 protest. "Black Workers Matter says change is needed, and I'm willing to stand and work with them to make the system fair. They had identified a problem with our TIF dollars that is discriminatory toward black people in the city."
Giloth said that, along with Ford, activists have been in talks with state Rep. Camille Lily (78th), Cook County Commissioner Richard Boykin (1st), Congressman Danny K. Davis and Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29th) in order to secure support for policy changes that might make employers in TIF districts more responsive to the needs of workers and residents.
"If you're going to try to attract and recruit workers and pay them better than average," Giloth said, "why not invest in them?"
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