Employees of Erickson Cosmetics Company (makers of Banana Boat lotion) only wanted what they had earned. Especially workers like Juana Vasquez who worked at the factory in the northside of Chicago until the day before she gave birth in February 1999. She had felt fortunate to have a steady job that provided healthcare, but soon after she gave birth to her son she discovered she no longer had either.
The financially troubled Erickson unexpectedly shut down on March 19, 1999, without paying its 400 workers for their last two weeks of work (checks from the previous week bounced). The plant workers discovered about 12 days later that their health benefits had been canceled on January 1, even though workers had kept up their share of the premiums. Instead of experiencing the joy of motherhood, Vasquez faced a nightmare – being unemployed and stuck with a $20,000 hospital bill.
“I felt awful,” said Vasquez. “The hospital kept writing me and telling me I should pay or go on public aid. I told them I will file a lawsuit against the company or whoever is responsible.”
Erickson ran up such a debt that a creditor, U.S. Bank, eventually took control of it. Vasquez and her co-workers did not know what to do. Laura Leon, a longtime community organizer who worked in an administrative role at Erickson (trying to take a break from organizing), called the Chicago Interfaith Committee on Worker Issues to see what could be done to get the workers their back pay.
Kristi Sanford, the 25-year old director of the Interfaith Committee, helped arrange a meeting in a local church where the workers could tell their stories. Over 400 workers and family members showed up, along with a number of local clergy and community leaders, and the labor reporter for the Chicago Tribune (thanks to a call from the Interfaith Committee).
Laura Leon, a Spanish speaker, agreed to run the meeting. So when Sanford arrived, she found out she needed to translate. Despite having never translated for such a large meeting, she plunged forward – something all organizers must be prepared to do!
Who’s the Target?
There was a bit of confusion as to who the target was and what power the community had. The workers and organizer weren’t positive who had the power (and money) to repay the workers. The former owner was morally responsible, but did he actually have the money? The bank had the money, but was it legally responsible? If the bank was responsible, what power did the community have over the bank?
First, the group tried the local branch of U.S. Bank (headquartered in Minneapolis). The Interfaith Committee organized a delegation of workers, clergy and the state representative to visit the bank branch and demand that the manager talk with the Minneapolis leadership about paying these workers. Unaccustomed to such delegations, the bank called security to escort them out. Over the next few months, the group continued to call and write the bank, encouraging them to pay the workers the money owed them.
Sanford then decided to try to talk with the founder of the company. She found his number in the phone book, picked up the phone, and reached him. Not what one would normally expect. It became clear from this call and another to his attorney that the former owner no longer had control of the company, and did not have the resources. Despite the group’s belief that he had a moral responsibility to the workers, it could identify no power it had over him.
Next the group decided to pressure the Department of Labor (DOL). The DOL was a secondary target – one over which the workers had some power and that had more power over the primary target (the bank) than they did. Because the Chicago Tribune reporter had written an excellent front page article on the meeting, the DOL was already familiar with the situation when workers and advocates called. In addition, the Chicago Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice had been developing a partnership with the DOL on a variety of worker rights issues, so Sanford knew how to reach a live body who could respond – often difficult with government agencies.
The Chicago DOL has good staff, but they are used to working in a slow bureaucracy and accustomed to cases dragging on. Although the DOL staff did not need to be convinced that stealing workers’ wages was wrong, the regular calls of inquiry from Sanford and the publicity moved the case to the front of their agenda.
Several months later, the Department of Labor awarded Vasquez and her co-workers $345,000 in back pay, using the “hot goods” provision – the bank could not sell off assets without paying the workers first.
Lessons From the Campaign
Be persistent. Keep pushing. Keep trying new angles.
Don’t assume you can’t talk with people. Sanford talked directly with the owner. She found his number by opening up the phone book.
Recognize youth leadership. Kristi Sanford is young, but a powerful leader. For those of us who are (getting) older, we must recognize and use the gifts of young leaders.
It is acceptable to pressure more than one target. Organizers should certainly research who the best targets are, but sometimes it is unclear or there are multiple appropriate targets – as in this situation. “It was initially difficult to determine who was responsible. We called the owner and never got a meeting with him, but it was clear that he had no money and had no control over what the bank would do,” says Sanford. “We called the Department of Labor immediately, and ultimately, the workers got their money back because the DOL did their job.”