United in Distrust 

A strike at a Pilsen factory tears at the fabric of friendships

By Kari Lydersen

"Which brother you trying to recruit now, you fucking asshole?" Robert Anderson yells at Theodore White, who's driving his car through the picket line outside the Tool & Engineering plant in Pilsen. Anderson pounds his fists on the car window and raises his middle finger. White laughs as he drives off.

Anderson and White, who both came to Chicago from Mississippi when they were teenagers, used to be friends. They drank beer together and carpooled to Tool & Engineering, where they made prototype car bodies. But a bitter strike that began November 29 after the company proposed big cuts in wages and benefits has pitted them and other members of the United Steelworkers of America Local 15271 against one another. While 138 union members have walked the picket line with Anderson, 15 others have crossed it with White.

Anderson and White are both black, yet each side accuses the other of racism. The picketers also believe that management tried to stir up racial tension among the employees in an attempt to undermine the strike, and they believe that White bought management's line.

"I think [CEO] Chris [Christianson] made [company owner William] Farley a promise that if we went on strike he could guarantee 30, 35 guys working, and he needed [White] to deliver that," says Theodore Wynn, a black striker who was also once friends with White. "[White] went to the blacks trying to get them to cross. But he didn't go to me--he knows I'm prounion. When I started here 20 years ago there was a lot of prejudice, but then we got closer and closer, so that we were closer than our own families. Management didn't like that. They needed to do things to keep us divided--they wanted to keep up the racial thing. And the only thing they have to keep it going now is Theodore White."

White, who's 44 and has worked at the plant since 1973, scoffs at that charge. He counters that union higher-ups led a campaign to drive blacks out of power in the union and then led workers out on a pointless strike. He says he's a longtime union man, but he believes current union tactics are outdated. "The business is getting more competitive. I don't like it, but I can understand it. We have to be more realistic. Farley has to look out for himself--he didn't get where he is now by giving jobs and money away."

Tool & Engineering, an inconspicuous red brick factory on 18th Street just west of Halsted, was bought in 1982 by Farley, who's also the CEO of Fruit of the Loom. (Neither he nor Christianson returned phone calls.) Farley appointed Christianson CEO of Tool & Engineering in 1995, and according to workers, things almost immediately took a turn for the worse.

One of Christianson's first moves was to propose a new contract. The union didn't like it, and White, who was then the local's chairman, led the workers on a strike--the first in the company's history. Within six days the strike was over, Christianson having persuaded White and other members of the negotiating committee that he had the workers' best interests in mind.

But workers weren't pleased with the way the contract was implemented, and some started saying that White had sold them out. Their anger grew when they saw White getting friendlier with Christianson.

Sam Amos, a 31-year black plant veteran who also used to be friends with White, says, "Chris needed a crutch, someone he could lean on. White was it. He wanted him for a reason. Chris has a very big smile--when he first came here he had this smile and handshake like Al Capone. He went straight for the chairman and started buddying up to him. And he succeeded. Chris wanted to get rid of the union. I heard it out of his own mouth last summer. He said, 'It's gonna be a showdown.' He wanted the company to be able to do things the union didn't want to do. What better place to go? White knew this company inside and out. He knows how to get things by, how to undermine employees. Chris would stride across the floor and give White a big hug, and they would talk and laugh while he was supposed to be working. We thought he was collaborating with Chris, and we were right. They were going to dinner and doing all these things behind union members' backs."

White brushes off the charge that he was too friendly with Christianson. "I'm a man," he says. "No one tells me who I can talk to." But he insists that he has never talked to Christianson outside the workplace.

Union members also accuse White of dropping workers' grievances and of trying to get people fired. He says he did drop some grievances that he thought were lost causes, but he denies trying to get anyone fired. "As chairman my job was to keep people employed, and I did," he says. "Only three people were terminated while I was chairman. One guy put alcohol in another guy's pop--he could have been fired but I saved his job."

Anderson, who's 50 and has worked at the plant for 15 years, claims that White tried to get him fired by filing a complaint against him with management and recommending that he be given a drug test. "He testified against me. What kind of chairman is that?"

White says that one worker had complained that Anderson was harassing him, making derogatory statements about his wife and suggesting that he sell drugs out of his car instead of working so hard, and another worker said Anderson had accused some employees of carrying guns and knives to work. But White insists the workers complained directly to management, which then investigated. He says he was only an official observer, and he was acting out of concern for Anderson. "We used to ride together, work together, drink together," says White. "Then something happened, and he just went off the deep end. If someone's acting irrational like that, you send them for a drug test."

"He fabricates things to fit with what he wants," says Anderson, who insists none of the charges against him were true. He calls the incident "another case of the company's favorites trying to set me up."

Anderson sought help from union steward Jose Marrero. "I think White initiated the charges for personal reasons," says Marrero. "White and Robert had a little falling-out over the white man-black man attitude. Robert is the kind of guy where if someone tells a joke, no matter what the joke is, he'll get really into the laughter. He'll be laughing the loudest and the longest, just like a little kid. How could you fire someone like that?" Anderson wound up being suspended for three days.

When the 1997 union elections came up, Marrero ran against White. "For three different elections I turned down the position when people were asking me to run," says Marrero. "I didn't feel like I could fully commit to it because of my obligations to my family and my country through the army reserves. But I finally felt like I had to take it, because of the way White was running things."

Some union members accuse White of playing the race card during the elections. "He said all the black people were letting him down," says Gordon Moore, a 40-year-old black worker who's been at the plant for 15 years. "He said, 'We've got to get organized against the Caucasian people.' He wanted me to support him as a black person, but he didn't win one grievance when he was chairman. He got people fired."

Marrero won in a landslide. He says White got only 5 votes out of 128; White says he got 17 or 18. He says he didn't really want the job anyway. "I've never felt comfortable being out front. I didn't do any campaigning. I didn't even ask one person to vote for me."

The only other black union leaders--there were three--were also voted out. White claims that Marrero ran a smear campaign against him and the other black leaders in an effort to "get all the blacks out of the union" and that he made promises he couldn't keep to union members to win their votes. "It's politics, just like Mayor Daley and Bobby Rush," White says. "I've heard the N word thrown around. It was a power play. It was racism to get what they wanted. Jose has a Napoleon complex. He's a little guy, and he feels like he has to make up for it."

Marrero argues that it isn't he who's using racial politics, but White. "He's a follower of Farrakhan," he says, "and every now and then you'll see his resentment toward the white man show up. He says, 'These Europeans have run things for too long, and it's time we take over.' He has that militancy. People who really believe in the union see that there is no color. We all address each other as brother and sister. What's so funny is I'm Puerto Rican, and we don't really have racism on the island. My sister has blue eyes and blond hair, and my brother has African hair, wide lips--all the African features. How can I hate blacks when my grandmother is darker than most of these guys? I would have to be hating half my family if I hated blacks."

Shortly after the election Marrero filed charges against White, alleging that he wasn't turning over union documents he was supposed to, that he'd misrepresented workers, that he'd refused to post a letter from the union vice president on the company bulletin board, and that he'd dropped grievances he shouldn't have. White says the documents charge was ridiculous. "I gave him what I had," he says. "He didn't know my house was burglarized and they took my union briefcase. I didn't tell him that, because it's not his business."

Marrero also accused White of using union stationery to write a letter of apology to management for statements made by Marrero. Marrero said he hadn't made the statements, and besides it wasn't appropriate for a chairman to apologize for one of his workers. White says he hadn't written an apology, but had only wanted to clarify that Marrero's threat to "shut the company down" didn't represent the union's view.

A jury of unit chairmen from the amalgamated local found White guilty of failing to post the letter and dropping grievances, and banned him from running for union office for three years.

Meanwhile relations between management and the workers were only getting worse. About a year and a half ago rumors started circulating that management wanted to destroy the union, perhaps even close the factory and move it to Detroit. Some workers claim that as part of the strategy Christianson tried to pit workers against one another. "He'd go to the black workers and say, 'These Europeans aren't even citizens. They don't even speak English. They don't deserve to be making as much money as you,'" says Wally Kulak, who was once a manager of eight soft-drink plants in his native Poland and recently found a new job. "Then he'd go to the Europeans and say, 'These blacks are all lazy. They don't deserve to be making as much as you.'"

One day a worker found a marked-up copy of the union contract in the parking lot. "It was parts of the contract with parts highlighted and notes about cutting wages and holidays," says Marrero. "There was a whole handwritten page that said, We must convince workers through slips of tongue that we must make cuts or move to Detroit. We confronted Christianson, and he said he had nothing to do with it. We showed it to Farley, and he asked Christianson what it was about--and Christianson turned redder than a tomato."

Last September the union received the company's proposal for a new contract. It called for wage and benefit cuts totaling $2 million (hourly wages now range from $11 to $18.32; the company wanted a range of $8 to $17), productivity increases adding up to $1.5 million, freezing contributions to workers' pensions (and no new workers added to the plan), and restrictions on vacation time. Wage categories would be restructured, but workers wouldn't know until after the contract was signed what wage bracket they would fall into (about 70 percent of them now make $18.32 an hour).

According to Marrero, 98 percent of the workers voted to strike. White and several of his friends were on vacation the first week of the strike. "He was hoping we would be done with it by the time he got back, and he wouldn't need to make a decision," says Marrero.

White responds that his trip had been planned long before, and he says he didn't even hear about the strike until he got back. That's when he and nine other workers, eight of them black, first crossed the picket line to go to work.

Several workers charge that White contacted black workers and urged them to cross the line. "I got a call from the company saying, 'Theodore White wants to talk to you,'" says Sam Amos. "I said, 'Man, why you doin' this? We been friends for 25 years.' If anyone would have a reason to cross it would be me, after 31 years. But I cannot do that. No way in the world. He painted Jose as a racist, but that's not true."

White laughs at the suggestion that he persuaded others to cross the picket line. "They have the impression I have a lot of control over people, but I never asked anyone to follow me anywhere," he says. "I enjoy the idea that they think I have so much power, but I'm not the key to anything. I'm the first to admit I might be wrong. I was wrong once before--I voted for Nixon."

White says his decision not to strike had little to do with his personal feelings about Christianson or Marrero. "I'm not happy about a $2- or $3-an-hour pay cut either, but it's better than an $18-an-hour cut," he says. "If I go to the store with $15 instead of $18 I can still get what I want. But if I go with zero I won't get anything. I don't know where else these guys can get jobs making this kind of money. From this man's point of view, the strike was a bad idea--or at least continuing it this long was. If they have the right to strike, don't I have the right not to strike? Everyone's entitled to their own opinion--isn't that what America's about?"

He counters that Marrero manipulated the other workers to get them to follow him out on strike. "I don't want to sound racist," he says, "but a lot of these Europeans aren't very good at thinking for themselves. How else would you get them to stand outside for $4 a week when they could be working?"

Strike pay from the union isn't $4 a week, Marrero responds, but an average of $90--and it rises as the strike goes on. The Steelworkers Strike and Defense Fund Committee does allocate money based on need, so some get more, he says. "Some workers get nothing."

Every week union members vote on whether to continue the strike, and so far they've voted overwhelmingly to do so. In the meantime the union negotiators, whose first contract counterproposal included large raises and increased benefits, have radically scaled back their demands. In January they began asking for the same contract they had with only ten-cent annual raises.

In early February management sent its "last and best offer," which contained wage and benefit cuts that weren't much different from the original proposal. Management also gave notice that it would close the plant on April 4 if the strikers didn't return to work, though it has since retracted that notice. Five more people crossed the picket line in the week and a half following the notice, though one of the strikebreakers has rejoined the strikers. Sixteen people, nine black and seven white, are now crossing the line. Walking that line now are 122 workers; roughly a third of them black, a third Latino, a third white.

There's no end to the strike in sight, and tension between the strikers and the strikebreakers is high. People on both sides have been arrested. A former chairman of the local, Robert Tate, who's been crossing the line since the beginning, is facing an assault charge for attacking a striker who yelled an insult at him. "I'm an African-American citizen--the names I've been called I wouldn't call a dog," he says. Milenko Gvozden, a union steward, was charged with disorderly conduct. "They accused me of threatening to burn the plant down," he says, laughing. "I had said, 'Chris [Christianson] is going to burn this place to the ground,' and they twisted my words around." Another striker, Mihail Moghina, who has worked at the plant for 20 years, was arrested for trespassing on railroad tracks that run past the factory; he claims his hand was fractured when a Tool & Engineering security guard pushed him to the ground. "As he was laying on the ground in pain," says Marrero, "the police just treated him like a piece of meat--handcuffed him and threw him into a paddy wagon. There's no way they can convict him of trespassing--people walk their dogs along those tracks all the time." The charges have since been dropped.

One afternoon in mid-February White drives out of the plant parking lot through a gauntlet of about 20 shouting strikers, including Anderson. A few other cars follow. Suddenly the taunts are interrupted by someone yelling, "He has a gun!" The strikers start running toward 18th Street, where George Rhone, a good friend of White's, has stopped his car. They look ready to fight, but the police car that guards the premises during every shift change pulls up. Rhone drives off.

"He's breaking," says Anderson triumphantly. "He can't take much more of this. Just keep hounding him and he'll break."

No one has noticed that White had pulled over in front of Rhone and watched the entire encounter. He says it's one more example of things getting blown out of proportion. "They're following a script that was written for them," he says. "Once you beat a barrel for so long you get to like the tune--until finally you wake up and realize you've been had. After the election I knew I would have the last laugh. And I am now. Someone spray painted 'scab boss' on my car. They went out in the cold and took the risk of getting caught to do that--and it took me five minutes to get it off. What did you accomplish? You're still standing out in the cold--and I'm getting a paycheck."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Robert Anderson/ Theadore White photos by Nathan Mandell.

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