September 9th, 2020 11:47 AM
Eunice Carson demonstrates a COVID-19 evaluation app for bakery workers. | Paul Goyette
Eunice Carson stood outside of Pete's Fresh Market, 259 Lake St., Oak Park, the afternoon of Sept. 3 to demonstrate how the COVID-19 Report/ing Card, a cellphone app works.
"They go in and say who they work for and can give the companies a grade," Carson said.
The reporting tool is the latest weapon in a pitched battle between Black workers and the owners of Bimbo Bakeries USA's Cicero factory, where the workers manufacture Little Bites muffins and other products sold at Pete's and other stores.
The tool allows employees at the Bimbo plant in Cicero to anonymously report on workplace conditions, including whether or not there's adequate PPE, social distancing on production lines and common areas, and hazard pay, among other things.
The app is also for workers at a Hostess Bakery in Galewood — another site the workers consider problematic, albeit not quite as problematic as Bimbo.
During a press conference held earlier in the day, members of the labor organization Black Workers Matter, which worked with volunteers like Carson (who doesn't work at the plants) to develop the app, detailed a range of longstanding complaints against Bimbo.
The workers have complained for months about unsafe working conditions at the plant, that include a lack of personal protective equipment and no social distancing that has exposed them to COVID-19.
Since April, the workers said, two employees at the plant have died and at least four workers who publicly complained about Bimbo to local media have been terminated as part of what Black Workers Matter members believe is a pattern of retaliation against them by plant management.
The workers also complained about a pattern of discriminatory behavior by plant management toward Black workers, racial segregation in the plant's workforce and a pattern of favoritism toward the plant's Hispanic workers.
Bimbo representatives have consistently denied the workers' claims. In a statement emailed to Wednesday Journal in June, a spokesperson for Bimbo said that the "safety and inclusive treatment of our associates is our highest priority.
"Since purchasing the Cicero bakery two years ago, we have invested in this facility and worked to overcome the checkered history of race relations that existed prior to our acquisition. We have and will continue to work diligently to create an environment that is safe and equitable for all associates."
A representative with Bimbo was not available to comment on the most recent allegations.
"We didn't start in the street, we started by sitting down with the company at the national level," said Dan Giloth, an Oak Park organizer affiliated with Black Workers Matter.
"We tried to work this out. We sat down in February and laid out the issues. They didn't take us seriously. Then COVID hit. Bimbo had a plant in Wuhan. They had a plant in Italy. They knew what to do. They dragged their feet. And then sanitation people started telling us the plant wasn't clean. Workers started complaining. They spoke to their manager. They spoke to the press. They spoke to the Cicero Independiente. In April, two workers died. We believe these deaths could have been avoided."
Giloth read a statement written by Dennean Paul, who works in the sanitation department at the Bimbo plan. Paul stated that the "racism at Bimbo is unbelievable" and said that she "trained people for positions I couldn't get."
The Black workers said that they can count on one hand the number of Black supervisors employed at both plants and complained about the racial stratification of the workforce.
"We got four lines in the plant," said Dion Paige, who works at Bimbo. "They're always segregated. The Black people and the Mexicans work separately on the lines. We should be working together."
Shay Mitchell, a Bimbo employee who has recently filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission over the working conditions at the plant, said that "we are being discriminated against, we are being retaliated against."
Mitchell said she was suspended two days after complaining to a production manager at Bimbo about widespread racism at the plant.
Anthony Stewart, the founder of Black Workers Matter, said that Bimbo has sped up the production lines and forced people who feel sick to report to work by threatening them with retaliatory measures.
Steve Robinson, a Black Workers Matter member and director of the Northwest Austin Community Council, repeated a list of demands the organization has been making since February, but that members say have still gone unmet.
They include anti-racism training run by the EEOC; a monthly report outlining "the numbers on race for all management and workers by shift and job;" monthly off-site meetings with Bimbo representatives on race relations; and an end to the alleged retaliation, among other demands.
The workers also want the company to fix the unsafe line speeds and issue "a written, public policy that no workers on leave for underlying conditions will be fired."
Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson said he "stands in solidarity" with the workers and called on corporations to take responsibility for their employees.
"Maybe all of us need to make call for a general strike," he said.
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