June 2009

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Chicago Shop Steward Committed to Workers’ Rights

Jesus Cerda, Local 134 shop steward at Best Neon Sign Co. in Chicago, is one of those leaders who fought for respect on the job long before he had an official title or union behind him. Such an approach can get one fired, and he was. But that’s only the beginning of his saga of courage and determination.

In 2005, Cerda’s six unorganized Hispanic co-workers—who assemble, wire, paint and package signs—selected him and a co-worker to deliver a petition to the boss asking for a $1 per-hour raise and the right to the paid holidays enjoyed by the company’s 10 electricians who were represented by Local 134.

“The boss said that we were acting like bandits,” says Cerda, who reminded the owner that the issues on the petition had been brought forward a year earlier with no resolution. “The boss got angrier when he found out that we knew each other’s salaries.” Cerda migrated to the U.S. from Mexico in 1985, at age 16 to pick crops. He became a permanent resident in 1990 and a U.S. citizen in 1996, and has worked in the sign business for over 20 years.

The owner fired all seven workers who signed the petition. He recalled four—to re-join five co-workers who did not take part in the petition campaign—but he left Cerda and two co-workers on the street.

Jesus and his brother, Alfonso, also a Best Neon worker, sought help from the Chicago Workers Collabora-tive, a non-profit group. The collaborative put the brothers in touch with Chris Williams, an attorney with the Working Hands Legal Clinic and a former union organizer. Williams filed unfair labor practice charges at the NLRB, winning reinstatement for Cerda and his co-workers, along with three months of back pay for each.

Williams suggested that the brothers organize a meeting with their co-workers and called Chicago Local 134 asking for an organizer to attend the meeting.

Ken Anderson, Local 134 business representative, met with the Best Neon crew and offered the local’s support. Anderson says Cerda was “a great advocate” for the workers that he now represents as a shop steward.

At first, workers were afraid that they would lose their jobs if they voted for a union, says Cerda. But when Anderson circulated authorization cards, they became more confident.
Best Neon played hardball again. They brought in Blankenship and Associates, an Indiana union-buster, to schedule captive audience meetings. Local 134 representatives asked to be present in the meetings, but were refused. Nevertheless, Cerda and his co-workers stood up in the meetings, asked how much profit the company was making and asserted their rights to a union.

In July 2007, the workers voted 9 to 0 in favor of representation with Local 134. “After all he endured and the leadership he showed, I knew that Jesus was the kind of person we needed as shop steward,” says Anderson, who recommended to Business Manager Tim Foley that he be appointed to the position.

The attitude of management has changed since the union vote, says Cerda. Benefits have improved, and “now the company has respect towards us, and they organize meetings once a month to discuss how we can have a better relationship,” he says.

“We need to stand up for our rights and not be afraid,” says Cerda, who is married, with three daughters. “I want my daughters to go to school and have a better future than what I had.”

Cerda still volunteers at the Chicago Workers Collaborative to help other workers better understand their rights and get organized.

Jesus Cerda, now a shop steward at Chicago Local 134, was fired for asking for better pay and treatment on behalf of his co-workers.