A ‘Striketober’ protest leads to mass firings for Mayans in New Bedford

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Workers at this New Bedford tire recycling facility — most of whom are indigenous Mayans from Guatemala — recently voted overwhelmingly to join a union. Advocates describe the vote as a first for the city's Guatemalan community. (Simón Rios/WBUR)
Workers at this New Bedford tire recycling facility — most of whom are indigenous Mayans from Guatemala — recently voted overwhelmingly to join a union. Advocates describe the vote as a first for the city's Guatemalan community. (Simón Rios/WBUR)

The best tires arrive at Bob’s Tire ready to be painted and resold; the rest are disassembled and recycled. Conveyor belts spin day and night adding shredded rubber to piles that rise like hills above the houses in New Bedford’s surrounding North End.

Until this month, the business employed around 65 men, most of them from a rural province of Guatemala. Regardless of their immigration status, migrants from El Quiché know Bob’s Tire as a place they can find a job, and maybe a few for their relatives too.

Recently, though, the arrangement has started to fall apart.

A video recorded on Oct. 25 by the freelance journalist Gerardo Beltrán shows a New Bedford police officer leading a handcuffed worker into a crowd of protesters. In another video from the same morning, the worker, Alfredo Mateo, tells Beltrán he was arrested during a work stoppage inside the company’s gates.

“I have the right to protest,” Mateo said in Spanish, shortly after he was released without charges. “They are paying me a miserable $13.50 per hour. I’m asking for a right to vacation and time for breaks during the day.”

Mateo and roughly two dozen of his coworkers who participated in the protest were fired the next day, according to interviews with several people who attended the protest. Mateo, technically a temporary worker jointly employed by an independent staffing agency, said he had been working full time at Bob’s Tire for eight years.

The mass termination marks a turn in a yearslong unionization effort that was once celebrated for setting a precedent in New Bedford’s indigenous Mayan community. Employees at Bob’s Tire voted overwhelmingly to join the United Food and Commercial Workers in 2015, a move that some hoped would trigger a wave of labor organizing in other local workplaces populated by Mayan temporary workers, like the city’s two dozen fish processing plants.

Instead, six years later, many of the problems that drove workers to organize at Bob’s Tire remain unresolved. And allegations of other workplace abuses have surfaced, injecting new vigor into a simmering conflict that erupted once again at October’s protest.

‘The boss, he just laughs at us’

Juan Ixcuna, one of the employees fired after the work stoppage, said there has been a series of sexual assaults at Bob’s Tire involving a coworker who allegedly groped employees from behind.

“If we tell the boss, he just laughs at us,” said Ixcuna, who spoke through a translator in a mix of Spanish and K’iche, an indigenous Mayan language.

Ixcuna said the company’s owner, Bob Bates, also laughed when he cut himself on the job removing a metal wire from a tire he was disassembling. Ixcuna said Bates times workers when they go to the bathroom, freezes the Gatorade they drink in hot weather to prevent them from taking breaks in the morning, and shows other signs of disrespect.

“During the years that I worked here, he never called me my real name,” Ixcuna said. “He gives nicknames to people. Mine is ‘Boo Boo.’”

Bates did not respond to questions about Ixcuna’s allegations, and his daughter, Suzanne Beauchemin, declined to comment on behalf of the company.

Employees are not the only ones raising issues about working conditions at Bob’s Tire. Neighbors have complained to health inspectors that piles of rubber sometimes catch fire, making it hard for people to breathe. The company is also in the process of paying $18,000 in settlements for workplace safety violations to the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

‘The union abandoned them’

Substandard working conditions are part of what employees sought the power to change when they unionized in 2015. Over the next four years, the United Food and Commercial Workers filed 25 unfair labor charges against Bob’s Tire with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) — most of them claiming Bates was refusing to bargain in good faith.

“We're not going to hurt the company,” a worker named Domingo Ventura told WBUR in 2015. “We're going to put the company in its place and make it respect us.”

But six years later, the workers still don’t have a contract guaranteeing them pay raises above the minimum wage or basic job benefits like subsidized healthcare and paid vacation. The United Food and Commercial Workers did not send a representative to last month’s protest, and the union has not responded to repeated requests to comment.

“The union abandoned them,” said Adrián Ventura, the executive director of the Centro Comunitario de Trabajadores, a New Bedford nonprofit that helped connect workers at Bob’s Tire with the union organizers in 2015.

‘A right without a remedy’

This fall, three days after the protest, the union filed its first complaint with the NLRB in two years. It claims Bob’s Tire broke the law by firing workers for “protected activity.”

Experts say the union has a persuasive case.

“Generally speaking, of course, workers do have a right to engage in work stoppages, and they are protected from being discharged for that,” said Wilma Liebman, a former member of the NLRB who teaches law at George Washington University.

But even if the union wins the case, Liebman said the NLRB has been stripped of its power in workplaces like Bob’s Tire.

“The complication with undocumented workers,” she said, “is that the Supreme Court, in a decision some years ago, said that the NLRB does not have the authority to either order undocumented workers back to work or to have the employer pay them back pay.”

“It's a right without a remedy,” Liebman said. “So it's a kind of an illusory right.”

As the case begins what could be a years-long journey through the NLRB, the Centro Comunitario de Trabajadores is sending free groceries to workers fired from Bob’s Tire. Ixcuna said he gets rice, maseca and beans every week, enough to feed his wife and two children while he looks for another job. The nonprofit has started an online fundraiser to help workers with other expenses.

Their other appeal for help through the American legal system is in the hands of local law enforcement. Ventura said New Bedford’s police chief rebuilt some trust with workers from Bob’s Tire by personally meeting with them after his officers handcuffed two workers at the protest.

On Friday, a police spokesperson said the department is seeking a criminal charge against the Bob’s Tire employee accused by his coworkers of sexual assault.

This story was originally published by The Public’s Radio. The Public’s Radio and WBUR have a partnership in which the news organizations share stories and resources to collaborate on stories.



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