ROCHELLE — For the second time in the past few weeks local community members and church leaders joined a rally for local subcontracted workers who claim to have been wrongly fired and are owed money.
Workers and citizens held up signs and spoke to the media about the labor dispute late Thursday afternoon near the Americold expansion construction site in Rochelle.
The former employees of Southern Mechanic and Construction are demanding reinstatement of their positions and back pay after what they are calling retaliatory firings last month.
Several of the former employees, along with Rochelle United Methodist Church Pastor Rob Hamilton, have been to three Rochelle City Council meetings to complain about their working conditions and alleged theft of wages.
Early on Thursday, Hamilton met with Rochelle Mayor Chet Olson and Americold Vice President of Labor Relations Robert Hutchison. Olson was also in attendance at the rally Thursday.
“He [Hutchison] basically assured us he was working on each issue one by one… making sure the workers are paid properly… he’s working on safety issues that the contractor is being accused of,” Olson said. “Americold has been a great friend, great company in this community. They’ve brought a lot of jobs here.”
In a press release issued Thursday, Arise Chicago, an interfaith justice group, stated workers and clergy “claim SMC hired out-of-state replacements for fired workers who demanded full pay and right to unionize.”
This came after employees previously staged a one-day strike to protest alleged wage theft and poor and unsafe working conditions.
“They returned to work hoping for improvements and willingness from SMC to discuss a union contract. At this point the ironworkers also brought to the company’s attention that SMC was operating without legally required workers’ compensation insurance,” said Shelly Ruzicka, of Arise Chicago. “With no changes, two days later the workers staged a second one-day strike. To show their support, all of the union workers on the job site, across building trades, walked off the job in solidarity. The unified worker action shut down the worksite and SMC finally signed a union contract with the workers and their chosen representatives, the Ironworkers Union. The company also said it would produce a copy of its workers’ compensation insurance policy.”
Arise said further in the press release that subsequently, SMC never produced a certificate of insurance and shut down the facility, firing its workers.
“Shortly thereafter SMC reappeared not far from the original main worksite. While it gave up its part of the contract for erection of the building, it continued with pre-assembly of building materials for the same project and brought in out-of-state non-union workers from Georgia and Alabama. Before the strike SMC’s original workers were all Rochelle residents.”
Olson confirmed he was told SMC is no longer welcome on the construction site but has resumed assembly of sections in different locations in Rochelle.
Sean Tepton, Americold Director of Communications and Public Relations released a statement early Friday confirming the conversations have been held.
“We’ve spoken with Rev. Hamilton and other parties on several occasions to offer support where we can even though the issues are not directed at Americold,” Tepton said.
Olson said as Mayor of Rochelle he represents the community and the businesses.
“We have to make sure we take care of our people and our businesses because they are the people that put the bread and butter on our table… they are the ones that create the jobs here,” Olson said. “We are thankful… this is the third addition to Americold. They could have built this anywhere but they are building it here. The reason is our people.”
SMC could not be reached for comment.