May 7th, 2019 10:37 AM
STILL HAPPENING?: Members of Black Workers Matter outside of the Hostess Bakery in Galewood, where they allege that black employees are still being mistreated a year after a new owner took over. | IGOR STUDENKOV/Contributor
On May 1, the day celebrated throughout the world as a day of workers' rights activism, activists from Black Workers Matter and their allies gathered in front of Galewood's Hostess Bakery, 2035 N. Narragansett Ave., to allege that the pattern of racial discrimination and retaliatory firing that happened under the plant's previous owners have continued since the current owners took over a year ago.
As previously reported by Austin Weekly News, activists had complained that what was then known as Cloverhill Bakery went out of its way to avoid hiring African-Americans. When an Immigration and Customs Enforcement audit forced them to fire undocumented Hispanic workers, the black workers that were hired in their place received little training, low pay and were more readily punished. When Aryzta LLC sold the plant to Hostess in 2018, the activists decided to give the new owners a few months to do better.
During the course of the May 1 press conference, activists alleged that the plant still employs "racist and abusive" managers, including some that were fired by Aryzta. They also said that two workers were fired under flimsy pretexts for union organization and trying to bring abuses to light. Black Workers Mattered insisted that, unless Hostess, at the very least, rehires those workers, they will push back through protests and legal action.
During the May 1 conference, Black Workers Matter members were joined by the Westside Health Authority's Good Neighbors Campaign, the Northwest Austin Council and the Coalition Against Segregation of Employees.
Anthony Stewart, the co-founder of Black Workers Matter, alleged that HR for Hostess retaliated against workers Kymani Hill and Adekunle Cole for speaking out against abuses committed by their higher-ups.
Steven Robinson, the director of the Northwest Austin Community Council, said that Hostess refused to do anti-bias trainings run by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, but they promised to do better.
"We got other plants in the neighborhood [to do it]," Robinson said. "You don't hear about [the kind of misconduct alleged at the Hostess plant], so it can be done. This has been going on for a long time [at the bakery]. It's deep-rooted in this company. It's going to take a big commitment to change it."
Hill said that he and the other workers who worked at both Hostess' Galewood and Cicero bakeries were fired on "trumped-up charges" for trying to organize workers.
"I was fired for dropping a wrapper in a break room," he said. "Can you believe that?"
Hill said that his termination happened about six months ago. Although the National Labor Relations Board ruled that Hostess retaliated against him, the hearing to decide on the recourse — whether it be rehiring or financial compensation — won't be decided on until July 22. In the meantime, Hill said he hasn't been able to find a job.
Cole, who worked at the Cloverhill plant as a sanitation worker for the past three years, said he and the other workers complained about not getting proper safety equipment. They also wanted their higher-ups to fire a supervisor who allegedly mistreated them.
"[A month later], in March, the supervisor accused me of threatening him," Cole said. "I was fired."
He said that even though there were two other people in the room at the time of the alleged confrontation — Ishmael Hunt, the first shift supervisor, and Veronica Tucker, the Local 30 labor union steward — neither of them were interviewed.
Cole added that while he filed a grievance through his union, "they didn't do nothing." He said that, while he is looking for work, he is afraid to use Hostess as a reference, given their stated reasons for firing him.
Peter Gunn, of the Good Neighbor Campaign, said that there have been cases of business owners threatening to close altogether when labor issues are brought up, but they won't be scared off so easily.
"Look at any corner in Austin. We buy your products," Gunn said. 'We say to Hostess, 'We will stand up to your discrimination and we will stand up to your retaliation.'"
Christopher Williams, an attorney with Workers' Law Office who is representing Stewart in an ongoing lawsuit against Arita over its discriminatory practices while they owned the bakery, said that he filed a complaint with Illinois Department of Human Rights alleging a pattern of discrimination against African-Americans in retaliation against lawful labor organizing. He also mentioned that he and his clients are preparing additional charges to bring to the National Labor Relations Board.
"Unfortunately, Hostess has not done the work to train its supervisors, to train its workforce, to hire more African-American supervisors and workers," Williams said. "While there are more African-American employees [now], they are not being treated fairly."
Arnold Brown, a manager with Hostess, met activists at the entrance of the plant. He suggested that the workers call Matt Hall, Hostess's vice president of human resources, when they demanded that Hill and Cole be rehired.
"I'm not disagreeing with anything you're saying," Brown said. "I'm not the boss. He's the boss."
When Stewart called Hall, the vice president said that he should talk to Brown, the manager.
"He said that they already made the decision," Stewart commented. "This is the wrong decision."
The activists said that they would continue the protests until Hill and Cole are rehired.
"We are all united and we will continue to fight for justice," Robinson said