The roughly dozen workers and activists who stood outside of Ferrara Pan Candy factory in west suburban Forest Park — braving the winter chill of a Feb. 5 afternoon, defiantly holding signs that read, “The system can’t work if we don’t work,” and “We want equality in hiring and treatment” — hope to look back on that day as the start of something revolutionary.

Scorned workers and activists picketing outside of a Ferrara Candy Company factory in west suburban Forest Park is nothing new. What is new, said Anthony Stewart, 57, and Ernestine “Lisa” Ali, 52, is that they, the workers, organized and thought-out the demonstration.

Stewart, an Austin resident, and Ali, who lives in suburban Glendale Heights, are the faces of a new organization that they’ve called Black Workers Matter and the Friday protest was its coming out party.

The two workers, who were once employed at Ferrara through the temporary employment agency Elite Staffing, were also at the factory to hand-deliver formal complaints they filed recently against the two firms with the National Labor Relations Board.

They each claim the staffing agency and the candy company engage in unfair labor practices and that they’ve conspired to keep from paying some workers what they’re owed — complaints that aren’t new to Ferrara, which employs many people from the West Side through temporary staffing agencies.

Last month, a 2013 lawsuit brought against Ferrara and two temporary employment agencies in the area — Labor Power (now Elite Staffing) and Forest Park-based Remedial Environmental Manpower (REM) — was settled for $1.5 million. The lawsuit was brought on behalf of African American workers “who alleged discriminatory hiring practices” by the two staffing firms “based on Ferrara’s request to hire employees,” according to a January Forest Park Review article.

“The suit claimed that African American workers were regularly denied work by the staffing companies in favor of hiring Latino workers,” the Review noted.

Ferrara agreed to pay $1 million, while Labor Power and REM agreed to pay $450,000 and $50,000, respectively. According to the terms of the settlement, the three companies did not admit wrongdoing.

In a statement released at the time, Ferrara noted that, “We remain focused on continuing to produce great products that our customers love thanks to some of the most talented employees in the industry, while being a good partner to our local communities.” None of the three companies could be contacted for comment.

Ali and Stewart, whose complaints are similar to those of African American employees who have spoken out against Ferrara and its temporary employment providers in the past, said that when they started to become vocal about the companies’ alleged practices they were fired.

Stewart told a handful of reporters and a single television camera during a press conference held outside the factory that he was demanding to meet with the Forest Park candy factory’s plant manager, in order to discuss a series of demands.

Those demands included an end to “short checks,” an increase of the minimum wage to $15 per hour, an end to Ferrara’s practices of utilizing temporary employment agencies for hiring purposes, the implementation of a hotline for workers to report discriminatory labor practices and the reinstatement of employees, like Stewart and Ali, who say they were fired for speaking out.

“There’s only one race of people and that’s the human race. We should all be treated equally and fairly,” Stewart said, before leading demonstrators up to a reception lobby, which was empty — there wasn’t even a receptionist on hand — when they arrived. The plant manager never materialized, but an unidentified employee of the plant eventually appeared in the lobby to tell the group he had called the police.

Stewart and Ali ended up taping their complaints to the reception window before leaving — their baptism by frigid February air into the calling of activism having ended, only for the long haul to just begin. 

“I was averaging 12 hours a day working a forklift,” Stewart said in an interview the day before the protest. “I’d worked in just about all areas in that factory, but I was best at the forklift. I had to have been, because they kept feeding my hours, but they also kept screwing up on my hours.”

Stewart, who made $9.25 an hour, claims that, during his roughly three months working at Ferrara, the company didn’t pay him what he was owed and often justified the short payments on complications that didn’t sound feasible to him.

“They’d claim I wasn’t there, despite video showing me at the factory,” he said. “They gave me a time card so I could prove I was there. It would show I punched in, but not that I punched out. Then, they told me they had me as permanent hire, which was why my hours were messed up. I’m barely making minimum wage, I don’t know how they could confuse that.”

“Then, it was an issue when they paid me for seven hours overtime and 32 hours of regular time. A red flag should’ve popped up, because you can only get paid overtime if you’re over 40 hours in that pay period. I was supposed to have 32 hours of overtime and 40 hours of regular time. They kept telling me they didn’t know what was going on. Come on now. We live in a world of technology; everything can be seen.”

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