Elizabeth Maloney was born in 1880 in Joliet, Illinois. The Irish American organizer was one of the founding members of the Chicago waitresses union Local 484. She served as the Financial Secretary of the union. She was instrumental in growing the union membership and was involved in several strikes. One of her greatest causes was the fight for the ten-hour day. When she became involved in the profession waitresses were frequently required to work thirteen or fourteen hours a day, seven days a week.
Her championing of the ten-hour day extended beyond her work at the waitresses union. Elizabeth Maloney was also active in the Women’s Trade Union League of Chicago. Elizabeth served on the WTUL Executive Board from 1907-1916. While she was chairwoman of the League’s legislative committee, Elizabeth worked closely with Agnes Nestor on the passage of the 1909 law for a ten-hour law for women workers in Illinois. Not content with ten hours, Elizabeth continued to fight for an eight-hour day for all workers.
Elizabeth Maloney was the first woman to serve as a vice-president of the Hotel and Restaurant Employee’s International Union. She was a very active delegate to the Illinois State Federation of Labor. Besides her life-long commitment to improving the lives of women in the workplace, she also fought for women’s suffrage.
The most significant strike that Elizabeth Maloney was involved with occurred in 1914 when the Chicago Waitress Local 484 and the Chicago Cooks Union 864 went on strike against Henrici’s, a restaurant located on Randolph Street. The strike started in February and wore on for eleven months. Women on the picket line faced harassment by the police. The action expanded to twenty more restaurants that were part of the Restaurant Keepers Association. It was supported by Hull House, the WTUL and the Chicago Federation of Labor. The strike eventually collapsed due to a series of injunctions leveled against the waitress picketers. However, it gained considerable attention by the press.
Due to the attention garnered by the Chicago waitresses’ strike, Elizabeth testified before the Commission on Industrial Relations. Also known as the Walsh Commission, it was charged by the US Congress to conduct a sweeping investigation of the condition of work in the United States. They conducted 740 interviews, including labor leaders “Big Bill” Haywood and Mother Jones, and Clarence Darrow. Her selection to testify before this body, speaks to Elizabeth’s important role in labor organizing. During her testimony she said, “When you look at the profit side of the concern and look at the wage column, and see the wages as low as two or three or four dollars a week, and you know that industry is piling up millions of dollars at the expense of the girls, that side of the table should be equalized a little more, and I think a girl should be entitled to live decently and properly and enjoy some of the things in life that her employer wants his children to have.” When Elizabeth died in 1921, a “guard of honor” attended her funeral. It included Jane Addams and Ellen-Gates Starr of Hull house, and WTUL activist Alice Henry.
Olgha Sierra Sandman
A true champion for farm workers is Olgha Sierra Sandman, who for over 40 years has worked to improve conditions for migrant farmworkers. Olgha, a Mexican native, came to Chicago in the early 1950s to attend the Baptist Missionary Training School. During those summers, she did outreach work to farm workers in east central Illinois and met her future husband, the late Rev. Dr. Robert Sandman of the United Church of Christ. She was active in the National Council of Churches' Migrant Ministry.
Seeing that sad conditions of farm workers, Olgha continued working with the Migrant Ministry. In 1970 United Farm Workers’ president Cesar Chavez (1927-1993) came to the Ministry and asked them to support his union efforts, saying improving workers’ wages and conditions was more important than charity. The organization rechristened itself as the National Farm Worker Ministry and became active supporters of farm workers organizing themselves for better conditions. Olgha became an over 40-year board member, plus serving as the NFWM’s interim director and President.
Olgha and Bob became steadfast Chavez supporters, also working with Baldemar Valesquez and the Farm Labor Organizing Committee and Florida’s Coalition of Immokalee Workers.
In 1974 Bob Sandman took a pastor’s position in Peoria. Olgha became the first director of the Illinois Council of Churches’ Illinois Farm Worker Ministry (IFWM), a position she served in until 1992. Besides supporting Chavez and union boycott activities, the IFWM actively reached out to farm worker communities in southern Illinois apple and peach orchards, cannery workers, vegetable workers and nursery workers.
Olgha helped Onarga farm workers launch the Illinois Farm Worker Service Center in 1981. The IFWM also helped pass Illinois’ 1982 Field Sanitation Act, requiring clean drinking water and portable toilets for farm workers.
Olgha commented about the farm workers, “You learn to love the people, and you begin to appreciate that the food that comes to your table would not come to our table unless you had people in the fields, bending over and bending over, day and day out, sun up to sun down.”
In 1992 Bob and Olgha retired and spent a year working with refugees in Turkey. Olgha continues her service with the NFWM board and remains active in supporting farm workers and “la causa.”
Ruben Ramirez spent over four decades as a member and an officer for United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 100A. His lifelong efforts on behalf of working families have been recorded in various publications, including the 2012 New York Times Best Seller “Fast Food Nation,” by Eric Schlosser.
Ruben came to the United States from Guanajuato, Mexico, with no understanding of the English language. In 1956, at the age of 17, he began working at Swift & Company in Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood. At the time, Mexicans were looked down on, so Ruben was only given the menial tasks, such as general labor and sanitation. He was not allowed to do anything that involved knife skills. According to the book, “Fast Food Nation,” Ruben “carried heavy boxes and barrels of meat, getting soaked in blood that hardened and froze to his clothing in the winter.” After a few years, Ruben went to work at a rival processing company, Glenn & Anderson, where he worked in sanitation and was eventually promoted to butcher.
Throughout his time at the packing houses, he and his friends suffered severe injuries on the job. While lugging beef off a trailer, Ruben slipped on frozen blood; the heavy carcass landed on him, knocking him unconscious, and the sharp bone of the carcass severed his middle finger. Ruben knew he and the other workers deserved better. They struggled to unionize their workplace in the 1960s, and in the end, by standing together, they secured a union contract that offered better wages, benefits and safer working conditions.
Ruben was active in his Union, starting as a Shop Steward, then working his way up the ranks. In fact, prior to becoming a Business Rep, he sacrificed his time with his family and organized while he still worked on the shop floor. As a Business Rep, when Ruben would service the members, he worked tirelessly to make sure he was available to workers on every shift. When the workers would go on break at the plant, they would ask Ruben to help them not just with union issues but personal ones as well. He would help them read and understand letters that were sent home from their children’s schools, issues with utility bills, filling out amnesty applications, or any other kind of correspondence because he knew the difficulties of living as an immigrant in the United States. Ruben also learned enough “shop-Polish” to be able to communicate with the workers who did not know English. He got the entire family involved by sitting them around the kitchen table to rewrite his notes from the plant visits on to grievance forms. Even with the help of his six kids and his wife, Sarah, they were still “under-staffed.”
In 1985, he saw the workers of the American Meat Packing Corporation through a grueling 15-month strike. He endured the harsh winter and sweltering summer, standing side-by-side with the strikers at all hours of the day and night. His six children would take turns standing on the picket line with him, with his sons Javier and Jorge often entertaining the picketers. At its conclusion, the Union won a hard-fought battle against the company and later won a lawsuit for lost wages for unfair labor practices.
Ruben also successfully negotiated many contracts to ensure members had good insurance, pension and a livable wage. The respect for Ruben was not just from his members, but his counterparts across the table. Those employers that did not know him, and saw only a short Mexican with an accent, quickly learned why he was respected. Ruben was able to establish high-functioning relationships with employers, and today, most would call him their friend.
For decades, Ruben faced the same systemic racism that many in our society have faced over the years. However, he was able to affect change in his Union when he became the first and only Latino to head Local 100A in 1993. As President, he made sure the leadership of Local 100A was reflective of the members they served by including African-Americans, Latinos, women and other minorities on the Union’s Executive Board. During his time with UFCW he was able to forge strong bonds with other minority leaders, like Jacqueline and Robert Vaughn, Charlie Hayes, and Addie Wyatt.
What made Ruben so successful is his trustworthiness, empathy and work ethic. He was a leader within the Latino community, as well as the community at large. It did not matter where he went, whether it was his Church, a community group, or the union, he ended up in a leadership role. As he traveled around the City of Chicago, people knew “Don Ruben,” with “Don” being a term of respect in the Latino culture, and he was regularly stopped to request his assistance or perspective.
Ruben’s faith is a huge part of who he is; so much so that no matter what was happening, Ruben and Sarah made sure their family was at Church every Sunday, taking up the entire first pew. He was active in his Church and used that as a way to connect with workers. He understood the profound connection between Catholic Social Teaching and the rights of workers on the job. Most weeks he would attend more than one Sunday Mass, set up a table afterward and spend his time answering workers’ questions, union or non-union.
Ruben and Sarah always instilled in their children the ideals of respect for all people and taking care of one another. They encouraged their children to take advantage of what was there and to work hard. Ruben would always tell them, “There may be people smarter and more talented than you, but there should never be anyone that works harder than you.” Even though Ruben has retired from the labor movement, his principles and standards live on through the work of his children. After seeing the positive impact Ruben was able to make for workers, all six of his children have gone on to work within the labor movement. Ruben, Jr. is a member of the Policemen’s Benevolent Association; Javier is a federal mediator; Liz works for a union health and welfare fund; Leticia (Tish) is the Director for UFCW Region 6 and an International Vice President; Alicia serves on the Executive Board of UFCW Local 1546; and Jorge is the President of the Chicago Federation of Labor and a Vice President of the National AFL-CIO.
Ruben has always focused his energy on providing a better life for his family and the members of UFCW Local 100A. Coming to the United States, he faced adversity and discrimination, but he always rose above it and never became bitter. He used it to fire himself up, and with the support of his wife, he kept moving forward, striving for something better.