Striking workers at the Neville Chemical Co. plant enlisted farm workers leader Cesar Chavez last week to promote their demand for company-paid health tests.
"The (chemical safety) issue is a dear one to us," Chavez said in an interview on the Neville picket line. "We feel that the more the public knows about the issue--whether it's in the factory or the field--and the impact on workers, the better off we're going to be."
Chavez, the 60-year-old founder of the United Farm Workers union, likened the chemical contamination fears of Neville workers to those of his union, which is boycotting grapes because of a dispute over possible contamination of farm workers by field pesticides.
"This is a solidarity move on our part. This union has been a great supporter of ours for many years. But other than that, we're here because it's precisely the same problem as we have," Chavez said.
All 17 of the plant's workers voted to go on strike May 20 over the company's refusal during contract talks to pay for blood tests that would detect dioxins and furans, two byproducts from its manufacture of chlorinated paraffin.
During Chavez's appearance last week, the strikers were joined by about 20 UFW support pickets clad in red T-shirts and carrying red flags. The pickets blocked the gate of the chemical plant, marching in a circle about 50 feet from the watchful eye of a lone security guard inside the plant compound.
Occasionally, someone would begin a chant: "What do we want?" "Testing." "When do we want it?" "Now."
Chavez spent several hours at the plant, mostly talking with the media and occasionally joining the picket line. He said the best way he could help the strikers was by helping to publicize their position, adding that the UFW was also planning to contribute food and continued support pickets for them.
The appearance by Chavez was the second media event in a week for the strikers. State Sen. Cecil Green (D-Norwalk) visited the picket line May 31 and declared his support for the union.
Company and union leaders have not met since the strike began, but Neville has asked the union for a list of laboratories that can conduct the tests the workers want, said Brent Hardwick, a member of the negotiating committee for the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers International Union, AFL-CIO.
Jack Ferguson, plant manager and spokesman for the company, was out of the office and couldn't be reached for comment last week. Ferguson has said that many of the blood tests are experimental and the company wanted to wait until a test is proven effective.
The union has basically reached agreement with the company on all contractual matters except the blood tests.
"If workers are being exposed to chemicals that can cause long-range health effects, it seems to me the employers have an obligation to test the employees to see if that stuff's in their bodies," said Hardwick. "As a consequence of selling our labor, if we're poisoning ourselves, we have a right to know that. . . . We're just not pieces of meat to be discarded when we get sick and when we get worn out."
Among the workers picketing last week was Paul Rubio, who says the itchy red rash all over his body started about six months after he began working at the plant seven years ago.
"I'm mad. I want something done. If it's from here, I want it treated," Rubio said, adding that he has been treated at a hospital three times for the rash and has received conflicting opinions from physicians about what caused the rash.
Leo Turner, who has worked at the plant for 14 years, said the chemicals used in the manufacturing process would "knock you on your butt in a hurry. . . . If I was a young man, I wouldn't work here."