Marchers defy thunderstorm, police helicopter at rally for justice and living wage jobs
Hershey, PA, Sep. 23, 2011—Today, after six weeks of mounting national pressure on Hershey’s for exploiting J-1 student workers and depriving local workers of living wage jobs, former student workers at the Hershey’s packing plant and working people from PA held a 1,000-strong march in Hershey for justice and jobs. (Video, photos)
Under pouring rain and with a police helicopter circling overhead, dozens of students marched up Chocolate Avenue with the head of a column of 1,000 supporters from the AFL-CIO and SEIU. The crowd bore signs reading “Justice at Hershey’s” and “Exploitation Is Wrong in Any Language,” and chanted, “Hey Hershey’s, can’t you see / What good jobs mean to me?”
“I paid $3,000 to become a captive worker at the Hershey’s packing plant. They threatened me with deportation if I didn’t work fast enough. Is this the real America?” Hershey’s J-1 student worker Malwina Siegien told the crowd, drawing a shout of, “No!”
“Hershey’s held us in its factory, but you let us into our homes. Hershey’s refused to speak with us, but over 1,000 American workers are marching with us today. You are the real America,” Siegien said. “This fight is not over!”
SEIU International President Mary Kay Henry said, “These students came to America to learn about our country, but instead they taught us all what it means to take a stand against injustice. They are heroes to us all. It’s time for Hershey’s to treat these students with dignity and do right by the community they’ve called home for over a century by bringing good jobs back to central Pennsylvania.”
The students—who paid $3,000-6,000 each to come to the U.S. for a cultural exchange and instead became captive labors in the Hershey’s packing plant—organized and became members of the National Guestworker Alliance. With support from Central PA residents and organized labor, the students held a sit-down strike and walkout from the Hershey’s plant on Aug. 17.
Said National Guestworker Alliance executive director Saket Soni, “On Aug 17, hundreds of workers conducted a sit-down strike in the Hershey’s packing plant. Why did they do it? Because they believe in an America based on people not profit. They believe in an America based on human need, not corporate greed. And we are asking Hershey to show us that America.”
Other rally speakers included AFL-CIO PA state president Rick Bloomingdale and SEIU Healthcare PA president Neil Bisno, both of whom were arrested during an act of civil disobedience outside the Hershey’s packing plant on Aug. 17 in support of the student’s strike.
“Hershey’s has hunkered down in their corporate headquarters in the hopes this would all blow over when the students were home, but it is so important to keep this fight alive,” Bloomingdale said. “Now we see how Hershey’s acts when workers don’t have the protection of a union—they go right back to the old corporate town concept of a hundred years ago. We will not stand for it.”
Four federal agencies launched investigations into the exploitation of J-1 student workers at the Hershey’s plant, and nearly 70,000 Americans signed a petition in support of the students’ demands: 1) return the $3,000-6,000 students paid for false promises of a cultural exchange, and 2) turn the 400 jobs they filled in the Hershey’s packing plant into living wage jobs for local workers.
Hershey’s has maintained a wall of silence, hoping that when the students returned to their home countries at the end of the summer, the pressure would end. Instead, Friday’s 1,000-strong march demonstrated that the students’ solidarity with local workers has inspired a local fight for living wage jobs that won’t go away.
On the eve of the march, Hershey’s launched a PR campaign to attempt to discredit the students, and hired Blank Rome Government Relations to lobby Congress on “government affairs issues related to labor practices.”
The Hershey’s story goes to the heart of the current debate over the sources of America’s jobs crisis. Decades of downsizing, outsourcing, and subcontracting by corporations like Hershey’s has robbed local workers of living wage jobs, while locking immigrant workers—and even cultural exchange students on J-1 visas—into situations of captive labor.
The National Guestworker Alliance is a membership organization of guestworkers engaging in workplace fights across many industries to win dignified conditions, just migration policy, and new rights and protections for all workers.