The demonstrators -- many of them from nonprofit groups, churches and unions -- rallied outside the Halls department store on the Plaza, handing out leaflets and chanting. Later that afternoon, a store manager kicked four protesters out of Hallmark's Crown Center, across from the company's corporate headquarters. The four then marched outside with signs reading: "Hallmark's dirty secret: sweatshops in Mexico."
Activists across the country sent e-mail greetings on February 14 from Hallmark's own Web site to the company and are barraging CEO Irv Hockaday with valentines "for a corporation with no heart." The Kansas City demonstration coincided with others in major U.S. cities -- Los Angeles, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh and New York -- in support of the workers.
Mexican employees of the Ludlow, Kentucky-based Duro Bag Manufacturing Company -- a supplier for Hallmark -- were fired after trying to form an independent union in October 1999 to address deplorable working conditions: filthy bathrooms, rats and mosquitoes, glue fumes and a high rate of injuries -- including lost fingers -- because no safety guards are on machines used for cutting paper.
Judy Ancel, a Kansas City expert in labor issues who is a member of the Kansas-based Cross Border Network, had been negotiating with Hallmark, asking the company to put pressure on Duro to improve the working conditions at the plant in the small border town of Rio Bravo, Mexico. Since the Pitch reported on the plant, Hallmark has cut off all communication with Ancel. She says she tried to resume contact in November but got no response.
Since then, former workers have been asking the Mexican government to set an election date so workers still in the company can select a union. The Mexican Conciliation and Arbitration Board, which handles labor complaints, has held several hearings but has not set a date.
Workers say they have been intimidated by thugs from "phantom" unions, possibly hired by Duro to delay the process. Ancel traveled to Mexico City in January to attend a hearing and came face-to-face with about twenty of the thugs. "They were big. They looked like bruisers. They were big, beefy guys -- very intimidating," she says.
The workers suspect Duro management was behind a fire that destroyed the home of union leader Eliud Almaguer in December. Another leader was jailed for a day after a car that was tailing him forced his truck into a fence.
"It's like a crime to form your own union in Mexico," says Martha Ojeda, the head of Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras, a San Antonio, Texas, group that fights for the rights of workers in the manufacturing plants along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Workers tell Ojeda that two managers from Hallmark recently visited the plant but that the visit closely resembled two others in the past year: Hallmark spoke with workers chosen by Duro managers and used a translator provided by the company. Hallmark did not return the Pitch's phone calls for this story but told a Kansas City television reporter that the company was "satisfied" with conditions at the factory.
Duro didn't return calls for this story.
Although activists were disheartened by the firings two weeks ago of thirty more workers who supported unionization, a recent development suggests that protests are getting results: Duro management has fired a human resources director who allegedly threatened, intimidated and sexually harassed workers.
"It could mean we -- mainly the workers -- are finally getting to them. Or it could be just a tactic to put on a happy face," Ancel says.