With all the talk this presidential election year of the continuing concentration of wealth among a very small handful of the extremely rich and a fading middle class, Forest Park is home to a legal settlement reflecting the far worse economic undermining of the working poor.

Last month, Ferrara Candy Company, and two temporary staffing firms it utilized, settled a lawsuit brought by African American workers who claimed they were regularly shut out of the opportunity to be hired as temps in the Forest Park plant.

Let’s step back and look at this.

First we have the trend across America — in manufacturing and service industries — of relying on temporary hires rather than full and permanent employee status for workers. Why? Greater flexibility to adjust work levels. No benefit obligations. It’s cheaper. So why not? 

Especially in a time of high unemployment among unskilled and immigrant workers, it is easy to find bodies to throw into the breach. With manufacturing jobs both declining and simultaneously requiring higher-level skills, opportunities for the less skilled become more commoditized. Anyone will do.

Except, beyond simply “anyone will do,” this lawsuit charged that Ferrara directed its temporary staffing agencies to actively hire Hispanic workers rather than blacks. The lawsuit, sparked by the respected, rabble-rousing South Austin Coalition Community Council (SACCC), alleged that the firm preferred Hispanics because Ferrara could better exploit those workers’ immigration status.

In settling the case for $1.4 million — money that will be split among an estimated 1,100 African Americans, says SACCC — neither Ferrara nor the temp agencies admitted wrongdoing. That the candy company is reportedly now working with SACCC to right past wrongs tells us there is substance to these charges. 

For a firm as long respected in Forest Park as Ferrara, this is a disappointing outcome. Now under corporate ownership, the local ties inevitably fray. 

We are not naïve. The challenges to paying permanent full-time workers a fair wage, a wage that allows some security for a worker and a family are immense. And the candy manufacturing industry, in particular, is under siege as an American business segment. Once known as the Candy Capital of America, Chicago has lost thousands of jobs and many firms in this industry. Complex issues of sugar tariffs coupled with typically higher American wages make the candy business tough. 

Even given that, though, basic fairness and respect for hard-working, low-income workers is not a nicety, it is what is just and lawful. These sorts of social justice causes are vital to preserving any sense of opportunity and mobility among a rightly discouraged portion of our fellow citizens.

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