A Real Problem - in Any Language 'English-Only' Policy Seen as Symptomatic of Larger Issue

Article excerpt

Byline: Mike Comerford Daily Herald Business Writer

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This story also ran in F3 News.

CORRECTION/date 03-12-1999: Some sections misstated the status of an Equal Opportunity Commission case filed against Niles-based Synchro-Start Products Inc. for an "English-only" policy in the workplace. The case still is pending.

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The prison warden in the movie "Cool Hand Luke" said, "What we have here is a failure to communicate."

He could have been talking about the mess created by the "English-only" policy at Batavia's Watlow Electric Manufacturing assembly plant.

At its subsidiary, Watlow Batavia Inc., the supervisor is quoted by the plaintiff's attorney as saying, "My expectation for the team ... is communication."

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is suing the St. Louis-based company for firing seven employees because they objected to the policy that banned them from speaking Spanish during work hours. Lawyers for the fired employees are alleging that the discrimination didn't stop there - that Hispanics were paid less and denied promotions because they were Hispanic.

However, those close to the case say it is more than just an isolated case of discrimination. The rapidly growing Hispanic population in the mostly Caucasian suburbs is creating tensions, they say, and language is sometimes the battleground.

"We see a lot of problems in suburbs where the demographics are changing," said Patricia Mendoza, an attorney with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund in Chicago. "It isn't just in business, it's in housing and zoning ... I've been seeing a consistent pattern."

In Batavia, Watlow employs about 50 people, making items such as heating systems for grills at McDonald's and heaters for diagnostic tests at Abbott Laboratories. In the summer of 1997, according to both sides of the suit, it asked employees to refrain from speaking Spanish in the workplace. …