Shelly Ruzicka, director of operations at ARISE Chicago, talks to former Rolf’s Patisserie workers who say the bakery owes them wages after it closed abruptly. Photo by Marc Monaghan.

On a sunny cold Saturday morning, dozens of workers gathered at Edgewater Presbyterian Church to strategize.

After weeks of mobilizing with protests, press conferences and lawsuits, the former workers for Rolf’s Patisserie in Lincolnwood were not ready to slow down or give up. They vowed to win back their last paychecks and severance pay—a fight they have been waging since December, when the bakery closed abruptly.

“They need to know that they need to pay us because we are not going away,” said Karen Leyva, a six-year Rolf’s veteran who is fighting alongside 135 other former employees. Turning to the crowd, she said, “You need to start thinking how you are going to spend your money because we are going to win.”

The room erupted with claps, cheers and laughs.

One of the first moves the workers made when the company closed and the checks started bouncing was to turn to ARISE Chicago, a faith-based labor organization, for help.

ARISE Chicago is among a number of similar labor organizations across Chicago that often bypass channels officially established for resolving workplace disputes and take the matters directly to employers—by staging protests, sending delegations of clergy and community leaders to the workplace on behalf of workers, and even hiring lawyers.

Their tactics have a long track record of success. ARISE Chicago, for example, has helped more than 2,800 workers since it opened its worker center in 2002 and helped recover nearly $4.7 million in owed wages, said Adam Kader, the center’s director.

Kader said organizations like his provide various advantages to the workers.

First, they can help the workers recover wages in the fastest way possible. “We found that the workers were overwhelmingly getting paid faster using the direct action,” Kader said. “We think about what’s the fastest and most efficient way of getting the wages owed while empowering the worker.”

Using this approach can also prove therapeutic. “A lot of workers think [it] is their fault when employers don’t pay,” Kader said. “When they start a campaign, they find mutual support and they start realizing that they are not the only ones being exploited.”

And labor groups can get around the fact that many workers, especially those undocumented, feel apprehensive about dealing with governmental agencies or reluctant to face a complicated, long process, said Leone Jose Bicchieri, executive director for the Chicago Workers’ Collaborative.

At ARISE, organizers keep track of every worker who calls. In 2011, they received 1,476 calls, and 549 workers attended the nonprofit’s workshops on labor and safety laws.

Organizers also tailor the campaigns on a case-by-case basis. Flow charts of the campaign process hang on top of every organizer’s desk. The charts help strategize and assist workers in figuring out what’s the best way to recoup wages and how to pick the cases that would make the best campaigns.

ARISE began collecting data on every campaign in 2002. Using data analysis, organizers can map out which wards in the city have many of the businesses that violate labor laws. That in turn helps organizers inform aldermen.

Kader said the analysis shows that most of the violations are found in manufacturing and construction for male workers, while violations for women are common in restaurants, cleaning and maintenance.

At other labor groups, organizers are having success employing a similar approach. In 2011 alone, the Chicago Community and Workers’ Rights helped more than 1,100 workers recover about $500,000 in lost wages, while the Chicago Workers’ Collaborative helped recoup $200,000 in owed wages.

At the Working Hands Legal Clinic, attorneys take on these cases pro bono when direct action doesn’t work. In 2011, the nonprofit filed 75 lawsuits on behalf of workers.

Ultimately, what makes the difference for a lot of the workers is that labor groups can help the workers navigate through the process, Bicchieri said.

“We let people know that they won’t be alone,” Bicchieri said. “That’s why worker centers, churches and other groups are so important in helping workers navigate through this system.”

María Inés Zamudio covers immigration as part of WBEZ's race, class and communities team. She's previously served on investigative teams for American Public Media, the Memphis Commercial Appeal and The...