Feds crack down on immigrant labor organizers
Feds crack down on immigrant labor organizers
That day the migra [agents of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, part of the Homeland Security Department] picked up 21 people, while trying not to alert the rest of the plant's laborers. One by one, supervisors went to Mexicans on the line. You're needed in the front office, they'd say. The workers would put down their knives, take off their gloves, and walk through the cavernous building to the human resources department. There ICE agents took them into custody, put them in handcuffs, and locked them up in a temporary detention area. Later, they were taken out in vans and sent to immigration jails as far away as
"To keep people from guessing what was up," says Keith Ludlum, one of the few white workers on the production floor, "they also called up African Americans and whites, and told them they had to take drug tests. If they'd only called Latinos, people would have known what was happening." If word had gotten out, hundreds of workers would undoubtedly have run from the lines. Valuable meat would have been left to spoil - a day's production lost. In a plant where 5500 people slaughter and cut apart 32,000 hogs a day, that's a lot of money. Keeping the raid secret meant workers worked to the end of their shift and
Eventually the truth came out, however. Parents didn't show up to collect their kids. "A friend called me at nine or ten that night, and told me someone from my town hadn't come home," recalls Pedro Mendez. "That's when we knew what had happened. I couldn't sleep that night, knowing my friends had been picked up. I worried about my own family."
While Mendez laid awake, word spread to employees of QSI, the company
The raid's shockwaves swept outwards from the factory through the barrios of the small Southern towns around it, leaving behind children missing mothers or fathers. Parents were afraid to go to work or send their kids to school. The terror it inspired dealt a body blow to the plant's organizing drive as well, just when it was making real progress. Overcoming ten years of lost elections and
That rising consciousness was the raid's biggest casualty.
According to many workers, it was intended to halt those organizing efforts. Mark Lauritsen, packinghouse director for the United Food and Commercial Workers, says the Department of Homeland Security and the company "were worried about people organizing a union, and the government said, 'here are the tools to take care of them.'"
Congress today is poised to give the government and employers even more such tools for immigration enforcement. They include not just the program that led to the
Raids are also being used to pressure Congress to pass new enforcement and contract worker programs, like the STRIVE Act. In a Washington DC press conference following raids on the Swift and Co. meatpacking plants in November, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff told reporters they would show Congress the need for "stronger border security, effective interior enforcement and a temporary-worker program.' Bush wants, he said, "a program that would allow businesses that need foreign workers, because they can't otherwise satisfy their labor needs, to be able to get those workers in a regulated program."
The events at
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January's raid was one more incident in a long history of company efforts to block union organizing in Tar Heel. In 1994 and 1997
In 2003 QSI contract workers finally challenged this atmosphere of fear. According to Julio Vargas, who worked for the company at the time, "the wages were very low and we had no medical insurance. When people got hurt, after being taken to the office they made them go back to work and wear pink helmets. We were fed up." Led by Vargas, the cleaning crew refused to go in to work. "We started talking to people as they arrived. Those who were in agreement stopped the other workers on their line."
The company negotiated, and workers won concessions. The next week, however, those identified as ringleaders lost their jobs. "They fired me because they thought I was one of the organizers," Vargas recalls. "And I was."
Despite the firings, UFCW organizers understood the importance of that work stoppage. After the experiences of 1994 and 97, the UFCW knew the government couldn't and wouldn't guarantee an election without union busters, labor law violations, and a campaign of psychological warfare. The NLRB did force
Today the UFCW supports the Employee Free Choice Act, which would increase penalties for companies who fire workers for union activity and make it easier to organize. Until the law is changed, however, like most unions it seeks ways to organize workers without labor board elections. Justice for Janitors or the United Farm Workers' grape boycott have become models for this kind of non-NLRB strategy.
Three years ago the UFCW hired PeÃ±a, and other experienced organizers to develop a similar plan. The union set up a workers' center in nearby Red Springs, holding classes in English and labor rights. "This has not been a traditional campaign," explains PeÃ±a. "We're not going to give the company a chance to use union busters. We're asking workers to take direct action on the plant floor to improve their own conditions." Vargas and other fired workers went to work for the union, helping organize discontent over high line speed, and its human cost in workplace injuries.
Their non-NLRB strategy requires much more from supporters than just signing a union authorization card, voting on election day, or even going to a few meetings. People have to lose enough of their fear to show open support, to circulate petitions demanding changes, and to form delegations confronting supervisors and managers. At
Immigration status itself became an issue for collective action. Last spring, as immigrant protests spread across the country, 300
Then, on May 1, when immigrants from
* * * Company representatives declined to be interviewed for this article. But it's not hard to imagine that managers might have looked at the marches and the rising wave of collective activity with trepidation. In late spring or early summer
A July 26 press release from the Department of Homeland Security calls IMAGE a program "designed to build cooperative relationships between government and businesses to strengthen hiring practices and reduce the unlawful employment of illegal aliens." Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff says the government "must partner with employers, educate them and provide them with the tools they need to develop a stable, legal workforce."
The program requires employers to verify the immigration status of all employees, checking their documents against the ICE database. Employers must "establish protocols for responding to no-match letters from the Social Security Administration," and "establish a tip line for employees to report violations and mechanisms for companies to self-report violations to ICE." PeÃ±a says bitterly, "they saw an opportunity. With the organizing going on, they knew they could use it. They may not have expected the loss [the day after the raid], but it was probably worth it. They achieved their goal."
The IMAGE program, and other ICE workplace raids, are designed to enforce employer sanctions, a provision of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act that prohibits employers from hiring undocumented workers. In reality, the law makes it a federal crime for someone without immigration papers to work. In the long record of enforcement actions over the last 20 years, few employers have ever paid fines, much less gone to jail for violations. Thousands of workers, however, have lost their jobs.
"Human resources called me on November 8," says Pedro Mendez, "and said my Social Security number was bad. I told them I'd been working for nine years with that number, and asked them why they'd never said anything about it before. They knew I couldn't verify it, and they fired me the same day. They called security to throw me out of the plant. It was very humiliating."
Mendez asked to see a copy of the no-match letter from SSA listing his name, and says they refused to show it to him. If the company did have such a letter, it would have contained a paragraph cautioning
SSA writes to thousands of businesses every year, listing the names of hundreds of thousands of people whose numbers don't jibe. A worker's Social Security number might not match government records for many reasons - the government's database is notoriously full of errors. But millions of people in the
Last fall, the Bush administration proposed a new regulation to make termination mandatory for anyone listed in a no-match letter. Today there is no such requirement. Bush's proposed regulation is also contained in the recently introduced STRIVE Act. Both Bush and the Act also call for criminal penalties for people using false Social Security numbers to get jobs, and would require employers to check job applicants against a new Federal database. To implement these measures, all people in the
The STRIVE Act also links increased enforcement to proposals for guest workers - contract workers recruited to come to the U.S. by employers. About 400,000 workers each year would be given visas requiring them to remain employed in order to stay in the country. Even current undocumented immigrants would have to sign up for temporary-visa schemes. These guest worker programs have been pushed since the late 1990s by the Essential Worker Immigration Coalition, an association of the 40 largest manufacturing and trade groups in the
Current guest worker programs, like the bracero program of the 1950s, have been widely condemned for abusing and exploiting immigrants. The immigration reform proposals now in Congress, therefore, depend on sanctions, no-match letters and workplace raids to force guest workers to stay in them. Without such increased enforcement, people unhappy with abuse might be tempted to walk away.
* * * It's not as though current law is much protection for immigrant workers, however. Employers aren't supposed to use no-match letters and document checks to punish workers for demanding their rights. Marielena Hincapie, staff attorney for the
That didn't save Pedro Mendez' job, however. What did, at least for a while, was the collective action organizers kept pushing. "On November 13  the time given workers to come up with new numbers started to expire," recalls PeÃ±a. "By that time, a couple of hundred people had received letters. Over 30 were escorted out of the plant, and those still at work could see new workers hired to replace them. Many felt they had nothing to lose. On Thursday [November 16] they walked out."
Taken by surprise, supervisors and even corporate Vice-president Larry Johnson tried to talk people into going back to work. None did. That evening a group of workers met at a local hotel, and came up with a list of demands. "They decided to stick to the issue of immigration," PeÃ±a says. "Their idea was to go back in with something that would protect them, and show other workers the power of collective action."
At the request of the workers, representatives of the local Catholic diocese met with the company the following day, and
In December, however, ICE carried out raids at five Swift and Co. plants, detaining over a thousand workers for deportation. Meatpacking workers in companies like
The week before the proposed holiday, a delegation of workers went to the human resources office, bearing petitions with the signatures of over 4000 people. PeÃ±a says Larry Johnson refused to accept them, arguing the company couldn't cancel the lunch trucks contracted to sell food to workers.
Despite the refusal, about 400 workers from the first shift didn't come to work on King's birthday. Bruskin says this slowed down the livestock-handling department, where the animals are first taken into the plant, an area where African Americans are concentrated. The same thing happened on the second shift, he says, although the company disputes this in at article in an industry newsletter, Meatpacking.com.
Nine days after the January 15 action ICE agents came out to the plant.
According to Meatingplace.com, ICE gave the company advance notice the day before. Agents arrived with a list of workers, and company supervisors escorted them to the room where the migra was waiting. "We didn't want to do anything to upset our employees,"
The no-match terminations and the immigration raid made workers feel insecure and fearful for their jobs, without any need for
According to Vargas, people see immigration enforcement as a kind of reprisal. "They think it's happening because people were getting organized," he says. To Ludlum, "it totally set us back. We spent a lot of time educating people, and now they're getting rid of lots of them."
According to PeÃ±a, "it takes years of convincing, of educating people, to develop this kind of trust and activity. The union has become part of the community, and backs up what workers want to do. People went from feeling they had no rights to looking their foremen in the eye. Immigrants in particular were taking bolder actions even than citizens."
The raids and firings hit at the heart of this effort. "Now people are concerned about basic survival," he says. "The message they've gotten is that they're nothing. They can be taken from their families, arrested and deported at any time. They wonder who will take care of their kids if the government comes for them. It's hard to think about workplace injuries if that's the big question on your mind."
The union, however, is turning the tables, and using the violation of workers' rights to mobilize customer pressure against the company. Bruskin and a crew of community organizers have focused on the Harris Teeter store chain, collecting thousands of signatures on petitions asking managers to find another pork supplier. At the end of March, religious and human rights leaders demonstrated outside 24 Harris Teeter stores across North and
The union and the North Carolina Council of Churches has also asked the Food Network's Paula Deen, noted cook of Southern cuisine, to sever her relationship as a
"We'll get there," PeÃ±a vows. "We'll finish this."
Meanwhile, in the plant and the small communities around it, rebuilding will take time and patience. Those who have lost their jobs have to find a way to survive. In February Pedro Mendez was fired for the second and final time. Since his termination, he and his three children, Hector, Adan and Eva, all depend on the income of his wife, who's still working. "It's very hard now to support our family," he says, "and I worry about our future. The law is very hard here."
For images of
See also The Children of NAFTA (
and the photodocumentary on indigenous migration to the
David Bacon, Photographs and Stories http://dbacon.igc.org