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Unions Take On Immigration-Related Firings
Even though she was working 40 hours a week at the Valencia Street Travelodge, Matilde (the womens last names are not used in this article at their request) still couldnt buy clothes for her four kids and husband. I go first to the places where they give clothes away, like St. Anthonys Church, she says, where they also help us with food. When school begins, we go to the Salvation Army, where we get pencils, books, and clothes there too. If it wasnt for this kind of help, we couldnt live here in San Francisco.
Her co-worker, Patricia, was paying $635 a month to live in a studio apartment, also with four children and her husband. She considered herself lucky, knowing that shed have to pay $900-$1,000 if she ever had to move. After putting out $250 a month for food, as well as paying for electricity and a bus pass to get to work, nothing was ever left from her paycheck.
Nevertheless, although their jobs as room cleaners at the motel only paid $6.25 an hour, those jobs kept them all off the streets. Then, a year ago, disaster struck. John Jake, the general manager, called nine workers into his office, including the two women. He told them that Social Security had notified the motel that their numbers didnt match the governments database. Straighten it all out in a week, he warned, or youre out of a job.
The workers, immigrants from Mexico and Central America, felt helpless and scared. And a week later, when they arrived at work and tried to punch in, they found security guards who told them theyd been fired.
Matildes and Patricias experience is not uncommon. In fact, hundreds of workers in the Bay Area lost their jobs last year in the same scenario, as did thousands more around the country. But recently, something new happened to the two women and five of their fired coworkers. An arbitrator decided that their terminations had been a violation of the union contract at the Travelodge, and ordered them reinstated. It is the first successful legal challenge to firings because of no-match letters.
Marielena Hincapie, a lawyer from the Employment Law Center who was called as an expert witness in the arbitration, called the decision historic. Weve been able to fight these Social Security letters in the past by organizing our community, but this is the first legal decision which has found the firings illegal, and given workers back their jobs. It will really help workers understand that they have rights.
The fight against the Travel- odge firings is also a local example of changes sweeping through the labor movement nationally, as unions develop a much more militant attitude towards defending immigrant workers. For years, unions and immigrant rights advocates have criticized Social Security for sending letters to employers, in which the agency lists the names and numbers of workers which dont match its records (called no-match letters.) Often, as was the case at the Travelodge, employers assume that the reason for the discrepancy is that the workers have no legal immigration status, and fire them.
At Travelodge, however, the arbitrator, Luella E. Nelson, found the motivation of the company suspect. A number of the workers had been listed in a previous letter from SSA, and the company had taken no action. Although managers said this time that they feared they might be subject to legal penalties for hiring undocumented workers, Nelson noted that they had no reason other than the letter to question the workers immigration status. There can be many reasons, Hincapie pointed out in her testimony, for a discrepancy in the numbers. (Travelodges regional manager, Joe Maddux, who testified at the arbitration, did not return phone calls asking for comment.)
The day after the firings, local immigrant rights and labor activists, led by the Labor Immigrant Organizers Network, held a rally in front of the Social Security office on Valencia, and marched to the Travelodge. The women spoke out there publicly for the first time. Over the next year, as their case wound its way through arbitration, they protested in any forum their union could find, including the citys Immigrant Rights Commission.
In the meantime, though, without a job Patricia had to leave San Francisco. The two women began working occasionally as domestics. They sold tamales and tried to earn money any way they could. But they didnt give up.
During the arbitration hearing, the regional manager testified that theyd called the INS 10 days before, recalls Kim Wirshing, lawyer for Hotel and Restaurant Local 2. We were outraged. The workers were sitting right there in the hearing room, with babies in their arms. It was clearly intended to intimidate them, and make them afraid that the INS would be waiting for them outside the doors. But they didnt get scared.
Originally, Local 2 wasnt sure the case could be won. The nine room cleaners at the Travelodge had just organized their union in 1994, in a bitter campaign against the American Consulting Group. The unions lead activist, Petra Garcia, had been fired, and only reinstated after another successful legal challenge. The unions first contract was signed in 1997.
But Local 2 was worried over the way employers often take advantage of immigration status. Organizer Chito Cuellar says the motel used the threat of no-match letters to keep workers quiet, and derail protests over high workloads and harassment. We werent just trying to win a grievance here, but to do the right thing.
Cuellar, who comes from El Salvador and worked seven years at the Clift Hotel, says he knows first-hand the impact of Social Security and immigration on Local 2s immigrant members. Because of the Travelodge, we decided we needed stronger language in our master hotel agreement.
The union held meetings with the Class A hotel workers every two weeks, and talked about what had happened. Our members understood that we needed stronger protection for immigrants, and were willing to fight for it. Not just the Latinos. The Anglos, the Filipinos, and others who werent directly affected knew why it was important. And we got it. In our new contract, if the employer is aware of any INS action, they must inform us right away so we can represent the workers. If someone is fired because they dont have papers, they have up to a year to come back, and still have job rights.
The locals recognition of the need for stronger protection for its immigrant members could be coming just in time. Throughout northern California and beyond, beefed-up enforcement of immigration law is leading to a wave of firings similar to those at the Travelodge.
In the south bay, workers at Zoria Farms faced a similar use of no-match letters after mounting a union organizing drive two years ago, with United Food and Commercial Workers Local 428. A year ago, two major janitorial contractors were targeted by the INS for a workplace document check in Alameda and Contra Costa counties. Hundreds more were fired. This year the janitors union, Service Employees Local 1877, faces an all-out fight for wage increases, in the wake of the recent strike in Los Angeles. The document check cost the jobs of many worksite leaders the union was counting on for that battle.
Last summer, after the Travelodge demonstration, LION organizers decided to try to get the labor movement to call for changes in immigration law. They wrote a resolution calling on the AFL-CIO to change its basic position on immigration.
Starting in the Alameda County Central Labor Council, the resolution spread to Oregon, Washington, and New York. International unions began debating it. When it finally hit the convention floor on October 12, national union leaders joined in the call. The debate it generated marked the first call for a change in direction since 1986, when the AFL-CIO supported passage of the Immigration Reform and Control Act. This time, instead of seeing immigrants as a problem, as it had for decades, it was clear that unions had begun seeing them as the solution.
For immigrants to build a better future, they need to build a union, says Eliseo Medina, an immigrant from Zacatecas who went on to become a leading organizer for the United Farm Workers, and now the Service Employees union. But I am also convinced that as the labor movement is the best hope for immigrants, so are immigrants the best hope of the labor movement.
Its not hard to understand why he and others take that view. Unions represent about 14 percent of U.S. workers today, down from 35 percent in the early 1950s. To maintain that percentage, given the growth of the workforce and structural changes that eliminate many jobs, unions have to organize 400,000 workers a year. Last year, unions organized 475,000 workers recording positive growth for the first time in decades, although not by much. To increase union presence in the workforce by just one percent, they have to organize 800,000 people. And the AFL-CIOs past organizing director, Kirk Adams, says that they really need a million workers in the pipeline partly because we need to grow, but also because of the noise that creates.
But as AFL-CIO leaders asked themselves in Los Angeles, who is it, in the modern American workforce, that actively wants to be organized? Immigrant workers are at least part of the answer. In fact, labor organizing over the last decade in California is largely the story of immigrant workers beating heavy odds. In the Bay Area alone, immigrants have been the backbone of drives at manufacturing plants and garbage recyclers, building renovation contractors, garment sweatshops, home care and convalescent care providers, and among day laborers on the street corners.
At the AFL-CIO convention, speakers emphasized that the demographics of the U.S. workplace have changed dramatically, with tens of millions of immigrant workers in industries as diverse as meatpacking, manufacturing, healthcare, and construction.
But as unions seek to develop labor/community alliances to take advantage of this change, the AFL-CIO now confronts the reality that the immigration law it supported in 1986 has made it harder for unions to organize and represent immigrants, not easier. One section of the law in particular, employer sanctions, makes it illegal for an undocumented worker to hold a job at all. That is the section cited by employers using no-match letters, and by the INS itself in its document checks, as the justification for massive firings.
Finally, a rising tide of labor opinion says that support for this provision of the law is wrong. John Wilhelm, president of the Hotel and Restaurant Employees (the parent union of Local 2 and the Travelodge workers) noted that if the intention of employer sanctions was to reduce undocumented immigration, it's clearly failed. Further, he declared, his own union's support for sanctions in 1986 was a big mistake: “Those who came before us, who built this labor movement in the great depression, didn't say ‘Let me see your papers' to the workers [of that day]. They asked, ‘Which side are you on?' And immigrant workers today have the right to ask of us the same question. Which side are we on?”
In February, the AFL-CIO executive council finally passed a resolution, modeled on the original motion from the Bay Area, calling for the repeal of employer sanctions, a new amnesty that would allow the undocumented to normalize their status, and a massive program to educate immigrant workers about their rights.
Even with the AFL-CIO's change in direction, it still seemed as though at the Travelodge, the odds were still very much against the workers. Given the climate of suspicion about undocumented immigration, it would have been easy for the arbitrator to accept the company's suspicions as established fact, and rule that they had no right to their jobs.
But for Wirshing, a former bartender turned union lawyer, “it was a key case, because our union is made up of immigrant workers, and we've always taken a stand for immigrant rights. Now our international union has taken the same position too. It's not our job to do the work of the government. Our job is to represent workers.”
Matilde says the workers won “because of all the protests we made. When people are united, we can win.” Z