WORKERS FIGHT RACIAL DIVISION AFTER THE COUNTRY’S LARGEST IMMIGRATION
LAUREL, MS (9/24/08) -- On August 25, immigration agents swooped down on Howard Industries, a Mississippi electrical equipment factory, taking 481 workers to a privately-run detention center in Jena, Louisiana. A hundred and six women were also arrested at the plant, and released wearing electronic monitoring devices on their ankles, if they had children, or without them, if they were pregnant. Eight workers were taken to Federal court in Hattiesburg, where they were charged with aggravated identity theft.
For two weeks the workers taken to Jena had no idea where they were. They were not charged, had no access to attorneys, and could not get released on bail. Barbara Gonzalez, spokesperson for the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said simply "their cases are being investigated."
“These people were rounded up and just dumped in a privately-run detention center,” says Patricia Ice, attorney for the Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance. “We heard reports that there weren’t even enough beds and that people were sleeping on the floor. This is an outrage.”
Approximately 100 women were released the day of the raid for “humanitarian reasons,” to care for children or because they are pregnant, according to ICE, and 50 of them have been required to wear ankle bracelets with electronic monitoring devices. Their situation is also desperate, according to MIRA organizer Victoria Cintra. “People were living paycheck to paycheck and rent is due,” she explains. “They can’t work and provide for their families now, and many others are dependent on husbands and fathers and brothers who were all detained. We need to redefine what humanitarian means.”
Many Mississippi activists and workers charge the raid had a political agenda - undermining a growing political coalition that threatens the state's conservative Republican establishment. They also say the raid, which took place during union contract negotiations, will help the company resist demands for better wages and conditions. Jim Evans, a national AFL-CIO staff member in Mississippi and a leading member of the state legislature's Black Caucus, said he believed “this raid is an effort to drive immigrants out of Mississippi. It is also an attempt to drive a wedge between immigrants, African Americans, white people and unions - all those who want political change here.” Patricia Ice agreed, “This is political. They want a mass exodus of immigrants out of the state, the kind we've seen in Arizona and Oklahoma. The political establishment here is threatened by Mississippi's changing demographics, and what the electorate might look like in 20 years.”
In the last two decades, the percentage of African
Americans in the state's population has increased to over 35%, and immigrants,
who were statistically insignificant until recently, are expected to reach
10% in the next decade. Mississippi union membership has been among the
nation's lowest, but since the early 1980s, workers have joined unions
in catfish and poultry plants, casinos and shipyards, along with those
at Howard Industries.
Howard Industries, like most Mississippi employers,
has a long record of opposing unions. Workers there chose representation
by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers on June 8, 2000,
by a vote of 162-108. Employment at the plant, which manufactures electrical
ballasts and transformers, grew considerably after the election, and the
company now employs over 4000 workers at several locations in Mississippi.
In 2002 it received a $31.5 million subsidy for expansion from the state
government, and at one point state legislators were all given HI laptop
computers. “The company is very well-connected politically,”
says Evans, who noted that its owners donated to the campaigns of former
Democratic governor Ronnie Musgrove, and then to Mississippi's current
Republican governor Haley Barbour.
When workers have volunteered to become stewards,
Larkin says, or to serve on the negotiations committee, the company "institutes
a very aggressive discipline against them, so people fear reprisals. It's
a challenge to get people involved. Bear in mind, this is the south. It's
always a tall order to talk about forming a union here."
Meanwhile, MIRA and other labor and community activists say media coverage of the raid has heightened racial tensions. Newspaper stories have painted a picture of a plant in which African American and white union members were hostile to immigrants, based mostly an incident in which some workers "applauded" as their coworkers were taken away by ICE agents. This simplistic picture obscures the real conditions in the plant, activists say, and the role the company itself played in fomenting divisions among workers.
According to Larkin, "this employer pits workers against each other by design, and breeds division among them that affects everyone," he says. "By favoring one worker over another, workers sometimes can't see who their real enemy is. And that's what helps keep wages low."
Workers at Howard Industries, however, do not simply look at each other as enemies across race lines. The day after ICE agents stormed the factory MIRA began organizing meetings to provide legal advice, food and economic help. After the raid, Howard Industry representatives told detainees' families, and women released to care for children, that the company wouldn't give them their paychecks. On August 28 Cintra led a group of women to the plant to demand their pay. Managers called Laurel police. “They tried to intimidate us with 10 vehicles of police and sheriffs. They tried to arrest me and make us leave.” After workers began chanting, "Let her go!" and news reporters appeared on the scene, the company finally agreed to distribute checks to about 70 people.
The following day, Cintra and the women returned to the plant to get paychecks for other unpaid workers. They sat on the grass across the street from the factory in a silent protest. “When the shift changed, African American workers started coming out and they went up to these Latina women and began hugging them. They said things like, “We’re with you. Do you need any food for your kids? How can we help? You need to assert your rights. We’re glad you’re here. We’ll support you.’ There’s a lot of support inside the factory for these workers who were caught up in the raid.” Over the next week, MIRA forced Howard to give checks to hundreds of other families.
Local 1317 hasn’t been as active as other unions in nearby poultry plants, however, in bringing workers together across racial divides. In Mississippi fish plants Jaribu Hill, director of the Mississippi Workers Center, has worked with unions to help workers understand the dynamics of race. "We have to talk about racism," she says. "The union focuses on the contract, but skin color issues are still on the table. We don't try to be the union, but we do try to keep a focus on human rights.” Organizing a multi-racial workforce means recognizing the divisions between African Americans and immigrants. “We're coming together like a marriage,” she warns, “working across our divides.”
Hill says it's important for workers to understand the historical price paid for racial division in the south. “Our conditions are the direct result of slavery,” she explains. “Today Frito Lay wages in Mississippi are still much lower than Illinois -- $8.75 compared to $13.75 an hour. This is the evolution of an historical oppression. Immigrants have come here looking for better lives - we came in chains.”
Larkin makes the same point. Wages at Howard Industries, the world's largest manufacturer of electrical transformers, are $2 lower than other companies in the industry, he says. That difference goes into the pocket of the Howard family. "The people who profit from Mississippi's low wage system want to keep it the way it is," alleges Jim Evans, who chairs MIRA’s board in addition to his positions as AFL-CIO staff member and leader of the legislature's Black Caucus.
Some state labor leaders, however, have contributed to racial divisions and anti-immigrant hostility. After the Howard Industries workers, many of them union members, were arrested, state AFL-CIO President Robert Shaffer told the Associated Press that he doubted that immigrants could join unions if they were not in the country legally. U.S. labor law, however, holds that all workers have union rights, regardless of immigration status. It also says unions have a duty to represent all members fairly and equally.
Divisions are likely to be deepened as well by
repeated public statements by ICE spokesperson Barbara Gonzalez that the
raid took place because of a tip by a "union member" two years
before. She claimed ICE waited because "we took the time needed for
our investigation," but declined to say how that investigation was
conducted, or what led ICE to believe the tip had come from a union member.
Evans called the raid "an effort to drive immigrants out of Mississippi. It is also an attempt to drive a wedge between immigrants, African Americans, white people and unions - all those who want political change here. But it will just make us more determined," he declared. "We won't go back to the kind of racism Mississippi has known throughout its past."
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