Who Will Do The Work?
by David Bacon
BERKELEY, CA (5/10/02) -- The recent decision of the Supreme Court in the case of Huffman Plastics is not only another instance of class justice, or rather, injustice. The logic of Chief Justice Rehnquist makes it plain that the court's majority lives in denial of the social reality millions working people face every day.
The court began by making worse an already-bad precedent. In a previous decision in the Sure-Tan case, millions of undocumented immigrants already lost the right to be reinstated to their jobs if they were fired for joining a union. Now the Rehnquist court says they can forget about backpay too, for the time they were out of work.
"This decision will have a huge impact on organizing," says Agustin Ramirez, ILWU international organizer in northern California. "It sends a clear message to employers that if workers try to improve their conditions by joining a union, they can fire them without having to worry about backpay, if they're undocumented immigrants."
Immigrant workers have often been those most interested in organizing unions, according to Ramirez. "In the recycling and waste industry and light manufacturing plants, undocumented workers have been some of the first people to try to organize in northern California, and the same has been true in other areas."
Today one worker in every twenty participating in a union drive gets fired, immigrant and native born alike. Federal labor law may prohibit this, but companies already treat the cost of legal battles, reinstatement and back pay as a cost of doing business. Many consider it cheaper than signing a union contract.
So the real need is to strengthen protection for labor rights for all workers, not weaken it. But it's clear than retaliatory firings are not a serious violation of the law in the court's eyes.
William Gould IV, former chair of the National Labor Relations Board, points out that "there's a basic conflict between US labor law and US immigration law." The court has held that the enforcement of employer sanctions, which makes it illegal for an undocumented immigrant to hold a job, is more important than the right of that worker to join a union and resist exploitation on the same job.
Jose Castro, the fired worker in the Hoffman case, committed the cardinal sin, according to Rehnquist. He lied to get a job, saying that he had legal status when he didn't.
This is a lie told by millions of workers every year, one conveniently believed by employers when they want to take advantage of their labor. It is only in the face of union activity that bosses suddenly awake to the reality that their workers have no papers (and usually then firing only the union-loving ones.)
"In many industries it's commonly known that the workforce the companies employ is mostly undocumented," Ramirez adds. "and supervisors and managers often know who those individuals are, and even threaten them about their immigration status. In recycling, for instance, they have problems finding native-born, English-speaking workers for those jobs because of their low pay and bad conditions."
If workers weren't willing to lie about their status to get those jobs, who would do the work? Who would harvest the lettuce for the justices' lunchtime sandwiches, or cut up the cow for their dinner prime rib? Or care for the children of the lawyers who argued the case? Or clean their offices at night after it was argued?
This decision isn't about enforcing immigration law, despite Rehnquist's pious assertion that employers can already be fined for hiring people like Castro. And it's certainly not about enforcing their labor rights.
As always, it's about money. When it becomes more risky and difficult for workers to organize and join unions, or even to hold a job at all, then they settle for lower wages. And when the price of immigrant labor goes down as a result, so do the wages for everyone else. The famous market logic.
The decision has already been deliberately misused by many employers, who have told workers they no longer have the right to organize at all, or illegally refusing to pay them the minimum wage or overtime.
A recent study by the Pew trust counts almost 8 million undocumented people in the US -- 4 percent of the urban workforce, and over half of all farmworkers. The flow of workers across the border into those jobs will not stop anytime soon. Over 120 million people already live outside their countries of origin. The National Population Council of Mexico reports that "migration between Mexico and the United States is a permanent, structural phenomenon ... the intense relationship between the two countries make it inevitable."
Even the sacrifice of the rights of those workers by blind justice will not stop people from crossing the border, nor end the need for the work they do. If they are to have legal status, then the door to legal immigration must be opened, and sanctions repealed. But come they will, regardless.
The court's message to them, however, is know your place. Do the work, stay in the shadows, accept what your betters give you, and never think of organizing to challenge the structure which holds you in chains.
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