David Bacon Stories & Photographs


By David Bacon
East Bay Express, January 24, 2007

It was raining. Out in front of the Emeryville Woodfin Suites, organizers passed out blue and white umbrellas to a crowd of picketers, chanting and yelling at the passing cars. Under one of them, Luz Dominguez huddled against a friend, another housekeeper from the towering hotel looming over them.

About half the picketers had just gotten off shift; they walked up and down the wet sidewalk in their grey uniforms. Some held animated discussions, but most looked tired at the end of a long day. Marching with them were organizers and workers from a handful of unions, a few church people in clerical collars, and a core of community activists - the ones who turn out for union demonstrations, rain or shine.

Dominguez and her friends were already worried about the next day, when they'd once again put on their uniforms, and make the trek into Emeryville to clean more hotel rooms. "I feel really exhausted at the end of my shift," sighed the Mexican woman in her 40s. "When I get home, I have no energy for my family. All I do is worry about what the next day's work will be like - if the rooms will be the same or even more dirty."

You wouldn't think that someone would fight as hard as she has to keep a job that is that draining, but Dominguez and 20 coworkers have been doing just that, all this past fall and winter. The pre-Christmas picketline was just one more effort to keep the hotel from firing them.

One big reason why their jobs seemed worth hanging onto is an ordinance Emeryville passed last year, intended to lighten the workload that had the two women dragging their feet at the end of the day. But just as that law seemed to promise more quality time for their families, and a little more money to spend on them, Woodfin workers found themselves at the center of the national firestorm over immigration.

On December 15, a few days after that picketline, hotel managers sent Dominguez and her friends home for good. And then, within a week, Alameda County Superior Court Judge Ronald Sabrow put the housekeepers back to work again.

The Woodfin terminations were 21 among thousands of people fired, and in some cases deported, in the Bush administration's fall offensive to root immigrant workers out of workplaces. In December raids at six Swift meatpacking plants, more than 1,300 laborers were detained and deported. In other cases, like at the Woodfin Suites, the Social Security Administration has been pressed into service.

These firings and deportations will not significantly reduce the 12 million people now living in the US without immigration papers. But they will make a political point. In a Washington DC press conference, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff told reporters that such enforcement highlights the need for "stronger border security, effective interior enforcement and a temporary-worker program.'' He said President Bush wants "to allow businesses that need foreign workers, because they can't otherwise satisfy their labor needs, to get those workers in a regulated program."

Labor and immigrant-rights activists, however, charge the firings target workplaces where people are organizing unions, trying to enforce labor protection laws, or just standing up for their rights. The administration's enforcement program, they say, keeps wages and conditions low.

Emeryville's Woodfin Suites has become a poster child for their accusations.

In November 2005, Emeryville voters passed Measure C, in a campaign organized by a local worker advocacy group, the East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy. EBASE is a product of new thinking in labor, bringing together union and community activists in a permanent coalition that doesn't have to be reinvented for every cause and fight. Its young organizers are labor's shock troops, turning out for demonstrations, exposing worker abuse, promoting public hearings and campaigning for living wages throughout the East Bay.

It was no surprise when the group set its sights on Emeryville, a small town originally carved out a century ago to provide a tax-free haven for big factory owners. The plants are long gone, and in their wake, Emeryville reinvented itself as a home for hotels, retail malls and loft apartment development within sight of the Bay Bridge toll plaza. All these businesses depend heavily dependent on immigrant labor.

EBASE organizers looked at the city’s new demographics, and predicted that Emeryville would take the hotel workers' plight to heart. They collected signatures for a living wage ordinance that mandates a $9 hourly minimum, and an $11 average, in each of Emeryville's four hotels. Further, any housekeeper required to clean more than 5000 square feet in an eight-hour shift must be paid time and a half.

The hotels were predictably opposed. All four - the Woodfin Suites, Sheraton Four Points, Marriott and the Holiday Inn - campaigned against it, through the Committee to Keep Tax Dollars in Emeryville, which spent $115,610 for an election in which only 1051 people voted against the ordinance, and 1245 for it. The Committee spent $110 for each “no” vote. Afterwards, they tried to prevent its implementation with a court challenge, which they also lost.

City council member and lawyer John Fricke supported Measure C. Fricke sees himself as part of Emeryville's new wave. "The old guard was very business-friendly, and gave the developers whatever they wanted," he explains. "But the people who came to live in the new lofts and apartments are young people priced out of San Francisco. They have a pretty supportive attitude towards workers and immigrants."

Over the spring and summer of 2006, EBASE organizers met with workers in the four hotels, explaining to them the Measure C requirements. Marcela Melquiades, who had been cleaning rooms at the Woodfin Suites for two years, believed it would make things better. "The work load was very heavy," she says. "I'd be really tired at the end of the shift. I'd go to the bathroom right away and pour hot water on my hands. I still had to go home, make dinner for the kids, clean the house, get my uniform ready for the next day, get up early in the morning. It was exhausting."

Her oldest son, Andres, saw how tired his mother was. He began looking after the two smaller ones, sometimes heating up food for them in the microwave. But there was really no one else to depend on in the Melquiades house, beyond Marcela herself. The law might change her life.

"Before it was approved, we cleaned 16 suites a day, sometimes 17." Dominguez adds, "A suite is made up of a bedroom, a hall and a kitchen. We'd clean the whole thing in 30 minutes. When people would party and leave it dirty, we'd still have to clean it in that time."

According to EBASE organizer Sarah Norr, suites include more living area than a normal hotel room, so eight or nine reach the 5000 square foot minimum. By December, Melquiades says, she was still being asked to clean 10, without the time-and-a-half premium.

Hugh McIntosh, Woodfin Suites general manager, says the hotel is in full compliance with the ordinance. "We reduced the rooms cleaned per day from 17 to 10.5, which is within the 5000 square foot limit," he claims.

Suddenly, last September, the hotel began accusing workers of not having valid Social Security cards. Everyone living in the U.S. must complete an I-9 form to get a job, which requires every applicant to state whether she or he is a citizen or legal resident. Every applicant must furnish two pieces of identification, and employers must also ask for a Social Security number.

The Woodfin workers filled out the forms, stating they were either citizens or legal residents, and furnished the required ID's. They went to work without objection or complaint from the hotel. But on September 27, Dominguez, Melquiades and 19 others were given a letter by Mary Beth Smith, the hotel's director of human relations, saying they had 24 hours to give the hotel a good Social Security number or they'd be fired. Smith isn't at the hotel anymore, but the chain of events her letter set in motion is far from being settled.

Dominguez is still so angry that her voice trembles when she describes what happened. "She told us we'd have to show her our Social Security cards so they could check the numbers," she recalls bitterly. "Before, they'd tell us sometimes they'd received a notice about our numbers not matching, but they never required us to take any action, or told us we couldn't continue working."

In fact, Social Security sends out thousands of letters every year, listing the names of hundreds of thousands of people whose numbers don't jibe with those on file. In 2001, the agency sent out 110,000 such letters. After 9/11, however, that number multiplied many times.

There are many reasons why a number might not match, and the SSA database is notoriously full of errors. Some workers listed in no-match letters are undoubtedly the victims of clerical errors. Others are listed because they used a non-existent number, or one that belongs to another person.

In the December 2006 immigration raid at the Swift & Co. meatpacking plants, the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcment called such use “identity fraud,” as though workers were applying for credit cards to charge expensive stereo equipment. A worker who lists another person’s Social Security number to get a job, however, is not causing them harm. In fact, the employer will deposit extra money into the cardholder’s account. The worker using the incorrect number will never be able to collect benefits that extra money will accrue.

The Social Security card is not intended to be, nor is it by law, a national identification card. Every time a bill to create a national ID has been proposed in Congress, it has failed. In the U.S., unlike in some other countries, there is no national ID, nor any obligation on people living here to have one.

The Bush administration has been using the letters, however, to pressure employers to fire workers they suspect of lacking visas, and plans to make such terminations mandatory. Right now, however, there is no such requirement. In the late 1990s, protest by labor and immigrant-rights activists even forced SSA to include a crucial paragraph in each no-match letter, cautioning employers not to construe a discrepancy in numbers as evidence of lack of immigration status. Employers are not asked to do more than advise workers they've received the notice.

"The law requires that, for an individual to work, they have to complete the I-9," McIntosh says. "That requires the workers to provide a valid Social Security number. We've simply asked them to get a document from SSA saying they've completed the I-9 requirements."

Dominguez' response: "A Social Security number can't wash toilets or vacuum floors or make beds. Only human beings can do that. Legal documents are very important, but real, physical work is what counts."

Once the employer accepts the I-9 form and the two ID’s, and an employee goes to work, the employer cant ask him or her later to reverify that information. Marielena Hincapie, staff attorney for the National Immigration Law Project, says reverification as a result of a no-match check violates section 274-B of the Immigration and Nationality Act. Congress included the prohibition over concern that reverification would lead to discharges motivation by discrimination.

McIntosh answers that "our legal counsel has told us we have to do this to protect our business." Fricke says he asked McIntosh if Federal authorities were demanding termination of the workers. "He said no. Our problem is that if the city council allows an employer to threaten workers (although the hotel says it's acting for some other reason) this has a strong chilling effect on the willingness of others to come forward and report violations. It is very important for the city to keep the [Woodfin] workers employed until it can determine whether their allegations of retaliation are bonafide."

EBASE and the Emeryville city attorney went to court, and got an injunction returning the housekeepers to their jobs. The city argued that it needed their presence until it had completed its investigation. In the legal proceedings around the firings, Woodfin Suites revealed it received a letter about the workers' numbers in May, 2006. But managers took no action until September, after the employees had complained to the City Council that the hotel wasn't abiding by Measure C. Woodfin gave a series of deadlines to the workers, extending them under community pressure. Finally, the company lowered the boom on December 15.

Dominguez sees it simply: "The reason the hotel was saying this was because we were demanding our rights."

Emeryville's workforce doesn't actually live in Emeryville. A lot of the people who clean its hotel rooms live in Oakland's Fruitvale district, the largest Latino barrio in the East Bay. For Dominguez and her friend Melquiades, home is a grey, two-story apartment complex, surrounded by a big parking lot, with many slots and warnings that there are enough spaces only for residents - visitors will be towed. Outside, along International Boulevard, sale signs covering market windows list groceries in Spanish - chiles, tortillas, mangos and the other comfort foods of Mexico and Central America.

Dominguez' small two-bedroom unit isn't stuffed with furniture - a couch and fold-out futon bed in the living room face a console with a TV and boom box. A huge stuffed floppy dog lies on the futon; atop the television a big white stuffed bear, with red satin hearts instead of paws, holds two more red hearts stitched with the word "amor" - Spanish for love. Christmas lights around the front window give the room its illumination.

The Fruitvale isn't really like Mexico, but there are enough Mexicans living there for it to feel like home. "You feel good here, but there's no work" Dominguez says. "You have to leave to find a job. That's why we go to Emeryville."

When she first got to Oakland in 1995, she didn't know anything about any of the cities of the East Bay - not even the one where she was living. "It was very hard to find work," she remembers. "I would just walk up one street and down another, asking anyone I met, people I'd never met before. If I didn't have any luck on one street, I'd just go on to the next. It hurt and I was ashamed. But you always have to think, I'm going to find a way. If you get negative, it paralyzes you."

Eventually, Dominguez learned enough about her new home to begin finding cleaning jobs. That led her to the Woodfin. That's where she met Marcela Melquiades, even though they'd both grown up in towns near each other on the fringe of Mexico City. Neither woman knew many people in Oakland, or had a big extended family in the US. Melquiades came to the US at 19, with her husband. They had three children here, but then separated, leaving her a single mother of an 11, 8 and 7-year-old. Now she lives next door.

"We share memories of the food and the places we both remember, and forget our problems for a little while," Dominguez explains. "We've become good friends." The two women are 15 years apart, but they laugh and put their heads together and their arms around each other, as though they were classmates in high school.

When she arrived in Oakland 11 years ago, Melquiades didn't intend to stay long. "For a while we came and went," she recalls. "Like every immigrant, you always think at first that you're going to make life better at home - build a house or start a business. But time passes. You realize you can live better here, and you forget about your old goals. And you stay."

But she also had difficulty finding a good job, and having little children didn't make it easier. "Everything was new and strange," she says. "You don't know how things work. You don't know anyone. You have to ask about everything, doctors, school, whatever." She worked one Christmas in a factory, making tree ornaments. Other years she was a domestic. Eventually, she too got work in hotels. "I don't like kitchens or restaurants," she laughs. "I like cleaning."

Eventually, Dominguez and Melquiades came to feel comfortable working at Woodfin Suites. For years Smith and other managers had been watching the housekeepers make beds, wash toilets, vacuum carpets, and clean up after messy guests. "I thought I had a place where people knew my work and respected me," Dominguez says. "When I first started working they didn't give me gloves, and I still cleaned the sinks and the toilets. I pulled garbage from the trashcans with my bare hands. I never said, if you don't give me gloves, I won't do it. I needed a job, and I wanted to work.

"I felt appreciated. Guests would say, 'Doña Luz, you're doing a great job'. I didn't care if they left me tips. In 2005 the hotel even gave me their Employee of the Year Award. So when they began demanding the card, I felt destroyed inside. I cried. I said to myself, 'how can you ignore all the good things I've done?'"

The firings highlight the vulnerability of immigrant workers under current US immigration law, which increased in 1986, when Congress passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act. That law made it a federal crime for an employer to hire a worker without valid immigration documents. But by making it illegal for the employer to hire, the law also made it a crime for those workers to hold a job.

Twenty years later, the no-match check has become a way for the administration to enforce that prohibition.

As workers were battling with hotel managers at Woodfin Suites, others found themselves in the same predicament. In November nearly 400 workers in laundry plants across the country were pulled off their jobs, after they'd received letters from the company advising them of a no-match check. Their employer, Cintas Corporation, is the largest industrial laundry in the US, with four Bay Area locations. Elena, an immigrant working in Cintas' San Jose facility, told the San Jose Mercury News that "I feel that this is discrimination because we were helping with union organizing."

For the last two years, the union for hotel and laundry workers, UNITE HERE, has mounted a national campaign to organize Cintas, marked by firings and charges of unfair labor practices. The company claimed the no-match terminations were done to comply with a new requirement by the Bush administration. "All employers have a legal obligation to make sure that all employees are legally authorized to work in the U.S," Cintas spokesman Wade Gates told the Mercury News.

Other companies firing workers for the same reason this fall include Smithfield Foods, which has battled an organizing drive by the United Food and Commercial Workers for a decade, and Aramark, with a national union contract with UNITE HERE. All used the same justification - they're simply abiding by a rule change proposed by President Bush. That proposal would require employers to fire anyone named in a Social Security no-match letter. The rule has never been issued.

The President was waiting for enactment of a larger immigration reform program as a package, since implementation of the rule by itself would undoubtedly cause a huge outcry.

According to the Pew Hispanic Trust, a Washington DC foundation, there are about 12 million people living in the U.S. without immigration papers. The vast majority are of working age, and since no one without documents can get public assistance, even unemployment benefits, it’s safe to assume that almost all are employed. To get jobs, almost all have provided Social Security numbers that don’t belong to them.

If these millions of people were listed in no-match letters and terminated, as Bush proposed, it would have an enormous impact. Agriculture would stop. Restaurants and hotels would close. The production lines in meatpacking plants would halt from lack of workers, while the crews putting put the frames and drywall in new housing developments would disappear.

Immediate and massive enforcement of Bush’s proposed rule would deprive employers of the workforce they’ve grown to depend on. But the administration’s program for immigration reform doesn’t propose simply to drive people with papers out of the workplace. It also proposes to replace them with a new flow of labor, recruited and brought into the country on temporary visas, to fill contract jobs.

Bush’s proposed regulation has its roots in a political deal advanced by the Essential Worker Immigration Coalition, an association of the 40 largest manufacturing and trade groups in the US, including Wal-Mart, Tyson Foods and Marriott. Two years ago, Senators Edward Kennedy (D-MA) and John McCain (R-AZ) introduced a bill, which would have given large employers the power to bring into the US 400,000 workers annually, on temporary work permits. It would have required undocumented people already here to spend 11 years, also as contract workers, to get a visa. And to win Republican support the bill would have increased enforcement of employer sanctions, proposing the same raid and no-match strategy the government is using today.

When the Senate and House couldn't reconcile their conflicting bills, the President then proposed his own regulation increasing workplace enforcement.

Most observers expect the Kennedy/McCain bill to be reintroduced into Congress this year. Most unions opposed it last time because it strengthened employer sanctions, which makes the raids and no-match checks possible, and because they oppose guest worker programs. Unions also want to give undocumented immigrants legal status.

Bruce Raynor, president of UNITE HERE. which supports EBASE's Measure C campaign, says no-match checks are "an indication of what's wrong with the law. There are 12 million undocumented people living here, who are important to the economy," he explains. "They have a right to seek employment, and employers have a right to hire them. The only way to deal with this is to give workers rights and a path to citizenship."

Nevertheless, his union (and the Service Employees, another union with many immigrant members) both supported the Kennedy/McCain bill, while the rest of labor opposed it. "We thought it was what was possible under those circumstances," Raynor says. Increased employer sanctions and guest worker programs were a price they were willing to pay for legalization of the undocumented.

Since then, however, the raids have caused many to question that decision. Just last week, for instance, the SEIU reversed its position and now opposes employer sanctions, although it continues to support guest-worker programs. EBASE organizer Sarah Norr points out that "sanctions don't stop employers from hiring undocumented workers. They just create sort of a revolving door, where they can be hired and then gotten rid of if they stand up for their rights."

The new Democratic majority in Congress is divided. Last year Democrats Silvestre Reyes (D-TX), a former Border Patrol agent, and fellow Texan Charles Gonzalez (D-TX) introduced a bill paralleling Bush's regulation. They argue that supporting hard enforcement is the secret to winning the 2008 Presidential election. Incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi named Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), a strong defender of Silicon Valley's high-tech guest worker programs, to head the House Immigration Subcommittee.

Other Democrats, however, like the Oakland's Barbara Lee, believe the November election makes other alternatives possible. The Oakland-based National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights proposed one such alternative. It convinced the AFL-CIO and dozens of local immigrant-rights coalitions to sign a petition calling for legalization of the undocumented, an end to employer sanctions and militarization of the border, no new guest worker programs, and more opportunities for legal immigration.

It may be unlikely that the present Democratic majority would pass such a bill. But its proponents argue that achieving a progressive reform requires a longterm strategy, and lots of grassroots pressure, much as that needed to pass the Voting Rights Act and other legislative achievements of the civil rights era.

If those proposals become law, the no-match letters at Woodfin Suites would become a thing of the past, along with workplace raids like those at Swift. Workers without papers would be able to begin a process leading to permanent visas and citizenship.

But if last year's Kennedy/McCain bill passes instead, Woodfin Suites will be forced to fire Luz Dominguez, Marcela Melquiades and anyone else named by Social Security. People without papers may be able to sign up as guest workers to keep cleaning rooms, but they'll lose their immigration status if they lose their jobs.

Emeryville residents voted to give workers greater rights at work, and the legal leverage to enforce them. Their efforts could be undone by legislation supported by the new Democratic majority in Congress.

Dominguez, Melquiades and 19 others went back to work after New Years. Both feel caught between their need for work, and a growing unease about their welcome in a community that needs them, but whose national political leaders are in denial about it.

After work, with her family fed, Dominguez sits at the Formica table in her kitchen. There's not much furniture in this room either. A white linoleum floor, with a pattern of little gray triangles, reflects white cabinets, white refrigerator and white stove. On the table, cups of cinnamon tea rest on a little white doily, with a plate of tiny white guava jam sandwiches with their bread crusts cut off. It's like an English tea party with a Mexican flavor.

Drinking tea, the mothers remember home.

"My father taught us to work," Dominguez recalls. "We are working people, he told us, and nothing is given to us. He always had his sayings. One of them was, we help people without expecting to receive something in return. What matters is what you're like inside - that is what God will see. So maybe we won't be rich, but we will have peace inside us."

Some say immigrants are refusing to adopt US values, but those of Dominguez' father sound very familiar. In fact, they're easily heard in schools and churches throughout the Bay Area.

Melquiades father also gave his daughter some moral survival tools. After a lifetime as a construction worker, he recently came to live with her and help out. She says he's proud of her. "When I was a girl, he worked in factories in Mexico," she remembers. "He was always fighting for the rights of the people around him, always getting fired for it." His daughter's predicament must sound familiar to him, since "he taught me not to be quiet, but to speak up for what I thought was right."

This high value placed on defending workplace rights not only helped EBASE get Measure C enforced, but also makes immigrant workers very active in organizing unions. Small surprise that Woodfin, Cintas and Smithfield feel threatened, at the same time they depend on immigrants for their labor.

But the women also feel insecure - uncertain about whether they've really found a home here. Melquiades wakes up in the middle of the night, tormented by bills and problems - surely another thing she has in common with working mothers everywhere. "I'm just living from one day to the next on what I make," she worries. "I don't know what I'd do if I lost my job. Even though I'm back to work, I'm always worried about the next day. I'm just living with anxiety, all the time."

Dominguez feels another kind of pain - that of separation. Her oldest daughter is 24, going to college in Mexico City (for which her mother sends back money every month) and unlikely to settle in the US with the rest of her family. "You have to make a lot of sacrifices, and one of them is that some children will live here, and some will live there," Dominguez mourns. "We won't be together. You can't have everything."

Her sense of welcome has taken some body blows too. Emeryville is still a beautiful city to her, and its progress, she boasts "is happening, in part, because of people like me." But at the hotel something has changed. “People in the office used to greet me. Now they turn their backs, like we're criminals."

In the world beyond the workplace, "I don't feel as comfortable now. We live in a Latino community, and we bring our customs here, but we're looked down on, judged and criticized. People have the right to say we have to adapt to life here. It's their country. We're the foreigners. But I want us to be taken into account."

Ultimately, the yardstick of acceptance they use is the recognition of their labor. "All we want is to work," Melquiades pleads. "We're just fighting for the right to work."


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photographs and stories by David Bacon © 1990-1999

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