David Bacon Stories & Photographs
Immigrant Workers Ask Labor - "Which Side Are You On?"
by David Bacon

LOS ANGELES, CA (11/18/99) - This summer, hundreds of workers at the world's largest rose grower, in the heart of California's San Joaquin Valley, lost their jobs.

The Immigration and Naturalization Service audited the personnel records of over 1000 employees of the Bear Creek Production Co. in Bakersfield. After deciding that almost 300 of them were undocumented, the INS demanded that the company terminate them under the employer sanctions provision of the the Immigration Reform and Control Act. That provision makes it illegal for undocumented immigrants to hold a job, and for employers to hire them.

Like almost all California farm workers, Bear Creek workers are immigrants from Mexico and Central America. Given the INS document check, and the massive firings that resulted, immigration status is clearly a workplace issue at the company.

The terminations were denounced by Arturo Rodriguez, president of the United Farm Workers. "These workers have been here 15, 20, 25 years," he declared. "They have houses, have families, are in the educational system, have paid taxes for years, are members of their communities. But the INS demanded they demonstrate again their status in this country, and they were evicted - they lost their jobs."

The wave of firings at Bear Creek was not an isolated incident.

But the huge population of immigrant workers now living in the U.S. may have a new ally - the AFL-CIO - following its historic debate over immigration at its convention in Los Angeles in October. For the first time since 1986, when the labor federation supported passage of the Immigration Reform and Control Act, it was clear that unions have begun seeing immigrants, not as the problem, but as the solution.

"For immigrants to build a better future, they need to build a union," said Eliseo Medina, an immigrant from Zacatecas who went on become a leading organizer for the United Farm Workers, and is now executive vice-president of 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."

It's not hard to understand why he and others take that view. Unions represent about 14% of U.S. workers today, down from 35% in the early 1950s. To maintain that percentage, given the growth of the workforce and structural changes which eliminate many jobs, unions have to organize 400,000 workers a year. Last year, they organized 475,000, recording positive growth for the first time in decades, although not by much. To grow by just one percent, labor has to organize 800,000 people. And the AFL-CIO's organizing director, Kirk Adams, says that unions really need a million workers in the pipeline "partly because we need to grow, but also because of the noise that creates."

Where are those organizing drives going to come from, and who, in the modern American workforce, actively wants to join? For a growing number of unions, immigrant workers are at least part of the answer to this question.

In fact, the history of labor organizing over the last decade in Los Angeles, where the convention met this year, is largely the story of immigrant workers organizing against heavy odds. Immigrant janitors defied police beatings in Century City in 1989, recovering union contracts for SEIU Local 1877 in the city's office buildings. Immigrant workers in Local 11 have made the Hotel Employees one of the strongest unions in the city. Carpenters, harbor truckers, garment workers, factory hands, and tortilla drivers have all staged pivotal strikes and organizing drives. Day laborers, domestics and gardeners have built independent organizations, even in the absence of labor law protection and support from local unions.

In the floor debate at the convention, hotel union president John Wilhelm called Los Angeles "the capital of immigrant workers." But LA is hardly an isolated case. The labor upsurge among immigrant workers has become a national phenomenon, and many unions are starting to see it as a base for rebuilding labor strength, particularly in many industries where it's been eroded, such as meatpacking and food processing, residential construction and others.

The federation now confronts the reality, however, that the law it supported in 1986 has made it harder for unions to organize and represent immigrants, not easier. A rising tide of labor opinion says that support was wrong.

One obvious example of the impact of employer sanctions was the wave of firings which hit the rose workers at Bear Creek. But delegates didn't have to go even that far to find similar incidents. In fact, within blocks of the convention center, workers at a small office furniture plant had a similar experience with the use of employer sanction by their employer, Mike Cruz. The 70 employees at his RCR Classic Designs furniture factory on Avalon Boulevard voted for the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees by a 33-21 margin last August. After that, workers started getting called into the office. RCR workers came to the convention, and spoke out about their experience.

"The secretary told me I had to show my green card, along with my ID and Social Security," says Salvador Ruiz, a union activist at RCR. "I refused. I gave her my address and telephone number, and told her I didn't think what she was asking for was legal." Other workers in the factory, however, weren't so brave. "They were very afraid to organize and support the union because of this," according to Dolores Alcala, another union supporter.

The company's demands, which it made of every RCR employee, couldn't have come at a worse time. Following the union election, workers put together a proposal for the wage increases and other improvements they hoped for in a union contract. Then they began trying to use their organized strength to get Cruz to bargain.

But after the company started demanding that workers reverify their immigration status, union support dropped dramatically. "Now people won't meet with us," Ruiz says. In the meantime, negotiations have started. "I was in the first meeting, and we couldn't agree on anything."

It's a simple equation. If workers can't pressure the company to raise wages above the $7-8/hour Ruiz, Alcala and their friends are earning, Cruz' profits won't suffer much, even with a union in the plant.

"Immigration law is a tool of the employers," says UNITE regional manager Cristina Vasquez, who came up out of LA's garment shops two decades ago. "They're able to use it as a weapon to keep workers unorganized, and the INS has helped them."

"This was my first job after coming here from Colima, 17 years ago," Ruiz recalls. "No one ever asked me for papers then. They didn't care until now."

In case after case, organizing efforts among immigrant workers have come up against the same problem faced at RCR - the use of immigration law to prevent organization. That problem is growing even more acute, because the Clinton administration has made the workplace the focus of its efforts to enforce immigration law. According to INS Commissioner Doris Meissner, "work is the incentive that brings illegal immigrants into our country." Preventing workers from entering the U.S. without visas, therefore, depends on removing them from the workplace. This new INS strategy is called "interior enforcement" - enforcing immigration law away from the border.

The policy rests on the enforcement of employer sanctions, which require employers to collect information about the immigration status of all their employees, who fill out an I-9 form to verify it.

In meetings with the union, RCR claimed that its interviews were required to reverify the information on the forms, although workers say they've never seen any request from the INS. Cruz did not return phone calls for this article.

Verifying I-9 information has become a major INS preoccupation, a tactic which many unions say undermines workers's rights.

In Washington state in March, after checking I-9 forms, the INS questioned the legal status of 1700 workers in 13 apple packing houses, and over 500 were eventually fired at its demand. For three years those Yakima Valley sheds have been the focus of an industry-wide organizing drive by the Teamsters Union. According to lead organizer Lorraine Scheer, mass firings swept up many rank-and-file leaders and created an atmosphere of terror, intimidating documented and undocumented alike.

The firings came on the heels of widespread employer threats of immigration raids. According to one employee, Mary Mendez, an anti-union consultant for the Stemilt Fruit Company told workers "there hasn't been a union here yet, and the INS hasn't done any raids. But with a union, the INS is going to be around."

In the San Francisco Bay Area, two major janitorial contractors were targeted for similar checks, and about 500 members of SEIU Local 1877 lost their jobs. SEIU plans to negotiate its first national master janitorial contract in the year 2000, and the I-9 checks removed many leaders the union needed for that campaign.

The INS workplace enforcement program depends heavily on a new set of relationships with other government agencies. An agreement with the Department of Labor, for instance, requires federal inspectors looking for violations of minimum wage and overtime laws to also thumb through the I-9 forms, looking for discrepancies which could lead to deportations.

In Los Angeles the INS initiated a series of raids in garment sweatshops two years ago, called Operation Buttonhole, in response to information from DoL inspectors. Similar raids followed a campaign by the Korean Immigrant Workers Association to enforce wage and hour laws in L.A.'s Korean restaurants. Retaliation against workers who file complaints are now barred by new rules, but DoL inspectors still turn immigration information over to the INS.

An even hotter controversy erupted over similar efforts by the Social Security Administration. Over the last year, employers have been flooded with "no match" letters from SSA, in which the agency lists workers whose numbers don't match its database. Many employers view the list as evidence that workers have no legal immigration status.

That has provided another pretext for firings. In Sacramento, Local 1877 alleges local contractors used "no match" letters to terminate high-seniority workers, in order to avoid paying them costly new medical benefits. In New York and New Jersey, thousands of immigrant asbestos removal workers organized their industry, and revitalized the Laborers Union, three years ago. Last year, contractors sent the union a "no match" list of workers, including the leaders of the union drive, they would no longer accept from the union hiring hall.

Another Laborers Union drive, at New Jersey's KTI Recycling Co., was lost after the employer distributed a "no match" list to workers. The National Labor Relations Board eventually threw out the election because of the employer's illegal conduct. But according to William Gould, past NLRB chair, "there is a basic conflict" between workers' rights under the National Labor Relations Act, and workplace enforcement of immigration law.

The Los Angeles INS district now shares information with agents from DoL, the IRS, the state Department of Insurance, and even the federal Bureau of Land Management, in a Worker Exploitation Taskforce. INS District Director Thomas Shiltgen credits the taskforce with filing criminal charges against employers over illegal working conditions and immigration law violations. Workers with no immigration papers, however, are protected from exploitation by losing their jobs.

The most ambitious INS enforcement program so far, Operation Vanguard, has concentrated on the meatpacking industry in Nebraska. There the INS took charge of the personnel records of every meatpacking plant in the state, and in three Iowa counties. Concentrating on forty plants with a workforce of 24,310 people, they sifted out 4,762 names. Then the INS sent lists of names to each company, and a letter to every worker, requiring them to come in for interviews.

About a thousand of those who received the letters actually showed up. Only 34 actually lacked legal immigration papers and were deported. The remainder were released. Nevertheless, the INS has declared the operation an initial success, estimating that those who failed to report either quit because of normal turnover, or were undocumented and left. Repeated checks every 60 days will keep undocumented workers from returning to their old jobs or finding new ones in other plants.

According to Mark Nemitz, president of Local 440 of the United Food and Commercial Workers at the Farmland pork plant in Denison, Iowa, dozens of local families left their homes during the week of the interviews. They camped out in the county park twelve miles outside this small town, fearing the INS would pick them up for deportation.

While the INS and SSA are sparring over the operation's continued use of Social Security numbers, the INS intends to make Operation Vanguard a national program in every industry where undocumented immigrants are concentrated. "We will clean up one industry and turn the [jobs] magnet down a bit," says INS Regional Director Mark Reed, "and then go on to another industry, and another, and another."

The potential impact of Operation Vanguard on the millions of undocumented workers employed in cities like Los Angeles, New York, Chicago and Houston would be enormous, making union drives among those workers virtually impossible. In Omaha, the Omaha Together One Community campaign to organize workers in non-union packinghouses lost 20 of its 22 in-plant leaders in Operation Vanguard's wake.

Even more threatening to unions and immigrant rights groups, however, is the intention of the INS to use Operation Vanguard to push for an expanded guestworker program. Reed says Operation Vanguard will cut off the supply of undocumented workers to those industries dependent on their labor, provoking a political outcry for a new program to bring contract workers into the U.S. The last U.S. experiment with contract immigrant labor, the bracero program of the 1940s and 50s, was described as "legalized slavery" by its own former administrator Lee G. Williams. By their nature, contract labor programs give employers not only the power to fire workers, but in effect the power to deport them as well.

Now a bill, recently introduced into the U.S. Senate, takes a giant step in that direction. It offers amnesty to 500,000 undocumented farmworkers, like those at Bear Creek, but only if they agree to work as contract laborers for the next five years.

For over two decades, immigration activists in the labor movement have opposed AFL-CIO support for employer sanctions, arguing that instead of trying to keep immigrant workers out of the workforce, the union federation should try to organize them. For many years, that argument was far from the mainstream. But the increase in union interest in organizing workers generally, and the simultaneous growth of the INS workplace enforcement program, finally changed the balance of forces inside the AFL-CIO.

A year ago, a group of union and community organizers involved in campaigns among immigrant workers began meeting in the San Francisco Bay Area. Many of them were veterans of immigrant-based union drives going back more than a decade. Other participants came from the Northern California Coalition for Immigrant Rights and the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, two community-based organizations formed after the passage of IRCA in 1986.

In the last few years, the group of organizers had begun working to oppose immigration raids at local companies, including a notorious raid at San Leandro's Mediacopy plant, which led to the deportation of 99 workers and the use of the INS against a union drive. In addition, immigrant rights organizations in northern and southern California had developed much closer relations with the state labor federation, timing the mobilization of immigrant communities to lobby the state legislature with the federation's own lobbying campaigns.

Working relationships forged in the field created the basis for setting up a joint organization - the Labor Immigrant Organizers Network. LION organized a series of demonstrations against the Social Security Administration, calling for a stop to its "no-match" letters. At alarge conference in January, LION adopted a common position opposing the INS enforcement program, eventually including a call for the repeal of sanctions.

The state labor federation had also begun calling for the repeal of sanctions in 1994, along with the then-two garment unions (now merged in the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Workers) and the Service Employees International Union.

This summer LION activists wrote a resolution calling on the national federation to take a similar position. It was passed first by the Alameda County Central Labor Council, where LION holds its meetings under the sponsorship of council executive-secretary Judy Goff. But when the resolution was sent to other councils, it met a wave of support. Union activists in many councils already had plenty of experience in fighting the use of immigration law against their members and organizing drives.

While the resolution won support easily in most councils, it was still opposed in some, especially by local officials of the United Food and Commercial Workers. Sean Harrigan, UFCW regional director in the San Francisco Bay Area, told the LA Times that "we just didn't think it was in the best interest of our members." His point of view, however, was not universally shared, and a number of UFCW locals supported it strongly.

Beginning in California, the resolution spread to Oregon, Washington, and New York. International unions began debating it. When it finally hit the AFL-CIO convention floor on October 12, national union leaders joined in the call for repeal.

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. If the intention of employer sanctions was to reduce undocumented immigration, they've clearly failed, said hotel union president Wilhelm.

Further, he declared, his own union's support for them in 1986 was a big mistake: "Those who came before us, who built this labor movement in the great depression, in strikes in rubber and steel and hotels, they didn't say 'Let me see your papers' to the workers in those industries. They said, 'Which side are you on?' And immigrant workers today have the right to ask of us the same question. Which side are we on?" The convention erupted in applause.

Frank Hurt, president of the Bakery, Confectionary, and Tobacco Workers, who chaired the committee in 1986 which recommended supporting IRCA, admitted the immigration law and enforcement policies had not protected workers' rights. "Instead, they arm employers with additional weapons," he said, "often wielded with governmental complicity...They pit worker against worker, ally against friend, driving wedges between us when we should stand united."

And despite the statements of local UFCW officials, Joe Hansen, the union's national secretary-treasurer, agreed that "current immigration laws and current immigration policies just do not work."

The AFL-CIO's evolving change in position is likely to put it in opposition to a key administration policy in an election year. Whether vice-president Al Gore, now the federation's endorsed candidate, intends to distance himself from that policy is unknown. But he did make a point at the convention of highlighting the union-organizing experience of at least one immigrant worker.

Under the pressure of the immigration resolution, the AFL-CIO held a press conference before the convention opened, announcing a series of hearings around the country on immigration law, to take place in New York, LA, Chicago, Atlanta, and possibly other cities as well. They will hear testimony by immigrant workers and organizers, detailing experiences in which workers rights have been undermined by INS enforcement actions, and by the use of immigration law by employers.

Those hearings will lead to recommendations in a White Paper to be presented to the AFL-CIO's executive council meeting. With the weight of the testimony behind it, there is great expectation that the federation will at that point call for the repeal of employer sanctions.

For the first time, the top leadership of the AFL-CIO seems to have accepted the necessity of a basic change in direction. As Linda Chavez-Thompson, the federation's executive vice-president, told delegates, "it is time, long past time, to address the nation's failed immigration policies."

The fired workers at Bear Creek would undoubtedly agree.

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