David Bacon Stories & Photographs
The Law That Keeps Workers Chained
by David Bacon

LOS ANGELES (10/2/99) - Mike Cruz didn't play the immigration card before the union election. Maybe he didn't think he had to.

But then 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.

"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 three decades ago. "They're able to use it as a weapon to keep workers unorganized, and the INS has helped them."

It's not that immigrant workers, including those without papers, have been unwilling to organize. At RCR, the union drive was preceded by a 3-day work stoppage last May to get Cruz to boost wages. "He wouldn't even come out to talk to us, or give us an across-the-board increase," recalls Ruiz. "So we could see we needed a union."

Once UNITE petitioned for the election, Cruz hired a lawyer and began showing anti-union videos at mandatory meetings three times a week. That didn't faze workers either. Their movement didn't begin to waver until RCR began asking for papers.

"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."

The experience of RCR workers isn't unique. In fact, the history of labor organizing over the last decade in Los Angeles 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 as a result. 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.

Nor is LA an isolated case. The labor upsurge among immigrant workers has become a national phenomenon. But in case after case, these efforts 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 a provision of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, called employer sanctions. This section of the law prohibits employers from hiring undocumented workers, and makes it a crime for a worker without papers to have a job. Employers are required to collect information about the immigration status of all their employees, who fill out an I-9 form verifying 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.

Nevertheless, verifying I-9 information has become a major INS preoccupation. Locally, verifications have led to raids like that last spring in Camarillo, when agents herded 180 workers into a small room at the Wilwood Engineering brake plant, arresting 10 of them.

Many unions say those efforts undermine workers's rights.

In Washington state in March, after checking I-9 forms, the INS told 13 apple packing houses to fire 1700 workers. 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.

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.

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."

In Los Angeles, Shiltgen says there are no immediate plans to implement Operation Vanguard, and points out that the situations in LA and the midwest are different. But he thinks Operation Vanguard's industry-wide and statewide approach is very effective, and says it is definitely not just a pilot program. "We're not there yet," he says, but adds that "Mark [Reed] is correct. The fact that we haven't done it doesn't mean we won't."

The potential impact of Operation Vanguard on the hundreds of thousands of undocumented workers employed in L.A.'s economy would be enormous. Such an operation would also make union drives among those workers almost impossible. In Omaha, one 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.

Efforts by employers and the INS to regulate the supply of immigrant labor are certain to be met with fierce opposition from unions, however. Many have begun to see immigrant workers as the key to their survival, convincing them that the century-old hostility towards immigrants by part of the labor movement must be reversed.

In late September, the Labor Center at UCLA and the county Federation of Labor brought together unions involved in immigrant-based campaigns and autonomous organizations of immigrant workers themselves.

Miguel Contreras, federation secretary, says labor has an enormous stake around immigration, as the base of the LA economy shifts. "We used to have one local alone in Burbank with 30,000 members," he recalls, referring to Lockheed. "Now there are none. Bethlehem's gone.The tire industry is gone." In their place, he said, are hundreds of smaller shops of the Alameda Corridor, where 760,000 workers, almost all immigrants, are employed in non-union jobs.

"If we're going to organize LA," he declares, "we have to organize immigrants."

To do that, unions must oppose current immigration law enforcement, according to labor activists. "We cannot continue to accept employer sanctions," urged Jose de Paz, who staffed LA labor's pioneer effort to organize immigrant workers, the California Immigrant Workers Association. The AFL-CIO supported employer sanctions at the time the immigration law was adopted in 1986.

"It's sad that in 1999 we're still thinking about our position on this," Vasquez laments. "We have to look at the future clearly, and see what's coming."

Vasquez and DePaz now articulate the mainstream position in the most active unions. Labor councils throughout the country, including those in Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, and Silicon Valley, have circulated a resolution calling for repealing sanctions. They're supported by the Service Employees, Laborers, UNITE, the UFW and other international unions.

The AFL-CIO plans to conduct town hall hearings in five cities throughout the country following the convention, to hear testimony from immigrant workers whose rights were violated by the use of immigration law.

The testimony they present is likely to reflect the experience of Dolores Alcala. Like most immigrants, she expresses a mixture of gratitude to the U.S. for affording her economic opportunity and anger over her exploitation. Alcala was only 11 years old when she went to work in the green onion fields in the Mexicali Valley, just below the border. She left for the other side when she was 15.

"I was afraid to come here, especially by myself, but my need was stronger," she remembers. "My family went hungry all the time, and I just needed to eat. My mom and dad are still back there."

In Los Angeles, she found a job in a garment sweatshop. "What I didn't expect was so much discrimination, so much abuse, especially in the factory," she says. She holds both her boss and the law responsible.

"We all have a right to work and eat," she says. "Immigration law is just trampling on all of us."

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photographs and stories by David Bacon © 1990-

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