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Why an injury to one is an injury to all

May 4, 2007 | Page 7

SHARON SMITH explains that the immigrant rights struggle is a challenge to the whole labor movement.

BETWEEN MAY 2006 and February 2007, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents arrested 18,000 immigrants across the country. Federal immigration authorities have set even more ambitious goals for deportations in 2007, hoping to use their new "fugitive operation teams" to deport 75,000 by the end of this year.

Last year's Labor Day raid in the small town of Stillmore, Ga.--with a population of 1,000--offers a prototype for the devastation inflicted on local communities by ICE raids. The town's main employer is a chicken-processing plant, Crider Inc., which employs 900 workers.

Roughly 700 of Crider's workers were Mexican immigrants on September 1, 2006, when armed federal agents swarmed the plant and began arresting suspected "illegal aliens," afterward proceeding to storm the trailer park where many workers lived with their families.

All told, 120 immigrants were rounded up, handcuffed and arrested, transported on waiting buses to far-away (as far as Texas) detention centers. Most others fled in desperation, leaving all their earthly possessions behind, hiding in nearby woods without food for days until agents left the area.

Those who claim that ICE raids provide a useful service to U.S.-born workers by removing foreign labor competition should consider Stillmore's aftermath. Crider lost all but 100 of its Mexican workers in the Labor Day raids and was initially forced to raise starting pay, running an ad in the weekly Forest-Blade newspaper boasting "increased wages" starting at $7 to $9 an hour, more than a dollar more than the company paid its immigrant workers.

The plant was soon teeming with local African American workers, 65 percent of the company's new workforce. But as the Wall Street Journal reported on January 17, there was no honeymoon with native-born new hires. Crider's new workforce was soon complaining of "long, arduous schedules, alleged health and safety hazards, and unrelenting supervisors." The Journal continued, "The population of workers hired since last September's immigration raids has turned over three times."

To fulfill its chronic labor shortage, Crider has since turned to an assortment of workers who are perhaps desperate enough to withstand the plant's substandard conditions--including ex-inmates from a nearby prison, homeless people from Macon and an influx of Laotian Hmong immigrants from Minnesota and Wisconsin.

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THE STILLMORE experience demonstrates that corporations are hell-bent on lowering wages for their employees, through competition with lower-paid and yet more desperate workers--wherever they are born. The blame for the downward spiral in workers' living standards lies with Corporate America, not immigrants, ex-felons or the homeless.

Those who assume that immigrant workers have no excuse for not fighting back should consider the U.S. Supreme Court's (5-4) 2002 ruling in Hoffman Plastic Compounds v. NLRB, that an undocumented worker, because of his illegal immigration status, was not entitled to back pay after he was illegally fired for union organizing activities.

As Human Rights Watch reported in 2005, since the Hoffman ruling, "Employers have made threats against workers, telling them of the decision and emphasizing that they can be dismissed for trade union organizing with no right to reinstatement or back pay...Employers have also sought to expand the scope of Hoffman, threatening workers with dismissal if they complain about minimum wage or overtime violations, health and safety violations, or any other claim."

U.S. employers have traditionally coupled attacks on U.S. workers' living standards with incriminating and deporting the foreign-born. During the "Roaring Twenties," the last time that income inequality reached its current enormous disparity, the number of annual deportations of "illegal" immigrants rose to 38,000, while workers' wages and union membership plummeted.

These immigrants were deemed illegal for the "crime" of allegedly belonging to a radical organization. "Illegality" as defined by the U.S. government has historically been adapted to its immediate interests.

U.S. workers cannot allow themselves to be pitted against impoverished Mexicans, whose lives have been devastated by the same corporations now forcing all workers globally to compete in a race to the bottom. In 1994, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) led to massive imports of U.S. corn into Mexico, impoverishing an estimated two million people, who were driven off their land. Many came northward in search of subsistence for themselves and their families.

Globalization has transformed the world economy and the global workforce. According to the Center for Labor Renewal Statement on Worker Migration:

[N]early 200 million people work outside their countries of birth, and an equal number are migrants inside their own countries. Nativists blame immigrants for flat wages, scarce jobs, and our declining labor movement. However, the responsibility lies with corporations that launched an all-out assault on wages and unions in the 1970s--well before today's wave of migration began...The IMF and World Bank reproduced this scenario around the world, driving down wages and worker rights in at least 90 countries under IMF "structural adjustment programs." Immigrants aren't destroying the "blue collar middle class;" corporations are.

"An injury to one is an injury to all" is the slogan that built the U.S. labor movement. "Divide and conquer" has always been the corporate strategy. In today's global economy, labor must return to its class struggle roots to survive.

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