Standing up to Overhill Farms

July 27, 2009

In May, Overhill Farms, the largest food processing and packaging company in Southern California, fired 254 workers, claiming irregularities with their documentation based on their having received Social Security "no-match" letters from the federal government.

The company then hired part-time workers to fill the vacant positions. Unlike the workers it fired, who were receiving benefits as full-time employees, the new part-timers aren't given any benefits, even though they currently work up to 13 hours a day.

The fired workers have organized a series of pickets against Overhill Farms and a boycott of clients such as the fast food chain Panda Express. They also pressured their union to file a grievance against the company.

Overhill Farms struck back by suing six workers, along with leading LA immigrant rights activist Nativo Lopez, who is helping the workers with their campaign. Overhill's suit claims defamation and extortion.

Despite this intimidation, the Overhill Farms workers are continuing their struggle and making connections with the immigrant rights movement. They have called a march for July 29 that will start at the American Apparel factory, another company that has fired workers as a result of discrepancies with immigration documentation, and end at the LA Federal Building.

The protests come as the Obama administration has thrown its support behind the E-verify system that is meant to streamline the checking of citizenship documents for all workers. While this may seem like a progressive step away from worksite raids, E-verify gives a lot of power to employers to enforce immigration laws at their discretion and with their interests foremost--in this case, squelching dissent from workers.

With discussion of federal immigration reform legislation coming up in the fall--with enforcement measures certain to play a central part in the debate--the struggle at Overhill Farms raises important issues for the immigrant rights activists and offers an important example of grassroots organizing.

Marcelino, an Overhill Farms employee who was fired for supporting his fellow workers, talked to Victor Fernandez about the background to this struggle.

CAN YOU talk about the events that led to the firing of your coworkers?

THIS FIGHT began with the large number of no-match letters sent out stipulating that people had a 30-day period to rectify a discrepancy in their documentation. Supposedly, this came about as a result of an IRS audit on Overhill.

A week before the deadline, five of my coworkers were accused of bioterrorism. The company alleges it found a note where someone stated that they planted glass shards inside machinery that assembles plates. As a result, the company cut production drastically.

The next day, the company used this excuse to notify workers who had gotten no-match letters that they were suspended with pay until May 8. They then set a deadline of the end of May for people to report to Human Resources and fix the discrepancies in their paperwork.

WHAT HAPPENED when this deadline came?

SOME PEOPLE took in their paperwork. These were people who had adjusted their status years ago. But the company turned around and said that they were fired anyway, because when they initially applied to work there, they had used false information.

Protesting against racism and injustice at Overhill Farms
Protesting against racism and injustice at Overhill Farms

We first went to our union, UFCW Local 1710, and they told us that they couldn't help us. Plus, they told all the shop stewards to advise us to look for our own legal representation. We began to look for help from various lawyers and organizations. This is how we found Hermandad Mexicana and Nativo Lopez.

First, Hermandad let us know our rights. They informed us that a discrepancy such as ours didn't give the company grounds to fire, suspend or otherwise sanction us in any way. This is explicitly stated in the no-match letters that were sent to all the fired employees.

HOW DID the campaign against Overhill Farms get started?

WE BEGAN to organize and have meetings with all the people affected. From there, we began our protests in front of the company. The first one was on May 1, where we filled the entire sidewalk in front of the company with about 500 to 600 people. Each week, we return, and every three weeks, we protest their other plant about three blocks away.

About a month ago, we began flyering in front of Panda Express in order to pressure them to call Overhill Farms and tell them to fix the problems it created with its employees.

We have many demands, but the most important ones are: give us back our jobs; return all lost benefits to part-timers; and fix the situation with those accused of bioterrorism.

I UNDERSTAND you didn't receive a no-match letter, but were fired for supporting your coworkers. How did that happen?

FIRST, THEY suspended us, and three days later, they fired us. That was because we took part in the protests outside the company. This was done to send a message to the rest of the workers that they would suffer the same consequences. They fired only three of us, even though there we many people supporting their fired coworkers.

WHY DO you wear red shirts?

I'VE ALWAYS known them to be a fighting symbol, worn by workers whenever they're facing a problem in their workplace. We started using them a couple contract fights ago. I proposed that we would wear black and red while we were inside the plant.

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