Immigrant labor under attack

September 11, 2009

Barack Obama won the overwhelming support of Latino votes in the presidential election, largely on the basis of his stated sympathy for immigrants and his criticisms of the Bush administration's militarized workplace raids. But since becoming president, he has continued to carry out Bush's E-Verify program, in which employers use the Internet to validate workers' Social Security numbers, as well as the government's audits of I-9 forms used to document workers' identity.

The result is that thousands of immigrant workers are losing their jobs, even though the Social Security Administration states that a "no-match" between workers' information and government files should not be a basis for termination. One mass firing of about 300 workers for Social Security "no match" took place earlier this year at Overhill Farms, a major manufacturer of packaged foods.

Nativo López, president of the Mexican American Political Association and the new General Brotherhood of Workers International Union, has been at the center of the Overhill workers' struggle for justice--even though he is facing a politically motivated indictment. He spoke to Lee Sustar about these struggles in the context of the wider immigrant rights movement.

HOW DID you first meet the Overhill workers, and what caught your attention about that struggle?

THEY CONTACTED us because they were threatened with termination by their employer. They couldn't resolve the discrepancies with Social Security number, so they first went to the union--United Food and Commercial Workers Local 770--to see what the union was going to do. The union basically told them it couldn't do anything and had no intention of doing anything, and that they should seek outside assistance.

As a result of the union denying them any prospect of defending themselves, they contacted us as a last resort.

My first reaction--because I know that particular local--was to say let's talk to those guys. But worker after worker confirmed that the union representatives said absolutely not. When I contacted the union, they said they didn't know how to handle the situation, and that the employer was telling them one thing when perhaps something else was going on.

They didn't tell me that they had no intention of doing anything. But in fact, they never even called workers together to meet and talk about the situation. So it was evident that they weren't doing anything. It wasn't until much later that I learned the unions essentially have a policy of not fighting the E-Verify program or no-match letters.

On the picket line at Overhill Farms

WHEN DID the workers first contact you?

AROUND APRIL 15. They were given 30 days to resolve the discrepancy, so the assumption was that by May 8 they had to resolve it--otherwise, they were going to be let go. We began immediately mobilizing and organizing those who were affected by the policy. In a two-week period, we had something like 10 meetings with the workers--not just those who had received notice from the employers, but other workers inside who were distressed that their workmates were being victimized by this policy.

Overhill Farms is one of the largest food manufacturing companies in the U.S. They sell pre-packaged food products to well-known national and regional retail outlets like Costco, Sam's Club as well as American Airlines and Northwest Airlines. They also sell food under the Panda Express brand, and to food grocery chains like Safeway.

MANY IN the immigrant rights movement expected a big change under the Obama administration, but the Overhill case shows otherwise.

OBAMA PUBLICLY stated in a recent meeting--with about 100 representatives of different unions, big organizations, businesses and law enforcement--in Washington, D.C., that he has to demonstrate he's serious about border enforcement. Otherwise, the American people wouldn't be accepting of immigration reform. At least that's his public position.

But I'm now convinced from everything that I've seen from the administration that it was always his intention to be enforcement-oriented--through a policy that is much more efficient, pervasive and pernicious than that of the Bush administration, Clinton, daddy Bush and Reagan combined.

For example, instead of knocking off E-Verify, he has actually extended and increased funding for it. He's also implementing employer sanctions through the I-9 audit of employment records.

Never before have so many companies been targeted in such a brief period of time as under the Obama administration. American Apparel, for example, will be obligated to terminate close to 2,000 employees. We've met with probably half of those workers, and the average family size is five. So in the Los Angeles region, 10,000 lives will be adversely affected by the Obama policy. That never happened under any of the other administrations.

SOME SAY this is a more humane policy than the workplace raids under George W. Bush, in which hundreds of workers were arrested and mothers separated from their children. Do you accept that?

WHEN YOU look at the numbers and the cost-benefit analysis, the Bush administration was much more inefficient and had lower numbers. In effect, Obama has made the employers an arm of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

These "desktop" raids have the same effect as the Bush raids, but are even more pervasive in terms of numbers. It's resulting in workers self-deporting from the States, because with no prospect of employment, workers are forced into destitution or self-deportation.

Let's take, for example, the Swift meatpacking raids in 2006 that were conducted under the Bush administration. These netted something like 450 or 500 workers in a massive show of force. But at American Apparel, two agents of ICE visited the employer for the I-9 audit, and returned a year-and-a-half later to present the employer the ultimatum that it had to terminate 1,800 to 2,000 workers.

There was no show of force--and therefore not the same pushback or political reaction from the populace. That's why I say enforcement is much more pervasive and pernicious under the Obama administration. Employers now, in effect, use employer sanctions as a pretext to get rid of workers who are trying to organize a union, or get rid of seniority-level workers.

There was a company with 1,000 workers that the Teamsters recently organized in Southern California. Some of the most militant workers who were trying to organize the union were terminated, and the employer is now claiming they don't have status. So the effect of that type of enforcement is much more invasive under Obama than under Bush.

WHAT HAS been the reaction of the immigrant rights movement?

IT'S VERY aware of the situation. But the movement is hobbled by the fact that the mainline Washington, D.C.-based immigrant advocate groups have been the beneficiaries of something like $40 million from foundations, and have a very moderate, toned-down approach. They are banking on a favorable response from the Obama administration.

These are organizations that are closely tied to the Democratic Party, and have traditionally called for people to go meet their Congressmen, write letters, make telephone calls--but don't organize massive street demonstrations.

These were the same kind of groups that supported proposed immigration reform in 2007 that would have created paths to guest-worker programs and bastardized legalization programs. Now they find themselves in a pickle because they've urged caution and patience on all the organizations, expecting there would be immigration reform this year under the Obama administration.

Now Obama has come out with an enforcement-only policy and no reform until 2010. Even there, he has stated that it will be politically difficult to do anything in an election year--and that's code for holding on until 2011.

So these groups find themselves in disarray. They haven't criticized Obama and have absolutely refused to come to terms with the fact that it's the president who sets the policies, not cabinet members. They've really given Obama a pass and have continued to caution groups not to be impatient, not to take to the streets. They follow the administration's line instead of putting forward their own, based on the needs of immigrants.

HOW DOES the Overhill campaign fit into this context?

THE OVERHILL Farms case is unique in the sense that it's a unionized plant. The union sought not to represent the workers, and only did so because the workers organized themselves and filed their own grievances, contrary to the council of the union. They therefore forced the union's hand to file a collective grievance, for fear that the workers would file charges with the National Labor Relations Board for lack of representation. The workers also circulated a petition of decertification as leverage over the union to force it to do its job.

So here you have a case of 250 to 300 workers, all immigrants, organizing themselves to confront the company--and also to force the union to do what it's supposed to do, represent dues-paying members.

They've taken this beyond just their local company situation. They have been involved in organizing workers at other plants that are similarly situated. For the most part, these are plants that are not represented by unions, but where workers have received shabby or discriminatory treatment by the employer. They are fighting other companies using employer sanctions as an excuse to get rid of workers.

The Overhill workers have organized a protest every week for the last four months. They have also organized a consumer education campaign to expose companies that purchase products from Overhill Farms, and have sought to raise the level of awareness about the situation throughout the country.

And they've done this all without the help of the largest local in the United Food and Commercial Workers, which has more than enough resources to assist these workers in this fight.

IS THE labor movement overall prepared to take on the challenge that you've been describing?

THE LABOR movement, as it relates to immigrants, is in a rut. It refuses to take action solidly in opposition to employer sanctions, notwithstanding the 1999 resolution in the AFL-CIO finally taking a public position against sanctions. In words, it has this position, but in deeds, it's doing absolutely nothing to fight employer sanctions or the E-Verify system.

I'm referencing not just United Food and Commercial Workers, but the unions generally. The AFL-CIO has refused to take a public position against the Obama administration's enforcement-only policy. The best publicly stated position of the United Food and Commercial Workers is that it will abide by the law and not defend its members who are employed by companies that are targeted by the Obama administration through I-9 audits, the E-Verify system and no-match policies.

If the labor movement is unwilling or incapable of defending workers who are adversely affected by these enforcement-only policies, it absolutely will not be successful at organizing this section of the workforce into the formal or official labor movement.

This is something we predicted and fought, going all the way back to 1970, when Sen. Edward Kennedy and Rep. Peter Rodino of New Jersey advocated employer sanctions and supported the enactment of sanctions in California by a state legislator named Dixon Arnett. That law passed in California in 1972, but it was ultimately overturned by the California Supreme Court as being in conflict with the federal prerogative legislating immigration laws.

When we asked Peter Rodino and Edward Kennedy back then why they were taking a position that would hurt labor and would hurt immigrants, their argument was that they were doing this at the bidding of the AFL-CIO.

So nearly 40 years later, we find ourselves in the same situation, fighting employer sanctions and looking at the AFL-CIO and Change to Win unions as implicit players with the federal government against immigrant workers. For all the nice things that are being said about Edward Kennedy, people should know that this is part of his legacy--employer sanctions.

SOME ACTIVISTS in the immigrant rights movement have tried to shift this situation. In Chicago, there was a Labor Day protest against Obama's policies.

WE'RE DOING the same in Los Angeles. We organized a march September 5, and then joined the labor movement on Labor Day on September 7, demanding that the unions come out against employer sanctions, I-9 audits and E-Verify, and that they defend workers who are being adversely affected by this policy.

We don't hear much noise out of any of the unions, even those who have held themselves out as the most militantly favorable to immigrants, like the SEIU, UNITE HERE and United Farmworkers. They're saying absolutely nothing about these policies. We were told here by the local labor movement that it doesn't want to see any signs or anything else critical about Obama. Like nobody wants to tell the king he has no clothes.

BUT AT the base, some things are happening.

WE HAD a big meeting preparing for the September 5 march and in preparation for the October march. Other cities will be organizing a national day of action to call to the attention the enforcement-only policy of the Obama administration.

But even there, the immigrant rights movement is divided. The prominent Washington, D.C., organizations refuse to pinpoint or target Obama administration enforcement-only policies, and prefer only to mention Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.

America's Voice, the Center for Community Change, the National Council of La Raza--these organizations and entities that are well endowed absolutely refuse to address the issue of employer sanctions, border enforcement, guest worker programs and I-9 audits.

From our perspective, this is an opening in the sense that they're being exposed as the moderate supplicant groups that they are, limiting themselves to what the administration is willing to accept or talk about.

IN THE middle of the Overhill Farms struggle, you've had to deal with a fight of your own.

OVERHILL FARMS is suing seven of us--me and six worker leaders who were terminated from the company--to prevent us from organizing a consumer movement and picket.

I was also indicted by the Los Angeles District Attorney for seven felony charges, alleging voter election fraud or election code fraud, because of allegedly using a Los Angeles residence to register to vote and to vote.

Essentially, they're alleging that in one instance, I voted from Los Angeles, and that resulted in seven felony charges. We've interpreted this as an effort on the part of the local district attorney to divert my attention from the real struggles that are occurring here and regionally, and tie us up financially and time-wise in defending these ridiculous charges.

But it's also being used to discredit me, both among the workers and, more critically, in a general sense. So it could become an incredible distraction. We know for a fact that other, similar violations--and even worse violations--have been prosecuted by this district attorney as misdemeanors. But these happened to involve Republican operatives and persons of similar political persuasions.

HOW DO the workers at Overhill view this situation?

They're put out by the fact that it occurred in the throes of this other struggle. They interpreted it as retaliation on the part of police authorities for the work we're doing, both with Overhill Farms and American Apparel workers, and with immigrants generally.

It really hasn't affected those who were terminated as part of the struggle, but it absolutely was used by Overhill Farms owners and management to intimidate workers who are still in the employed company to not join the struggle of their brothers and sisters who were terminated.

The day after the charges were filed, for example, they posted huge blowups of the newspaper articles inside the company--plastered all over the place--to discredit me personally and discredit the defense movement. They clearly used it in a politically motivated way to intimidate the other workers.

WHAT KIND of support have you gotten?

I'VE GOT a network of friends and family and some union folks. We're still building the defense committee. But most importantly, support has come from the workers themselves. They've attended court, picketed the court, sent in thousands of letters to the district attorney.

The irony is now that we've received preliminary evidence by the district attorney, it turns out the initial claim or allegation against me was made by dinosaur elements of the Green Party in Los Angeles, who were opposed to opening up the Green Party as an alternative avenue for Latinos, for immigrants and for African Americans under a progressive electoral banner.

They're the ones who were behind making the allegations to the secretary of state and the district attorney's office. The secretary of state and district attorney didn't need much pushing to have a reason or a pretext to pursue a two-year investigation, which included surveillance to determine what residence I exit in the morning and what residence I lay my head down at in the evening.

Here, you have a situation where "progressives" used the state to resolve a political score, so that they could maintain control of a small minority political party.

WHAT'S THE next step in this fight?

WE'RE GOING to fight it. In October, the preliminary hearing will begin, and the trial will probably begin sometime next year. As far as timeframes are concerned, in the Overhill Farms case, the workers filed 254 individual grievances, and the union local filed a collective grievance. In November, there will be a mediation, and the arbitration of those grievances will be heard in December.

We feel very confident that the company erred. The timeline for the terminations violates the collective bargaining agreement, and the company has no evidence that there's anything but legal status for those employed in the company. It's only a discrepancy of information of Social Security numbers, and as everyone knows, that is not a reason for termination, suspension or layoff from employment--and that comes directly from the Social Security Administration, with communication to both the employer and the employee.

So workers have a very sound basis to regain their employment with the company. I should also add that our information is that this all resulted from the union allowing the inclusion of a clause in the collective bargaining agreement one year prior to this whole situation occurring, in 2009, which indicated that the company could employ up to 25 percent of its workforce with no benefits.

These workers are classified as part-time, but in reality, the company works them 50 or 60 hours a week. The only way for the company to meet the threshold of 25 percent of its workforce was to expand its workforce from 1,000 to 1,400 or 1,500 workers, or get rid of 25 percent of its workforce, and then turn around and hire new employees classified as part-time, with no benefits and earning minimum wage.

That's essentially what the employer did. It terminated close to a third of its workforce from December 2008 to May 2009, and turned around and hired individuals on a part-time basis.

The union allowed that to happen under the clause included in its last ratified contract. Contract committee members--some of whom were terminated--reported that the clause was included behind their backs. In fact, when the proposal was brought to the table, the contract committee rejected it. But lo and behold, when they received the contract to ratify, it was included.

SO THE workers had targets on their backs from that moment.

EXACTLY. THIS is what happens when unions are allowed to negotiate a concession. It ends up sapping the strength to fight back when the employer goes on the offensive. There was never any intention of the local to fight the employer anyway, as we came to learn.

HOW DOES the Overhill struggle fit into the wider immigrant rights movement?

IT'S NO accident or coincidence that we're seeing these offensive actions by employers, facilitated by an enforcement-only policy by the federal government. The victims of these policies are immigrants, both documented and undocumented, and the final result is that all workers are adversely affected--because work standards decline where employers are able to get away with this.

It's detrimental to the labor movement to allow a vulnerable sector of the workforce to be targeted in this way. The only way this can be turned around is by a general defense of standards and wages for all workers--but most importantly, for the most vulnerable sector.

By protecting the most vulnerable sector, the interests of all the workers will be better defended and protected. That's essentially what the new union we formed intends to do. The General Brotherhood of Workers International Union intends to fight to shore up this vulnerable sector as an effort to protect the standards and wages and rights of the whole working class.

Transcription by Andrea Hektor.

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