New York Teamsters stand for sanctuary

September 20, 2017

Defending immigrant workers is a prerequisite for a fighting labor movement that backs up calls for solidarity with action, writes Teamsters Local 810 member Tim Goulet.

TEAMSTERS JOINT Council 16, representing 120,000 Teamsters in 27 locals across the five boroughs of New York City, as well as Long Island, the Hudson Valley and Puerto Rico, has declared itself a "sanctuary union."

The vote to do so was given added urgency by the early September deportation of Eber García Vasquez, a Teamster who worked for 26 years at a medical waste hauler on Long Island before he was deported to his native Guatemala.

As a sanctuary union, the Teamsters have vowed to not cooperate with federal immigration agents in attempting to detain or deport members. The joint council has also pledged to provide legal training and solidarity for members who face such threats and to demand contract provisions from employers that provide added protection for immigrant workers.

Teamsters Local 810 in Queens was the first to pass a sanctuary resolution. As that resolution states, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents "have been raiding and arresting immigrants on the flimsiest of pretexts, with no regard for how long they've lived in the U.S., how dependent their families are upon them, or the ties they harbor with their communities."

The family of Eber Garcia Vasquez protests his deportation in New York City
The family of Eber Garcia Vasquez protests his deportation in New York City (Teamsters Joint Council 16)

THE DEPORTATION of García Vasquez tragically serves to prove this point.

A 26-year member of Teamsters Local 813, García Vasquez was expelled to his native Guatemala on September 6. For those 26 years, Eber worked at the medical waste hauler Stericycle in Farmingdale, Long Island.

His case is particularly cruel, as he was the sole breadwinner for his family. His wife is confined to a wheelchair following a car accident some months ago. Eber originally fled to the U.S. to escape violence in his home country that claimed the lives of several family members, including his mother.

García Vasquez was deported despite a public campaign to defend him, including union-led protests at Federal Plaza and New York City's ICE headquarters; a petition campaign; an organized member call-in to ICE; and expressions of local political support for his cause.

Eber was detained and his lawyer escorted from the building when he showed up for an annual check-in with immigration authorities. Afterward, he was spirited out of New York to Bergen County Jail in New Jersey, likely to avoid unwanted attention.

The process was remarkably quick. Less than two weeks after his detainment, he had been deported, making it all the more difficult to mount an effective defense. "In just 13 days, [Eber García Vasquez's family] was ripped apart," wrote George Miranda, president of Joint Council 16.

Eber's wife, Maria Chavez Marino, didn't find out he had been deported until Eber called her from Guatemala. "We don't know how he will survive, how he's going to live," she said.

Angela Fernandez, an attorney and the executive director of the Northern Manhattan Coalition for Immigrant Rights, was surprised by the details of García Vasquez's case, despite her many years of experience with the injustices of the U.S. immigration system. "The fact that this happened so quickly--to go from your check-in to find yourself in your country of origin in 13 days--is astounding," she said.

Unfortunately, the Trump administration appears determined to continue its acceleration of the targeting of undocumented people, as the administration's recent assault on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program indicates.

Undocumented workers aren't only at risk of being targeted by the government, but by employers as well. Some employers may feel squeezed by Trump's anti-immigrant agenda, but the more aggressive among them may simply use the new regime as an excuse to escalate anti-immigrant actions in the workplace to discourage organizing, or simply pit workers against one another.

As Sonia Singh writes at Labor Notes, the assault includes: workplace raids by government agents; I-9 audits, during which ICE reviews employer records to make sure all employees have proper documentation; no-match letters, which means the Social Security Administration notifies employers that information on a worker's W-2 doesn't match government records; and E-Verify, an online system to check an employee's eligibility to work, which is required in some states and voluntary in others.

THIS PLACES a responsibility on the labor movement to serve as a first line of defense for undocumented workers. Unions can take collective action to ensure that employers do not cooperate with government officials. Sanctuary resolutions are an important statement of solidarity and anti-racism that educate other workers and the labor movement as a whole, as well as inspire people to fight back.

But how and even whether a resolution's provisions are enforced depends on organization and action.

Since Trump's inauguration, many labor unions around the country have been stepping up to defend their members and fight for immigrant rights. But not all.

The building trades, for example, have generally bowed to Trump, hoping for favors in exchange for their support for his agenda. But as Dave Jamieson writes at HuffPost, other unions--such as those in the service sector--have been acting as "de facto immigrants rights groups advocating for their members."

Last spring, the AAUP-AFT played a pivotal role in keeping Carimer Andujar safe by leading a rally outside the Newark, New Jersey, offices of ICE while Andujar went inside for her annual check-in. "They were well aware of the support I had waiting for me outside," said Andujar, a Rutgers student and DACA recipient, upon her release.

Juan Vivares faced a situation similar to Eber García Vasquez when he reported to ICE offices in lower Manhattan after receiving a deportation order. But Vivares was released due to the mobilizing efforts of his wife's union, 32BJ SEIU, which rallied outside ICE offices, pressured politicians and led a mass call-in to the officer handling Vivares' case.

Several unions have made a concerted effort to provide legal assistance, organize support for immigrant members and their families, and push to negotiate contract language stipulating that employers refuse to cooperate with ICE.

Other unions have secured agreements with employers to notify a shop steward if ICE or the Department of Homeland Security inquires about a worker; to not allow ICE on site without a warrant; and to forego self-audits of their employees' immigration documents unless forced to by federal officials.

UNITE HERE, a union in the hotel and restaurant sector with a large immigrant base, is one of the unions making a push to incorporate immigration safeguards in new contracts, including a provision requiring employers to contribute to an assistance fund for undocumented workers who lose their jobs.

Other unions, such as SEIU Local 275 in Seattle, have conducted workshops in alliance with local immigrants rights groups to educate members about how to respond when confronted by immigration agents.

Teamsters Local 396 in Los Angeles, where immigrants are overrepresented in the sanitation sector, have been able to secure clauses in contracts that include a grace period for workers who need time to deal with immigration officials inquiring about their work papers--so that the workers don't lose their jobs or seniority.

AFSCME Local 3299, which represents 20,000 workers at the University of California, has established an immigration committee that actively fights for sanctuary and other protections for its immigrant membership.

The AFL-CIO recently issued a pamphlet to its member unions that addresses immigration issues in the context of collective bargaining.

TAKEN TOGETHER, these examples indicate that labor has taken some significant steps forward in standing up for the rights of its immigrant members. But, of course, there is still much work to be done.

Defending every member regardless of documentation must become a principle that every rank-and-file worker feels in their bones. Fighting side by side and making every one of our unions a sanctuary for the most vulnerable and oppressed isn't an optional extra, but a prerequisite for rebuilding an effective labor movement.

Ultimately, the best weapon to protect our fellow workers is collective action by rank-and-file organization. We can't rely on lobbying politicians and cutting deals in back rooms with officials.

Whether or not any of these avenues are successful will ultimately be decided by the strength we can leverage through united action that draws together the efforts of as many people as possible who share our objectives. Workplace actions supplemented by citywide rapid response networks that can quickly move substantial resources into action are ideal.

Up until now, the pace and scope of the struggle have been largely determined by the shock waves set off by the Trump administration's actions. Now we must figure out how to move from being largely reactive to advancing our own agenda.

That means confronting arguments put forward by more moderate forces that attempt to win protections only for so-called "good" immigrants. As Rigo Gogol and Alan Maass wrote at, "we want 'protection for all.'" Sanctuary means a place of safety and refuge for those in time of trouble; it either applies to everyone or no one.

As the great revolutionary socialist Eugene Debs once wrote: If socialism "does not stand staunchly, unflinchingly and uncompromisingly for the working class and for the exploited and oppressed masses of all lands, then it stands for none and its claim is a false pretense and its profession a delusion and a snare."

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