Feds Crack Down on Immigrant Labor Organizers

RED SPRINGS, North Carolina -- To organizer Eduardo Peña, "the raid was like a nuclear bomb" -- more precisely, a neutron bomb, that ingenious weapon of the Cold War whose radiation was meant to kill a city's residents but leave its buildings standing. After the immigration raid of January 24 at the Smithfield pork slaughtering plant in Tar Heel, North Carolina, the factory was still intact, the machinery of the production lines ready to clank and clatter into its normal motion. But many workers were gone, and much of the plant lay still.

That day the migra (agents of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, part of the Homeland Security Department) picked up 21 people, while trying not to alert the rest of the plant's laborers. One by one, supervisors went to Mexicans on the line. You're needed in the front office, they'd say. The workers would put down their knives, take off their gloves, and walk through the cavernous building to the human resources department. There ICE agents took them into custody, put them in handcuffs, and locked them up in a temporary detention area. Later, they were taken out in vans and sent to immigration jails as far away as Georgia.

"To keep people from guessing what was up," says Keith Ludlum, one of the few white workers on the production floor, "they also called up African Americans and whites, and told them they had to take drug tests. If they'd only called Latinos, people would have known what was happening." If word had gotten out, hundreds of workers would undoubtedly have run from the lines. Valuable meat would have been left to spoil -- a day's production lost. In a plant where 5,500 people slaughter and cut apart 32,000 hogs a day, that's a lot of money. Keeping the raid secret meant workers worked to the end of their shift and Smithfield got its product out.

Eventually the truth came out, however. Parents didn't show up to collect their kids. "A friend called me at nine or ten that night, and told me someone from my town hadn't come home," recalls Pedro Mendez. "That's when we knew what had happened. I couldn't sleep that night, knowing my friends had been picked up. I worried about my own family."

While Mendez laid awake, word spread to employees of QSI, the company Smithfield contracts to clean the blood and gore off the machinery after midnight. Afraid the migra might still be in the plant, the cleaning crew didn't show up for their shift. U.S. Department of Agriculture inspectors won't allow the lines to start in the morning if they haven't been hosed down the night before, so the few production workers who came to work the next day saw the kill floor taped off with yellow plastic barriers. With no freshly killed hogs on the hooks, the rest of the plant had nothing to do.

The raid's shock waves swept outwards from the factory through the barrios of the small Southern towns around it, leaving behind children missing mothers or fathers. Parents were afraid to go to work or send their kids to school. The terror it inspired dealt a body blow to the plant's union organizing drive as well, just when it was making real progress: Overcoming ten years of lost elections and Smithfield's hardball anti-union campaigns, workers were just beginning to lose their fear. Fired employees had been rehired after years of court appeals. Union supporters were discovering that collective action on the line could actually make conditions better. That rising consciousness was the raid's biggest casualty.

Indeed, according to many workers, those organizing efforts, and not the 21 detained workers, were the real target of the raid. Mark Lauritsen, packinghouse director for the United Food and Commercial Workers, says the Department of Homeland Security and the company "were worried about people organizing a union, and the government said, 'here are the tools to take care of them.'"

Smithfield isn't alone. Workplaces with union contracts or organizing drives have been hit by a wave of immigration enforcement over the last year. At the CINTAS industrial laundry chain, 400 workers were picked up for deportation from multiple plants during a national drive by the hotel union UNITE HERE. In the Woodfin Suites hotel in Emeryville, California, managers terminated workers for allegedly being undocumented, after they tried to enforce the city's living wage ordinance.

Congress today is poised to give the government and employers even more such tools for immigration enforcement -- tools that could also damage efforts to organize unions, enforce labor standards or simply fight for workers' rights. The STRIVE Act, for instance, introduced into the House by Illinois Democrat Luís Gutierrez and Arizona Republican Jeff Flake this February, contains provisions that would make workplace raids more common, and the penalties against undocumented workers more draconian.

In a Washington, D.C. press conference following raids on the Swift and Co. meatpacking plants in November, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff told reporters they would show Congress the need for "stronger border security, effective interior enforcement and a temporary-worker program.'' Bush wants, he said, "a program that would allow businesses that need foreign workers, because they can't otherwise satisfy their labor needs, to be able to get those workers in a regulated program."

The events at Smithfield are a window into that future.

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Smithfield has been trying to block union organizing in Tar Heel for years. In 1994 and 1997, Smithfield workers voted in two union representation elections, both lost by the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW). Management used such extensive intimidation tactics that the votes were thrown out by the National Labor Relations Board. This year QSI settled NLRB charges with that it had threatened workers with arrest by immigration authorities to dampen union activity.

Smithfield workers are up against not just a hostile management, but also a political system that backs the company up. In 1997 the head of plant security, Danny Priest, told local sheriffs he expected violence on election day. Police in riot gear then lined the walkway into the slaughterhouse, and workers had to walk past them to cast their ballots. At the end of the vote count, union activist Ray Shawn was beaten up inside the plant. Three years later Priest became an auxiliary deputy sheriff, and plant security officers were given the power to arrest and detain people at work. The company maintained a holding area for detainees in a trailer on the property, which workers called the company jail. (Smithfield gave up its deputized force and detention center in 2005.)

In 2003 QSI contract workers finally challenged this atmosphere of fear. According to Julio Vargas, who worked for the company at the time, "the wages were very low and we had no medical insurance. When people got hurt, after being taken to the office they made them go back to work and wear pink helmets [to humiliate them]. We were fed up." Led by Vargas, the cleaning crew refused to go in to work. "We started talking to people as they arrived. Those who were in agreement stopped the other workers on their line."

The company negotiated, and workers won concessions. The next week, however, those identified as ringleaders lost their jobs. "They fired me because they thought I was one of the organizers," Vargas recalls. "And I was." (Another of those fired in 1994 was Keith Ludlum; last year the NLRB did force Smithfield to rehire him and and pay $1.1 million to workers fired for union activity. Though it was a victory for the union, for Ludlum's coworkers on the line, the lesson was that Smithfield lawyers kept a union supporter out of work for over a decade, in violation of federal law.)

Despite the firings, UFCW organizers understood the importance of that work stoppage: They knew the government couldn't and wouldn't guarantee an election free of union busters, labor law violations, and intimidation, and they realized they would have to organize workers in different ways. Today the UFCW supports the Employee Free Choice Act, which would increase penalties for companies who fire workers for union activity and make it easier to organize. Until the law is changed, however, like most unions it seeks ways to organize workers without labor board elections. Justice for Janitors or the United Farm Workers' grape boycott have become models for this kind of non-NLRB strategy.

Three years ago the UFCW hired Peña and other experienced organizers to develop a similar plan. The union set up a workers' center in nearby Red Springs, holding classes in English and labor rights. "This has not been a traditional campaign," explains Peña. "We're not going to give the company a chance to use union busters. We're asking workers to take direct action on the plant floor to improve their own conditions." Vargas and other fired workers went to work for the union, helping organize discontent over high line speed and its human cost in workplace injuries.

Their non-NLRB strategy requires much more from supporters than just signing a union authorization card, voting on election day, or even going to a few meetings. People have to lose enough of their fear to show open support, to circulate petitions demanding changes, and to form delegations confronting supervisors and managers. At Smithfield, workers even stopped production lines to get the company to talk with them about health and safety problems.

Immigration status itself became an issue for collective action. Last spring, as immigrant protests spread across the country, 300 Smithfield workers stayed out of work on April 10, the first day of national demonstrations. Instead they marched through the streets of Wilmington.

Then, on May 1, when immigrants from Los Angeles to New York boycotted their jobs on May Day, Smithfield workers paraded with thousands of Latinos in Lumberton, North Carolina. Most of the plant's immigrant workers were used to the idea of demonstrating on May Day, a working-class holiday in their countries of origin. According to Gene Bruskin, director of the UFCW's Justice at Smithfield campaign, "the company tried to convince them to come to work, saying it would provide a place to write letters to Congress urging immigration reform. But when May Day arrived, only a skeleton crew showed up for work." Smithfield took no action against those who were absent.

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Company representatives declined to be interviewed for this article. But it's not hard to imagine that managers might have looked at the marches and the rising wave of collective activity with trepidation. In late spring or early summer Smithfield enrolled in the IMAGE program -- the ICE Mutual Agreement between Government and Employers. A July 26 press release from the Department of Homeland Security calls IMAGE a program "designed to build cooperative relationships between government and businesses to strengthen hiring practices and reduce the unlawful employment of illegal aliens." Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff says the government "must partner with employers, educate them and provide them with the tools they need to develop a stable, legal workforce."

The program requires employers to verify the immigration status of all employees, checking their documents against the ICE database. Employers must "establish protocols for responding to no-match letters from the Social Security Administration," and "establish a tip line for employees to report violations and mechanisms for companies to self-report violations to ICE." Peña says bitterly, "they saw an opportunity. With the organizing going on, they knew they could use it. They may not have expected the loss [the day after the raid], but it was probably worth it. They achieved their goal."

The IMAGE and other ICE workplace programs are designed to enforce employer sanctions, a provision of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act that prohibits employers from hiring undocumented workers. In reality, the law makes it a federal crime for someone without immigration papers to work: In the long record of enforcement actions over the last 20 years, few employers have ever paid fines, much less gone to jail for violations; thousands of workers, however, have lost their jobs.

Smithfield workers saw the first effects of cooperation between ICE and their employer on October 30, 2006. The human resources department sent letters to hundreds, saying the Social Security numbers they'd provided when they were hired didn't match the Social Security Administration database. The letters gave people 15 days to supply valid numbers, and said they'd be terminated if they didn't.

"Human resources called me on November 8," says Pedro Mendez, a worker whose name has been changed to protect him, "and said my Social Security number was bad. I told them I'd been working for nine years with that number, and asked them why they'd never said anything about it before. They knew I couldn't verify it, and they fired me the same day. They called security to throw me out of the plant. It was very humiliating."

Mendez asked to see a copy of the no-match letter from SSA listing his name, and says they refused to show it to him. If the company did have such a letter, it would have contained a paragraph cautioning Smithfield not to construe a discrepancy in numbers as evidence of lack of immigration status. Labor and immigrant-rights activists forced the SSA to include this crucial paragraph a decade ago. Employers are required only to advise workers they've received the notice.

SSA writes to thousands of businesses every year, listing the names of hundreds of thousands of people whose numbers don't jibe. A worker's Social Security number might not match government records for many reasons -- the government's database is notoriously full of errors. But millions of people in the United States without immigration documents have had to use a nonexistent number, or one that belongs to another person, to get a job. So despite the letter's warning, the government uses no-match letters as a form of immigration law enforcement.

Last fall, the Bush administration proposed a new regulation to make termination mandatory for anyone listed in a no-match letter. Bush's proposed regulation is also contained in the recently introduced STRIVE Act. Both Bush and the Act also call for criminal penalties for people using false Social Security numbers to get jobs, and would require employers to check job applicants against a new federal database. To implement these measures, all people in the U.S. would have to carry some form of national ID.

The STRIVE Act also links increased enforcement to proposals for guest workers, contract workers recruited to come to the U.S. by employers. About 400,000 workers each year would be given visas requiring them to remain employed in order to stay in the country. Even current undocumented immigrants would have to sign up for temporary-visa schemes. These guest worker programs have been pushed since the late 1990s by the Essential Worker Immigration Coalition, an association of the 40 largest manufacturing and trade groups in the US, which includes the American Meat Institute. Smithfield belongs to the AMI.

Current guest worker programs, like the bracero program begun in the 1950s, have been widely condemned for abusing and exploiting immigrants. The immigration reform proposals now in Congress, therefore, depend on sanctions, no-match letters and workplace raids to force guest workers to stay in them. Without such increased enforcement, people unhappy with abuse might be tempted to walk away.

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Of course, it's not as though current law offers much protection for immigrant workers. Employers aren't supposed to use no-match letters and document checks to punish workers for demanding their rights. Marielena Hincapie, staff attorney for the National Immigration Law Center, even says the practice violates section 274-B of the Immigration and Nationality Act.

But what saved Pedro Mendez' job wasn't the law, but the collective action organizers kept pushing. "On November 13 [2006] the time given workers to come up with new numbers started to expire," recalls Peña. "By that time, a couple of hundred people had received letters. Over 30 were escorted out of the plant, and those still at work could see new workers hired to replace them. Many felt they had nothing to lose. On Thursday [November 16] they walked out."

Taken by surprise, supervisors and even corporate Vice-president Larry Johnson tried to talk people into going back to work. None did. That evening a group of workers met at a local hotel, and came up with a list of demands. "They decided to stick to the issue of immigration," Peña says. "Their idea was to go back in with something that would protect them, and show other workers the power of collective action."

At the request of the workers, representatives of the local Catholic diocese met with the company the following day, and Smithfield agreed to a 60-day extension, to rehire those already terminated, and not to retaliate against anyone. Mendez was among those rehired. "Even the English-speaking workers were excited by what had happened," Peña remembers. "It's hard to imagine how empowered people felt. This wasn't some leaflet, it was the real thing."

In December, however, ICE carried out raids at five Swift and Co. plants, detaining over a thousand workers for deportation. Meatpacking workers in companies like Smithfield began to fear the same fate. Nevertheless, the feeling of collective strength in the plant was still high. African American union supporters at Smithfield, where the workforce is about half Latino, 40 percent African American, and 10 percent white and Native American, asked the company to give employees the day off on the birthday of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

The week before the proposed holiday, a delegation of workers went to the human resources office, bearing petitions with the signatures of 4,000 people. Peña says Johnson refused to accept them, arguing the company couldn't cancel the lunch trucks contracted to sell food to workers.

Despite the refusal, about 400 workers from the first shift didn't come to work on King's birthday. Bruskin says this slowed down the livestock-handling department, where the animals are first taken into the plant, an area where African Americans are concentrated. The same thing happened on the second shift, he says, although the company disputes this in at article in an industry newsletter, Meatpacking.com.

Nine days after the January 15 action ICE agents came out to the plant. According to Meatingplace.com, ICE gave the company notice of the raid the day before. Agents arrived with a list of workers, and company supervisors escorted them to the room where the migra was waiting. "We didn't want to do anything to upset our employees," Smithfield spokesperson Dennis Pittman told Meatingplace.com reporter Tom Johnston. Later the company announced it would run the plant the following Saturday, to make up for the production lost the day after the raid. Keith Ludlum says he heard the company on the radio on Thursday, asking people to come back to work.

The no-match terminations and the immigration raid made workers feel insecure and fearful for their jobs, without any need for Smithfield to violate the National Labor Relations Act. "People are very scared now," says Julio Vargas. "They're afraid of more raids, and more checks of Social Security numbers. People with ten years at work are thinking of quitting. It's hard to get them to come to meetings now."

According to Vargas, people see immigration enforcement as a kind of reprisal. "They think it's happening because people were getting organized," he says. To Ludlum, "it totally set us back. We spent a lot of time educating people, and now they're getting rid of lots of them."

According to Peña, "it takes years of convincing, of educating people, to develop this kind of trust and activity. The union has become part of the community, and backs up what workers want to do. People went from feeling they had no rights to looking their foremen in the eye. Immigrants in particular were taking bolder actions even than citizens."

The raids and firings hit at the heart of this effort. "Now people are concerned about basic survival," he says. "The message they've gotten is that they're nothing. They can be taken from their families, arrested and deported at any time. They wonder who will take care of their kids if the government comes for them. It's hard to think about workplace injuries if that's the big question on your mind."

The union, however, is turning the tables, and using the violation of workers' rights to mobilize customer pressure against Smithfield. Bruskin and a crew of community organizers have focused on the Harris Teeter store chain, collecting thousands of signatures on petitions asking managers to find another pork supplier. At the end of March, religious and human rights leaders demonstrated outside 24 Harris Teeter stores across North and South Carolina, Virginia. and Tennessee. The union and the North Carolina Council of Churches HAVE also asked the Food Network's Paula Deen, noted cook of Southern cuisine, to sever her relationship as a Smithfield spokesperson.

"We'll get there," Peña vows. "We'll finish this."

Meanwhile, in the plant and the small communities around it, rebuilding will take time and patience. Those who have lost their jobs have to find a way to survive. In February Pedro Mendez was fired for the second and final time. Since his termination, he and his three children, Hector, Adan and Eva, all depend on the income of his wife, who's still working. "It's very hard now to support our family," he says, "and I worry about our future. The law is very hard here."

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