January 19, 2001

Illegal but fighting for rights

No longer cowering in the shadows, America's undocumented workers are taking their grievances to court and even joining unions

By Margot Roosevelt

January 15, 2001 _ At first glance, the news seems routine. Four hundred delivery-men in Manhattan join a labor union and win $3 million in back pay. What's unusual is that the workers, predominantly from West Africa, are all undocumented. And, even more remarkable, these illegal immigrants, given lax immigration enforcement, have little reason to fear deportation. Indeed, one of them, Siaka Diakite, an Ivory Coast native, is now pictured in a widely distributed color brochure put out by the AFL-CIO. Says Charles Batchli, a plaintiff from the Congo: "It didn't matter who we were. We are human beings first. The question was, Were we taken advantage of?"

The derailment last week of Linda Chavez's nomination as Labor Secretary refocused attention on the unlawfulness of harboring or employing illegal immigrants. But the latest story from America's underground work force has come through in lawsuits across the nation in recent years: that once hired, such workers are entitled to legal protection from abuse. Marta Mercado, the Guatemalan who received some $1,500 from Chavez over two years and did chores for her, has no complaints about her treatment. But many undocumented laborers, whose illegal status makes them vulnerable to exploitation, do.

Today, openly, even defiantly, these workers are clamoring to assert their rights under U.S. labor and civil rights laws. They are joining the unions that once stigmatized them as a threat to American jobs. And they are gaining allies within the American establishment. No institution is defending them more eagerly than Big Labor, which in the past lobbied for criminalizing their employment and supported raids that resulted in mass deportations. "We don't care about green cards," says Doug Dority, head of the 1.4 million-member United Food and Commercial Workers International Union. "We care about union cards."

This sudden embrace is a matter of practical demographics. With the shrinking of unionized manufacturing, the labor movement has lost members—and political clout. Now focusing on the growing service sector, unions see immigrants, including the estimated 5 million to 6 million undocumented workers, as a rich source of new constituents. The bulk of the illegal ones are Latinos, who are joining unions at twice the rate of Caucasians.

The AFL-CIO, led by president John Sweeney, has poured resources into organizing efforts heavily focused on immigrants, such as the ongoing campaign by the United Farm Workers to sign up strawberry pickers in California, and the Service Employees International Union's successful drive to enroll 74,000 Los Angeles home-care workers, many of them undocumented. Last year the AFL-CIO reversed its longtime support of sanctions against employers who hire illegal immigrants and called for an amnesty that would give legal residency to millions of such aliens who are already here. It added that "courageous undocumented workers who come forward to assert their rights should not be faced with deportation."

In fact, relatively few illegal immigrants are rounded up at workplaces these days. With the economy booming—at least until very recently—and with unemployment down, the motivation for raids has declined; undocumented workers are performing tasks no one else will take on. The Immigration and Naturalization Service spends most of its money patrolling the border. Inside the U.S., enforcement is shifting from factory busts to deportation of criminal aliens. The INS could catch illegals by closely examining their false Social Security numbers and IDs, be they borrowed, stolen or invented. But the agency doesn't have the manpower, and the IRS and Social Security Administration won't cooperate on privacy grounds.

And when the INS does try to enforce the law in the workplace, it can incur powerful opposition. Take Operation Vanguard, launched in September 1998 to target the undocumented workers on whom the Nebraska meat-packing industry relies. The agency subpoenaed the records of slaughterhouses and informed the factories that it would interview 4,762 employees—a fifth of the state's meat packers—about discrepancies in their documents.

Illegal workers, predictably, fled before the INS showed up, and factory owners, facing a labor shortage, squawked. With ranchers claiming a loss to the state's economy of $20 million over eight months, local politicians attacked the operation, and the INS backed down. A task force appointed by Governor Mike Johanns endorsed a broad amnesty for undocumented workers, and a year and a half passed before INS agents showed up again. Last month they raided Nebraska Beef in Omaha, charged managers with criminal smuggling and expelled 212 Mexican aliens. Within two weeks, though, the workers were trickling back.

The threat of an INS bust has become a weapon in the arsenal of antiunion employers. When undocumented Latina chambermaids at the Holiday Inn Express in Minneapolis, Minn., voted to join the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union last year, management called in the INS, and they were hauled off to jail. But the union posted their bonds, the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission launched an investigation, and the hotel agreed to pay a $72,000 settlement. The INS, which had at first threatened to deport the illegal maids, agreed to let seven of the eight remain in the U.S. "Companies across America love illegal aliens until they get uppity and ask for a few more cents," said Michael Moore, the activist filmmaker, who used an Internet appeal to pressure the INS for leniency in the case.

More often, employer threats to call in the INS have a chilling effect on organizing. The Smithfield Packing Co. in Tar Heel, N.C., the world's largest pork-processing plant, fought off a 1997 union drive by firing labor activists and calling in sheriff's deputies to patrol the parking lot on election day—an intimidating sight to undocumented employees. Last month, in a case brought by the union to the National Labor Relations Board, a judge found that Smithfield managers had committed "egregious and pervasive" labor-law violations by claiming that the union would turn employees in to the INS. The judge ordered a new election, but the company says it will appeal.

Other companies have tried various countermeasures. In California's strawberry fields, where illegals form an estimated 60% of the work force, growers backed a company-friendly union in order to fend off the more militant United Farm Workers. The U.F.W., which had hoped to organize 20,000 pickers, has managed to enroll only 850 in five years. In Baltimore, Md., a laundry company sent a message to its largely undocumented work force by trucking in manure and dumping it at the feet of union leafleteers.

But despite such bullying, undocumented workers in a growing number of cases are taking their grievances public and finding powerful allies in the process. During their first campaign in 1994, striking Los Angeles janitors, a majority of whom are undocumented Latinos, blocked traffic and were attacked by baton-wielding police officers. Last spring they marched with impunity, and after Roger Cardinal Mahony and Mayor Richard Riordan cajoled building contractors during the three-week strike, they won hefty raises. When you have church and state on your side, it's clear you're getting somewhere.

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