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War on immigrants is a war on workers

Anti-union ICE raids

The callous cruelty of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) was on full display when the agency rounded up 680 immigrant workers at seven chicken processing plants across Mississippi on August 7.

The raids, possibly the largest ever, inflicted mayhem on families on the first day of the school year, with the clear goal of instilling terror. News stations filmed children like Magdalena sobbing, “I need my dad! He’s not a criminal!” The dragnet came just four days after the mass shooting in El Paso, Texas, aimed against “Mexicans,” in which a white nationalist killed 22 people.

“Employers are weaponizing…ICE raids against employees who stand up for themselves and their rights as working people…”

The companies that hired the undocumented immigrants did so because their labor was sorely needed. Many of the people who were arrested have lived in their communities for decades. So why were they targeted now? Because they were fighting for their rights as workers.

Punishment for organizing.

It’s no coincidence that two of the raided plants are unionized, with employees belonging to United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW) Local 1529.

UFCW is the largest private-sector union in the country. Mississippi is a so-called “right to work” state, where union membership is optional even for employees covered by collective bargaining agreements. This makes union organizing more difficult. Only 5.1 percent of workers in the state belonged to unions in 2018.

Raids on companies whose employees had made EEOC and OSHA complaints

The sweeps were also meant to send a threatening message to workers organizing against racist and sexist abuse on the job. A little more than a year ago, Latina and Latino employees at the union plant in Morton won a $3.75 million settlement with Koch Foods (not related to the Koch brothers notorious for funding the far right). These workers had fought for eight years against sexual harassment, discrimination based on race and national origin and retaliation against those who lodged complaints. The suit was brought by the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

When outrage was expressed about the timing of the raids, coming as they did right after the El Paso massacre, officials answered that they had been planned for over a year. If true, this puts the start of the “criminal investigation” at the very time the Koch employees won their victory.

In 2016, Koch Foods also paid thousands of dollars in fines to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) for safety violations that severely injured workers.

Additionally, the US Department of Agriculture examined the company between 2010 and 2017 due to complaints that it was using its market power to drive Black farmers out of business.

Another of the companies hit by raids was Peco Foods. In 2012, it settled an employee complaint over forced and unpaid overtime. OSHA fined the company in 2015 for dangerous practices, and has investigated it five more times.

In June 2018, three Fresh Mark meatpacking plants in Ohio also represented by UFCW were raided. One had been cited by OSHA the previous week for safety violations that killed a Latino worker.

Notably, corporations rarely face penalties as a result of these sweeps. So far, the Mississippi businesses have not been charged. Only the workers suffer.

This year’s huge attack on workers in Mississippi is the latest in a long string of anti-immigrant operations meant to sow fear and discourage fights for justice. As Sarah Tucker, executive assistant to the secretary-treasurer of the Washington State Labor Council, put it, “Employers are weaponizing…ICE raids against employees who stand up for themselves and their rights as working people in this country.”

Eroding worker protections

Alongside increasing raids and deportations, labor protections for foreign-born workers are being eroded year by year — as they are for all US workers.

For instance, changes were recently made to two visa programs set up to protect immigrant workers from exploitation. U Visas are for immigrants who suffer sexual assault, domestic violence or mental or physical abuse, including on the job. T Visas are for those who report labor trafficking. These programs have protected people from deportation while their complaints are investigated, with the possibility of permanent residency status being granted to those who apply.

Under a new provision, applications for these visas will no longer be handled by the Labor Department. Instead they will be turned directly over to law enforcement or ICE to determine whether a crime has been committed. Applicants can be deported immediately.

The Trump administration is also trying to decertify the National Association of Immigration Judges, which has condemned the president’s attempts to speed up deportation cases and limit the authority of the courts.

A crucial part of the US working class

Trump and his ruling-class brethren, past and present, gain multiple benefits from the special oppression of immigrants. In the area of sheer money-grubbing, their super-exploitation of newcomers means that they are able to hold down wages and conditions for all workers. Then, by scapegoating immigrants for the hardships and insecurity native-born workers face, they divide the working class against itself and sap its power, just as they do with sexism, racism, etc.

Moreover, the powers-that-be are threatened by the historically militant role of immigrants. This has been clear from the earliest days of the US labor movement, when European refugees fleeing poverty and persecution formed the backbone of radical organizations. Today immigrants and refugees from Latin America and elsewhere lead fights by janitors, hotel workers, nurses, restaurant employees, and many others in both the public and private sectors.

It is in the interest of all workers to stand in solidarity with their immigrant sisters and brothers, who bring much-needed vibrancy to a US labor movement overdue for revitalization.

It is heartening that in many cases immigrant workers are finding broad support. In Mississippi, for example, unions are defending their members, and community organizations are mobilizing to help the victims of the raids. Donations are being solicited by United Latinos of the UFCW and the Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance on their Facebook pages. Statements of support have poured in from labor organizations including the AFL-CIO, Painters Union, Teamsters, Communication Workers of America, National Education Association and the Federation of American Teachers.

Hopefully, actions like these will turn out to be steps in building the aggressive defense of immigrant workers that, at its core, is crucial for the defense of every worker.

Megan Cornish writes and edits for the Freedom Socialist in Seattle. She is co-author of Viva la Raza: A History of Chicano Identity and Resistance Reprinted with permission from Freedom Socialist news, Sept-Oct 2019. Este artículo, “Redadas de ICE contra sindicatos,” disponible en español en socialism.com/fs-en-espanol.

 

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