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By David Bacon

LOS ANGELES (10/17/99) - While union leaders from around the country met at the AFL-CIO convention inside the cavernous Los Angeles Convention Center, a group of painters stood around outside, talking about the gathering's hottest issue - immigration.

One organizer from the San Fernando Valley thought that current immigration law wasn't being enforced strictly enough, especially the employer sanctions which make it illegal for undocumented workers to hold a job, and for employers to hire them.

"Unless the enforcement of these laws is implemented, the underground economy and the abuse of these workers is going to continue," he said. "[Undocumented immigration] decreases our industry, it brings our industry down. These workers are working around lead and other toxic chemicals they're not trained to handle, they're working in our city schools contaminating our children."

A second organizer next to him disagreed. "They're just here to make a living. We're not here to discriminate against anybody doing that," he declared. He called the undocumented hard workers -- "They just want what America has to offer. We should try to get justice for them, a more open door policy so they can come in. They're going to be a positive addition for America."

In southern California, the painters union has about 3000 members, but another 9000 painters - the vast majority immigrants - are unorganized. In one of their union's recent organizing drives, the organizers said, undocumented workers were called at home by their boss and threatened with deportation if they supported the union.

This small discussion about how, and even whether, to organize immigrant workers goes on all the time, and not just in California or among painters. Unions across the country are trying to decide whether undocumented immigrants are a threat or are potential union members.

This year the debate finally hit the floor of the AFL-CIO convention. It marked the first time since 1986, when it supported passage of the Immigration Reform and Control Act, that the federation has debated the contentious issue. But this time, instead of seeing immigrants as a problem, it was clear that unions have begun seeing them as the solution. "For immigrants to build a better future, they need to build a union," said Eliseo Medina, an immigrant from Zacatecas who went on become a leading organizer for the United Farm Workers, and now the Service Employees union. "But I am also convinced that as the labor movement is the best hope for immigrants, so are immigrants the best hope of the labor movement."

It's not hard to understand why he and others take that view. Unions represent about 14% of U.S. workers today, down from 35% in the early 1950s. To maintain that percentage, given the growth of the workforce and structural changes which eliminate many jobs, unions have to organize 400,000 workers a year. Last year, unions organized 475,000 workers recording positive growth for the first time in decades, although not by much. To grow by just one percent, they have to organize 800,000 people. And the AFL-CIO's organizing director, Kirk Adams, says that they really need a million workers in the pipeline "partly because we need to grow, but also because of the noise that creates."

Where are those organizing drives going to come from? Who is it, in the modern American workforce, that actively wants to be organized?

Immigrant workers are at least part of the answer to a growing number of unions. In fact, the history of labor organizing over the last decade in Los Angeles, where the convention met this year, is largely the story of immigrant workers organizing against heavy odds. Immigrant janitors defied police beatings in Century City in 1989, recovering union contracts for SEIU Local 1877 in the city's office buildings. Immigrant workers in Local 11 have made the Hotel Employees one of the strongest unions in the city. Carpenters, harbor truckers, garment workers, factory hands, and tortilla drivers have all staged pivotal strikes and organizing drives. Day laborers, domestics and gardeners have built independent organizations, even in the absence of labor law protection and support from local unions.

In the floor debate at the convention, hotel union president John Wilhelm called Los Angeles "the capital of immigrant workers." But LA is hardly an isolated case. The labor upsurge among immigrant workers has become a national phenomenon.

The federation now confronts the reality, however, that the law it supported in 1986 has made it harder for unions to organize and represent immigrants, not easier. Finally, a rising tide of labor opinion says that support was wrong. This summer, beginning in California, labor councils and local unions began passing a resolution calling for the repeal of employer sanctions.

While the resolution won support easily in most councils, it was still opposed in some, especially by officials of the United Food and Commercial Workers. Sean Harrigan, UFCW regional director in the San Francisco Bay Area, told the LA Times "we just didn't think it was in the best interest of our members." His point of view, however, was not universally shared, even among Bay Area UFCW locals, many of whom supported it strongly.

The resolution spread to Oregon, Washington, and New York. International unions began debating it. When it finally hit the convention floor on October 12, national union leaders joined in the call for repeal. Arturo Rodriguez, president of the United Farm Workers, listed a long series of examples, in which sanctions were enforced in order to break union organizing drives, or led to mass firings among already-organized workers. At the Bear Creek Production Company, the world's largest rose grower in California's Central Valley, 15% of the firm's 1000 UFW members were fired after the INS came in to review their documents.

"These are not workers who came here yesterday," he recounted bitterly to delegates. "These are workers that have been here 15, 20, 25 years, have houses, have families, are in the educational system, have paid taxes all these years, are members of their communities. They asked them to demonstrate their status in this country. And then they were evicted and lost their jobs."

Delegates didn't have to go far to find similar incidents. In fact, within blocks of the convention center, workers at a small office furniture plant had a similar experience with the use of employer sanction by their employer, Mike Cruz. The 70 employees at his RCR Classic Designs furniture factory on Avalon Boulevard voted for the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees by a 33-21 margin last August. After that, workers started getting called into the office. RCR workers came to the convention, and spoke out about their experience.

"The secretary told me I had to show my green card, along with my ID and Social Security," says Salvador Ruiz, a union activist at RCR. "I refused. I gave her my address and telephone number, and told her I didn't think what she was asking for was legal."

Other workers in the factory, however, weren't so brave. "They were very afraid to organize and support the union because of this," according to Dolores Alcala, another union supporter.

The company's demands, which it made of every RCR employee, couldn't have come at a worse time. Following the union election, workers put together a proposal for the wage increases and other improvements they hoped for in a union contract. Then they began trying to use their organized strength to get Cruz to bargain.

But after the company started demanding that workers reverify their immigration status, union support dropped dramatically. "Now people won't meet with us," Ruiz says. In the meantime, negotiations have started. "I was in the first meeting, and we couldn't agree on anything."

It's a simple equation. If workers can't pressure the company to raise wages above the $7-8/hour Ruiz, Alcala and their friends are earning, Cruz' profits won't suffer much, even with a union in the plant.

"I see immigration law the same way I did when I first started as an organizer," says UNITE regional manager Cristina Vasquez, who came up out of LA's garment shops two decades ago. "It's a tool of the employers. They're able to use immigration law as a weapon to keep workers unorganized, and the INS has helped them use it."

It's not as though immigrant workers, including those without papers, have been unwilling to organize. The RCR union drive was preceded by a 3-day work stoppage last May to get Cruz to boost their wages. "He wouldn't even come out to talk to us, or give us an across-the-board increase," recalls Ruiz. "So we could see we needed a union."

Once UNITE petitioned for the election, Cruz began conducting mandatory meetings and showing anti-union videos three times a week. That didn't faze the workers either, and the union won with strong support. Their movement didn't begin to waver until RCR began asking for papers.

"This was my first job after coming here from Colima, 17 years ago," Ruiz recalls. "No one ever asked me for papers then. They didn't care until now."

Cruz didn't return phone calls asking for his side of this story. Inside the convention center, speakers emphasized that the demographics of the U.S. workplace have changed dramatically, with tens of millions of immigrant workers in industries as diverse as meatpacking, manufacturing, healthcare and construction. If the intention of employer sanctions was to reduce undocumented immigration, they've clearly failed, said Wilhelm.

Further, he declared, his own union's support for them in 1986 was a big mistake: "Those who came before us, who built this labor movement in the great depression, in strikes in rubber and steel and hotels, they didn't say 'Let me see your papers' to the workers in those industries. They said, 'Which side are you on?' And immigrant workers today have the right to ask of us the same question. Which side are we on?" The convention erupted in applause.

Frank Hurt, president of the Bakery, Confectionary, and Tobacco Workers, who chaired the committee in 1986 which recommended supporting IRCA, admitted the immigration law and enforcement policies had not protected workers' rights. "Instead, they arm employers with additional weapons," he said, "often wielded with governmental complicity...They pit worker against worker, ally against friend, driving wedges between us when we should stand united."

And despite the statements of local UFCW officials, even Joe Hansen, the union's national secretary-treasurer, agreed that "current immigration laws and current immigration policies just do not work."

The impact of the enforcement of employer sanctions on unions and workers is growing even more acute, because the Clinton administration has chosen to make the workplace the focus of immigration law enforcement. According to INS Commissioner Doris Meissner, "work is the incentive that brings illegal immigrants into our country." Preventing workers from entering the U.S. without visas, therefore, depends on removing them from the workplace. This new INS strategy is called "interior enforcement" - enforcing immigration law away from the border.

The enforcement of employer sanctions rests on a provision of the law which requires employers to collect information about the immigration status of all their employees, and have them fill out an I-9 form verifying it.

In meetings with the union, RCR, for instance claimed its interviews were required to reverify the information on the forms, although workers say they've never seen any request from the INS.

Verifying I-9 information has become a major INS preoccupation nationally. In Washington state in March, after checking I-9 forms, the INS questioned the legal status of 1700 workers in 13 apple packing houses, and over 500 were eventually fired at its demand. For three years those Yakima Valley sheds have been the focus of an industry-wide organizing drive by the Teamsters Union. According to lead organizer Lorraine Scheer, mass firings swept up many rank-and-file leaders and created an atmosphere of terror, intimidating documented and undocumented alike.

The firings came on the heels of widespread employer threats of immigration raids. The Stemilt Fruit Company told workers that union support would bring on deportations. According to one employee, Mary Mendez, Stemilt's anti-union consultant told workers that "there hasn't been a union here yet, and the INS hasn't done any raids. But with a union, the INS is going to be around."

In the San Francisco Bay Area, two major janitorial contractors were targeted for similar checks, and about 500 members of SEIU Local 1877 lost their jobs. The local is a key to negotiating the first national janitorial contract campaign in the year 2000. The I-9 checks removed many leaders the union needed for the drive.

The INS workplace enforcement program also depends heavily on a new set of relationships with other government agencies. An agreement with the Department of Labor, for instance, requires federal inspectors looking for violations of minimum wage and overtime laws to also thumb through the I-9 forms, looking for discrepancies which could lead to deportations.

In Los Angeles the INS initiated a series of raids in garment sweatshops two years ago, called Operation Buttonhole, in response to information from DoL inspectors. Similar raids followed a campaign by the Korean Immigrant Workers Association to enforce wage and hour laws in L.A.'s Korean restaurants.

In September of last year, the Yale Law School Workers Rights Project and the American Civil Liberties Union filed charges under NAFTA's labor side agreement against DoL/INS cooperation. Federal law establishes mandatory minimum wage and overtime protections for all workers, regardless of immigration status. Embarassed by the NAFTA complaint, the administration then drafted new rules for cooperation. But while retaliatory raids against workers who file complaints are now barred, DoL inspectors still turn immigration information over to the INS.

An even hotter controversy erupted over similar efforts by the Social Security Administration. Over the last year, employers have been flooded with "no match" letters from SSA, in which the agency lists workers whose numbers don't match its database. Many employers view the list as evidence that workers have no legal immigration status.

That has provided another pretext for firings. In Sacramento, Local 1877 alleges local contractors used "no match" letters to terminate high-seniority workers, in order to avoid paying them costly new medical benefits. In New York and New Jersey, thousands of immigrant asbestos removal workers organized their industry, and revitalized the Laborers Union, three years ago. Last year, contractors sent the union a "no match" list of workers, including the leaders of the union drive, they would no longer accept from the union hiring hall.

Another Laborers Union drive, at New Jersey's KTI Recycling Co., was lost after the employer distributed a "no match" list to workers. The National Labor Relations Board eventually threw out the election because of the employer's illegal conduct. But according to William Gould, past NLRB chair, "there is a basic conflict" between workers' rights under the National Labor Relations Act, and workplace enforcement of immigration law.

The Los Angeles INS district is now "very active," according to District Director Thomas Shiltgen, in a Worker Exploitation Taskforce, in which INS agents share information with agents from DoL, along with the Internal Revenue Service, the state Department of Insurance, and even the federal Bureau of Land Management. Shiltgen credits the taskforce with filing criminal charges against two employers, Vanessen Ranch and Fulver Ranch, over illegal working conditions and immigration law violations. Those workers who have no immigration papers, however, are protected from exploitation by getting fired from their jobs.

The most ambitious INS enforcement program so far, Operation Vanguard, has concentrated on the meatpacking industry in Nebraska. There the INS took charge of the personnel records of every meatpacking plant in the state, and in three Iowa counties. Concentrating on forty plants with a workforce of 24,310 people, they sifted out 4,762 names. Then the INS sent lists of names to each company, and a letter to every worker, requiring them to come in for interviews.

About a thousand of those who received the letters actually showed up. Only 34 actually lacked legal immigration papers and were deported. The remainder were released. Nevertheless, the INS has declared the operation an initial success, estimating that those who failed to report either quit because of normal turnover, or were undocumented and left. Repeated checks every 60 days will keep undocumented workers from returning to their old jobs or finding new ones in other plants.

According to Mark Nemitz, president of Local 440 of the United Food and Commercial Workers at the Farmland pork plant in Denison, Iowa, dozens of local families left their homes during the week of the interviews. They camped out in the county park twelve miles outside this small town, fearing the INS would pick them up for deportation.

While the INS and SSA are sparring over the operation's continued use of Social Security numbers, the INS intends to make Operation Vanguard a national program in every industry where undocumented immigrants are concentrated. "We will clean up one industry and turn the [jobs] magnet down a bit," says INS Regional Director Mark Reed, "and then go on to another industry, and another, and another."

The potential impact of Operation Vanguard on the millions of undocumented workers employed in cities like Los Angeles, New York, Chicago and Houston would be enormous, making union drives among those workers virtually impossible. In Omaha, the Omaha Together One Community campaign to organize workers in non-union packinghouses lost 20 of its 22 in-plant leaders in Operation Vanguard's wake.

Even more threatening to unions and immigrant rights groups, however, is the intention of the INS to use Operation Vanguard to push for an expanded guestworker program. Reed says Operation Vanguard will cut off the supply of undocumented workers to those industries dependent on their labor, provoking a political outcry for a new program to bring contract workers into the U.S. The last U.S. experiment with contract immigrant labor, the bracero program of the 1940s and 50s, was described as "legalized slavery" by its own former administrator Lee G. Williams. By their nature, contract labor programs give employers not only the power to fire workers, but in effect the power to deport them as well.

Efforts by employers and the INS to regulate the supply of immigrant labor are certain to be met with fierce opposition from unions, however. As was clear at the AFL-CIO convention, many have begun to see immigrant workers as the key to their survival, convincing them that the century-old hostility towards immigrants by the conservative wing of the labor movement must be reversed.

Miguel Contreras, secretary of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, the country's largest labor council, says labor has an enormous stake around immigration, as the base of the LA economy shifts. "We used to have one local alone in Burbank with 30,000 members," he recalled, referring to the Machinists union at the now-closed Lockheed defense plant. "Now there are none. Bethlehem's gone. The tire industry is gone." In their place, he said, are the hundreds of smaller shops of the Alameda Corridor, where 760,000 workers, almost all immigrants, are employed in non-union jobs - a concentration of manufacturing employment greater than New York or Chicago.

"If we're going to organize LA," he declared, "we have to organize immigrants."

Under the pressure of the immigration resolution, the AFL-CIO held a press conference before the convention opened, announcing a series of hearings around the country on immigration law. Cities selected so far include New York, LA, Chicago and Atlanta, although more may be added. They will hear testimony by immigrant workers and organizers, detailing experiences in which workers rights have been undermined by INS enforcement actions, and by the use of immigration law by employers.

The testimony they present is likely to reflect the experience of Dolores Alcala, who, like most immigrants, expresses a mixture of gratitude to the U.S. for affording her economic opportunity and anger over her exploitation. Alcala was only 11 years old when she went to work in the green onion fields in the Mexicali Valley, just south of the U.S. border. She left for the other side when she was 15.

"I was afraid to come here, especially by myself, but my need was stronger," she remembers. "My family went hungry all the time, and I just needed to eat. My mom and dad are still back there."

But in Los Angeles, although she was able to find a paycheck in a garment sweatshop, she also found she was not accepted. "What I didn't expect was so much discrimination, so much abuse, especially in the factory," she says. While she holds her boss responsible, she thinks the law shares responsibility.

"I think it should be changed," she concludes. "We all have a right to work and eat. The immigration law is just trampling on all of us." And for the first time, it seems like the top leadership of the AFL-CIO agrees with her. Linda Chavez-Thompson, the federation's executive vice-president, announced the hearings and then told the convention that "it is time, long past time, to address the nation's failed immigration policies."

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