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Los Angeles janitors, members of United Service Workers West SEIU, protest the firing of immigrant workers by Able Building Maintenence on July 22, 2011. The company has fired workers whose immigration status the company questions. In protest, workers marched through downtown Los Angeles at lunch hour and sat down in an intersection, stopping traffic. (Photo copyright David Bacon)

Fighting the Firings

After years of ‘silent raids’ and federal workplace audits, unions and community allies are going on the offensive.

BY David Bacon

To paraphrase Woody Guthrie, they used to rob workers of their jobs with a gun. Now they do it with a fountain pen.

BERKELEY, CALIF.–When the current wave of mass firings of immigrant workers started three years ago, they were called “silent raids” in the press. The phrase makes firings seem more humane than the workplace raids of the Bush administration. During Bush’s eight-year tenure, posses of black-uniformed immigration agents, waving submachine guns, invaded factories across the country and rounded up workers for deportations.

“Silent raids,” by contrast, have relied on cooperation between employers and immigration officials. The Department of Homeland Security identifies workers it says have no legal immigration status. Employers then fire them. The silence, then, is the absence of the armed men in black. To paraphrase Woody Guthrie, they used to rob workers of their jobs with a gun. Now they do it with a fountain pen.

Silence also describes the lack of outcry on behalf of those workers losing their jobs. No delegations of immigrant rights activists have traveled to Washington D.C. to protest. Unions have said little, even as their own members were fired. And undocumented workers themselves have been afraid. Those working feared losing their jobs. Those already fired worried that immigration agents might come knocking on their doors at night.

During the last few months, however, a wave of protest is starting to break that silence. In Berkeley, Calif., workers facing firings at Pacific Steel Castings, the largest steel foundry west of the Mississippi, have sought community support in a fight to keep their jobs. City councils in Oakland and Berkeley have passed resolutions asking Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to back off efforts to force the company to terminate them. Churches and immigrant rights activists have sent her letters with the same demand.

In Los Angeles, 1,400 janitors marched among skyscrapers, blocking downtown traffic at lunch hour. They protested a wave of similar firings by Able Building Maintenance, California’s largest privately-held building services contractor.

The two protest campaigns come after two years in which dozens of other employers have fired workers in response to DHS demands. John Morton, head of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, a division of DHS, has made serial announcements of the number of companies being audited to find undocumented employees, citing figures from 1,000 to 1,654.

Targeting union companies

There is no master list of how many how many workers have been fired. Over the last two years, however, it’s at least many thousands. In Minneapolis, Seattle and San Francisco over 1,800 janitors, members of SEIU union locals, lost their jobs. In 2009 some 2,000 young women laboring at the sewing machines of American Apparel were fired in Los Angeles. At one point Morton claimed ICE had audited over 2,900 companies.

President Obama says this workplace enforcement targets employers “who are using illegal workers in order to drive down wages-and oftentimes mistreat those workers.” An ICE Worksite Enforcement Advisory claims “unscrupulous employers are likely to pay illegal workers substandard wages or force them to endure intolerable working conditions.” Curing intolerable conditions by firing workers who endure them doesn’t help the workers or change the conditions, however.

Instead, the administration’s rhetoric has fed efforts to blame immigrants for “stealing jobs” and for undermining wages. In a bid to oppose a resolution supporting Pacific Steel workers, one local city council member wrote, “every job given to an undocumented immigrant is a job denied to an American citizen,” and “citizens won’t work for the low wages undocumented immigrants will work for.”

In reality, the DHS workplace enforcement wave is focusing not on low-wage employers, but on high-wage, and often unionized ones. Fired janitors around the country are almost all members of SEIU. Workers at Pacific Steel belong to Local 164B of the Glass, Molders, Plastics and Pottery Workers (GMP). In the council member’s own city, Richmond, Calif., dozens of workers were terminated at a Sealy mattress factory, where they belonged to a furniture workers’ local of the Communication Workers of America.

There is a long history of anti-union animus among immigration authorities. Agents have set up roadblocks before union elections in California fields, conducted raids during meatpacking organizing drives in North Carolina and Iowa, audited janitorial employers and airline food plants prior to union contract negotiations, and helped companies terminate close to a thousand apple packers when they tried to join the Teamsters Union in Washington state.

But there’s another reason why union companies are targets. They’re easier.

All employers are required to have job applicants fill out an I-9 form and provide identification and Social Security numbers, which go into the employees’ records. In an “I-9 audit,” ICE agents pore through those records to identify undocumented workers. They then send the employer a letter listing the workers it must fire.

In garment sweatshops and small restaurants, however, finding and inspecting personnel records is difficult, time-consuming and laborious. On the other hand, unions generally force employers to keep records in good order, to ensure they adhere to the pay levels, benefits and worker rights in labor agreements. In those companies, immigration agents easily sweep in and build their case for firings.

Employers have often found advantages in demanding that their workers re-verify their immigration status.

At Able Building Maintenance, last year ICE targeted 475 workers during an I-9 audit in San Francisco that ended last year. The company terminated them. Then, in Los Angeles, the company used the process to lower its labor costs. Every time Able took over a new building from another janitorial contractor, it demanded that the workers there provide new proof of their legal status. When some couldn’t, the company fired them and replaced them with new hires at much lower wages and benefit levels.

These actions violated the intent of the union’s master janitorial contract. That agreement says that when one building service company is brought in to replace another to clean a downtown building, it must continue to employ the workers who have always done that work. The agreement provides workers some job security in an industry where contractors change constantly. Although companies compete fiercely against each other, they can’t gain advantage by firing high-wage workers and replacing them with low-wage ones.

But that’s just what Able is doing, by using immigration status as a pretext to terminate long-time janitors in LA high-rises. And that’s why more than 1,000 workers marched through those same buildings in protest. They fear not only that Able will continue to fire them, but that other companies will use the same tactic to lower costs, in order to compete. Workers at Stanford University made similar protests, when one union janitorial contractor was replaced by another. After the new contractor demanded that longtime employees re-verify their immigration status, 19 were fired.

At Pacific Steel in Berkeley, ICE gained access to the company’s I-9 and other personnel records in February, and began its audit. But union contract negotiations had begun just weeks before. In March, the foundry’s workers struck for a week, successfully defending their medical benefits. Conducting an audit in the middle of a labor dispute violates an internal operating procedure dating from the Clinton administration. In May, the union filed an unfair labor practice charge against the company and ICE, accusing them of violating the instruction in order to punish union activity.

To win support for workers who might be fired as a result of the audit, GMP Local 164B and local unions pointed to the disastrous effect it would have on the community. “If these skilled workers are removed from the foundry, the operation of the business will suffer greatly,” says Josie Camacho, executive secretary of the Alameda Labor Council. “If the foundry were to close as a consequence, it would be an economic disaster for the Bay Area. The company and the workers pay taxes that support local schools and services, which cannot afford to lose money desperately needed in these challenging economic times.”

In addition to city council resolutions, many elected officials, churches and immigrant rights organizations have written to DHS voicing opposition to the possible firings. “These audits affect workers in many other workplaces beyond Pacific Steel,” Camacho says. “They could deepen unemployment, and make recovery from the current recession more difficult. That should concern the administration as it faces a national election in 2012.” Mike Garcia, president of United Service Workers West, SEIU, which represents the Able janitors, suggests that every labor council survey unions in its area to find out where the audits and firings are taking place.

The rising tide of opposition

The Pacific Steel and Able protests mark a new level of opposition in unions to the I-9 audits and firings. “The union is responsible for representing and protecting union members against any violation of human rights,” said Ignacio DeLaFuente, international vice-president of the GMP. In its effort to encourage worker participation in their own defense, Local 164B organized an immigration clinic in which a dozen attorneys from legal aid organizations talked to employees one-on-one to help them resolve their status questions. And as undocumented students did in their campaign to pass the Dream Act, some workers began to speak out publicly.

A rising tide of labor opposition to I-9 audits will likely make waves in Washington D.C. Already the firings are causing some labor groups–labor councils in the San Francisco Bay area, the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement and UFCW and LIUNA locals–to question support for key elements of the comprehensive immigration reform (CIR) bills that Congress has debated over the past seven years, especially the proposals for beefed-up workplace enforcement.

Almost all the CIR bills would increase audits and penalties on employers for hiring undocumented workers (“employer sanctions”). They include mandating use of the E-Verify database, and a national ID program, to make it easier for ICE to find and fire people. The Obama administration not only supports the CIR approach, but it has implemented many of the enforcement measures those bills proposed. As a result, firings have skyrocketed in the last two years, and deportations total over a million.

In the Bay Area, labor councils in San Francisco, Silicon Valley and Alameda County have all passed resolutions calling for the repeal of sanctions. In a new resolution passed unanimously in June, the council “reiterates its support for the immigration reform proposal it first proposed in 1999, which was then adopted by the AFL-CIO Convention.”

The three labor council resolutions, passed at the national convention of the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement, also call for support for an alternative to the CIR tradeoff, called the Dignity Campaign. That proposal calls for sanctions repeal and an immigration policy based on labor and human rights. It includes scrapping trade agreements that lead to poverty, displacement and forced migration from Mexico and other developing countries.

The Dignity Campaign proposal is not a viable proposal in a Congress dominated by Tea Party nativists and corporations seeking guest worker programs. But just as it took a civil rights movement to pass the Voting Rights Act, any basic change to establish the rights of immigrants will also require a social upheaval and a fundamental realignment of power. A janitors’ march in downtown Los Angeles, or city council resolutions in northern California, may be only steps in that direction. But what counts is where those marchers are heading.

David Bacon is a writer, photographer and former union organizer. He is the author of The Right to Stay Home: How US Policy Drives Mexican Migration (2013), Illegal People: How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants (2008), Communities Without Borders (2006), and The Children of NAFTA: Labor Wars on the US/Mexico Border (2004). His website is at dbacon.igc.org.

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