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Working In These Times

Tuesday, Jul 14, 2009, 9:24 am

Will Unions Defend Undocumented Members?

BY David Bacon

(Photo by Getty Images)

On May 31, 254 people were fired in the southeast Los Angeles industrial enclave of Vernon. Their crime? According to Overhill Farms, their employer, they had bad Social Security numbers. Behind this accusation is the unspoken assumption that the workers’ numbers are no good because they have no legal immigration status.

This mass termination is the largest in many years, the first of its scale under the Obama administration. Workplace enforcement is a keystone of the administration’s immigration policy, as it was under George Bush. The Overhill Farms firings are a window into a future in which this kind of immigration enforcement becomes widespread in workplaces across the country.

The fired employees contacted the Hermandad Mexicana Latinoamericana, a Los Angeles immigrant rights organization. Hermandad President Nativo Lopez helped them mount demonstrations that have taken place in front of the factory ever since.

According to Alex Auerbach, spokesperson for Overhill Farms, “the company was required by federal law to terminate these employees because they had invalid social security numbers.” Auerbach says the company was ordered to fire the workers by the Internal Revenue Service.

But John Grant, of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 770, which represents workers at the plant, says the union never saw any IRS letter. “The company doesn’t have to terminate these people. No document we know of says they do,” Grant said.

The firings highlight a larger question of immigration policy. “These workers have not only done nothing wrong, they’ve spent years making the company rich,” Lopez emphasizes. “An immigration policy that says these workers have no right to work and feed their families is wrong and should be changed.”

However, the Immigration Reform and Control Act, passed in 1986, says employers may not hire people who are “not authorized” to work in the U.S. In effect, it makes it a crime for undocumented workers to work at all.

In 2007, the Bush administration created a database called “E-Verify” to check the immigration status of any existing or prospective employee. The main source of information for E-Verify comes from Social Security numbers.

Many expected the incoming Obama administration to put “E-Verify” on hold. Instead, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano announced that DHS will work “to maintain a legal workforce through training and employee verification tools like E-verify.” And the White House website says President Obama “will remove incentives to enter the country illegally by preventing employers from hiring undocumented workers.”

When Overhill Farms says it is firing 254 employees for bad Social Security numbers, it is acting in accord with this policy. Unions and immigrant rights groups around the country now have to choose whether or not to defend the undocumented workers the policy targets.

Some Washington D.C. immigration lobbying groups, however, have decided to support sanctions enforcement. Reform Immigration for America, for instance, says, “Any employment verification system should determine employment authorization accurately and efficiently.”

In 1999, the AFL-CIO called for the repeal of sanctions because of their use against workers trying to organize and improve conditions. But a new joint statement by the AFL-CIO and the Change to Win labor federation supports a “secure and effective worker authorization mechanism.”

At Overhill Farms, the 254 fired workers paid union dues for many years. Grant agrees that sanctions are a bad idea. “Firings like the ones at Overhill are a clear example of what’s wrong.”

But labor support in Washington for work authorization undermines this position, and raises a difficult question. How can unions fight to defend people like the women at Overhill, and at the same time agree that people without authorization shouldn’t be working?

And if existing unions don’t defend those workers, will they try to form or find unions who will? Anger over the firings would certainly fuel such an effort. “The company treats us like criminals,” fired employee Bohemia Agustiano charges. “I worked there for 18 years. Was I a criminal when I was working all those years?”

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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