After Largest Workplace Raid in a Decade, Immigrant Workers Are Organizing

Rose Bookbinder October 2, 2019

Immigrant workers are not backing down in the face of President Trump's attacks. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

On August 7 the poul­try towns of cen­tral Mis­sis­sip­pi suf­fered the largest work­place raid in the U.S. since 2006. Some 680 chick­en-pro­cess­ing work­ers from sev­en fac­to­ries were detained and incar­cer­at­ed by Immi­gra­tion and Cus­toms Enforce­ment (ICE).

Ten per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion in Mor­ton, Mis­sis­sip­pi, was either incar­cer­at­ed or fired. Par­ents were detained the same day they had dropped their chil­dren off to their first day of school.

The raid instilled fear not only in Mis­sis­sip­pi poul­try plants but also among immi­grants all over the coun­try. Natal­ie Patrick-Knox of Jobs with Jus­tice (JwJ) described the rip­ple effect: work­ers feel­ing scared to report wage theft, dan­ger­ous work con­di­tions, and oth­er abuses.”

She said that fear makes it eas­i­er for low-road employ­ers to beat their com­pe­ti­tion by vio­lat­ing labor law.” Then all work­ers, regard­less of immi­gra­tion sta­tus, feel the effects.

Immi­grant advo­cates say ICE tar­get­ed these plants because work­ers were orga­niz­ing for bet­ter con­di­tions. Many were already rep­re­sent­ed by the Food and Com­mer­cial Work­ers (UFCW).

BILIN­GUAL VOLUNTEERS

As soon as the raids were announced, labor and immi­grant rights groups mobi­lized. The Food Chain Work­ers Alliance, a nation­al coali­tion rep­re­sent­ing 340,000 work­ers, raised thou­sands of dol­lars that it sent to the UFCW.

Nation­al Jobs with Jus­tice took direc­tion from the UFCW and two local immi­grant rights orga­ni­za­tions, South­east Immi­grant Rights Net­work (SEIRN) and Mis­sis­sip­pi Resiste. JwJ recruit­ed bilin­gual orga­niz­ers and sent them to help these groups.

At the Pio­neer Val­ley Work­ers Cen­ter in west­ern Mass­a­chu­setts and Mass­a­chu­setts JwJ, we sent Cecil­ia Pra­do, one of our vol­un­teer hot­line respon­ders, to join the team on the ground in Mis­sis­sip­pi. There she vol­un­teered as an orga­niz­er and case man­ag­er. Most of us [vol­un­teers] were Lat­inx and were famil­iar with the stress sur­round­ing the immi­gra­tion sys­tem,” she said, so we were able to relate to the com­mu­ni­ty and gain their trust.”

The orga­niz­ers worked from ear­ly morn­ing to late at night. We would fly­er in church­es and com­mu­ni­ties and let peo­ple know about the resources,” Pra­do said. Church­es housed legal clin­ics and dis­trib­uted human­i­tar­i­an aid.

In three weeks, the team work­ing with Mis­sis­sip­pi Resiste inter­viewed 468 fam­i­ly mem­bers to locate and iden­ti­fy those detained. Many who were not already in immi­gra­tion pro­ceed­ings or had no pri­or crim­i­nal charges were released. The 200 still detained are being moved among nine dif­fer­ent prisons.

WORK­ERS PUSH BACK

There was a lot of shame,” Pra­do said. We talked about how this was not fair. We worked build­ing con­fi­dence among the com­mu­ni­ty, val­i­dat­ing their expe­ri­ence, edu­cat­ing them on what their rights are, and empow­er­ing them to lead their own movements.

Most peo­ple who were from the fac­to­ries not rep­re­sent­ed by the union thought that because they are undoc­u­ment­ed, they had no rights,” she said.

Besides the hun­dreds detained, hun­dreds more were fired. Those still work­ing are afraid they might be next.

To push back, poul­try work­ers have begun orga­niz­ing com­mit­tees in their towns — cre­at­ing roles for each per­son, such as meet­ing plan­ner, note­tak­er, trea­sur­er, com­mu­ni­ca­tor, and fundrais­er. In Mor­ton, the local lead­ers orga­nized a huge meet­ing about immi­grant work­ers’ rights. More than 200 peo­ple participated.

Com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers direct­ly or indi­rect­ly affect­ed by the raids have start­ed to keep track of the labor vio­la­tions they have expe­ri­enced at these plants or else­where, such as wage theft or sex­u­al harass­ment, and to seek out labor lawyers. UFCW is also col­lect­ing reports of labor vio­la­tions against its mem­bers, offer­ing them human­i­tar­i­an aid, and putting togeth­er a legal team.

RETAL­I­A­TION?

Just last year, one of the raid­ed fac­to­ries, Koch Foods, set­tled a class action law­suit, pay­ing out $3.75 mil­lion to work­ers over wage theft, dis­crim­i­na­tion against Lati­nos, and sex­u­al harassment.

Sup­port­ers say it’s more evi­dence that ICE tar­gets work­places where work­ers orga­nize to improve con­di­tions. Poul­try is one of the most dan­ger­ous indus­tries in the country.

The over­all food indus­try — includ­ing farm­work­ers, fast food work­ers, restau­rant work­ers, super­mar­ket work­ers, and meat­pack­ers as well as poul­try work­ers — is the largest sec­tor in the U.S. econ­o­my. Yet the medi­an wage for food work­ers is just $10 an hour. Wage theft is rampant.

The Food Chain Work­ers Alliance has used gov­ern­ment data to show that about one in five food work­ers is an immi­grant, though this num­ber is prob­a­bly an undercount.

Many of the fam­i­lies work­ing in these plants were recruit­ed from Mex­i­co and Cen­tral Amer­i­ca by employ­ers. Hir­ing immi­grant Lati­nos was a mech­a­nism to halt the orga­niz­ing by Black work­ers who won improve­ments in cen­tral Mis­sis­sip­pi poul­try plants between the 1970s and the 1990s.

But the immi­grants hit by this summer’s raid received sol­i­dar­i­ty from Black orga­ni­za­tions in Mis­sis­sip­pi. The People’s Advo­ca­cy Insti­tute, Mal­colm X Grass­roots Move­ment, Mis­sis­sip­pi Work­ers Cen­ter for Human Rights, NAACP, and oth­ers stat­ed: The anti-immi­grant, anti-Lat­inx, anti-Black, anti-human rights poli­cies cre­at­ed by this admin­is­tra­tion shock the con­science of all rea­son­able people.”

BE PRE­PARED

The return of the work­place raid rep­re­sents what many immi­grant and work­er rights orga­ni­za­tions have feared would become the new face of enforce­ment in the Trump presidency.

Under Pres­i­dent Oba­ma there were more depor­ta­tions than under any pre­vi­ous pres­i­dent, but enforce­ment relied more on I‑9 audits and raids at homes.

We can only expect that these raids will keep com­ing. The more pre­pared we are with rapid response, the more poten­tial there is to orga­nize and cre­ate a unit­ed front to fight back.

Sol­i­dar­i­ty is key in these moments, and it’s best to build it ahead of time. JwJ and the AFL-CIO have pub­lished toolk­its explain­ing how to set up a fund and roles in advance, so that folks can jump in imme­di­ate­ly to help.

Know-your-rights work­shops are also crit­i­cal. It appears that in these raids ICE used a com­mon tac­tic: agents walk into a work­place and yell, Every­one with papers over here, and every­one with­out over there.”

Mus­cle mem­o­ry is key in a cri­sis. Role-plays can help us pre­pare not to out our­selves or our co-workers.

Have every work­er prac­tice say­ing that they refuse to answer any ques­tions: I will not speak to any­one, answer any ques­tions about my immi­gra­tion sta­tus, respond to any accu­sa­tions, waive my legal rights, or con­sent to a search of my per­son, papers, or prop­er­ty until I have first obtained the advice of an attorney.”

This sto­ry first appeared at Labor Notes.

Rose Book­binder is a co-direc­tor at the Pio­neer Val­ley Work­ers Cen­ter, orga­niz­er with Jobs with Jus­tice, and board chair of the Food Chain Work­ers Alliance.
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