The huge meatpacking plant had been cited by government agencies for numerous violations of environmental and labor laws and for “acts of inhumane slaughter” of animals. New inquiries were under way into allegations of wage violations and the illegal employment of minors. A large national union was trying to organize the factory’s 970 workers. But all this was put on hold the morning of May 12, 2008.
Helicopters, buses, and vans encircled the western part of the tiny community where the plant was located. Hundreds of government agents surrounded the facility and then arrested 389 workers, including 76 adult women and 18 children between the ages of 13 and 17. The majority of the detainees were taken to a cattle association fairground, now converted into a temporary prison and courthouse. The shackled workers were processed in groups of ten through an assembly line of judges, prosecutors, and court-appointed defense lawyers. Faced with trumped-up felony charges, by May 23 a total of 297 workers had accepted plea bargains; 270 were sentenced to five months in prison, while 27 received probation. Almost all the adult workers were to be deported as soon as they had served their time.1
If this had happened in another country, many of us would condemn it as an effort by an authoritarian regime to smash a unionization drive. But it happened in Postville, Iowa, so we call the massive May 12 raid by the U.S. government’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) at the Agriprocessors kosher meatpacking plant a “workplace enforcement operation.”
This was not the first ICE operation to have a negative impact on union activities.
- On December 12, 2006, some 1,000 ICE agents raided six Swift & Company meat processing plants in six states, arresting a total of 1,282 immigrant workers. The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) — the same union that was active in Postville — represents workers at five of the plants.
- On January 24, 2007, ICE arrested 21 workers at the Smithfield Foods Inc. meatpacking plant in Tar Heel, North Carolina. The UFCW had been trying to organize in Tar Heel for years, and the raid came after a November 2006 wildcat in which about a thousand workers shut down the plant for two days to keep Smithfield from firing 75 immigrant employees.
- On July 10, 2007, ICE arrested 25 current and former Swift & Company employees. One of those arrested was a local UFCW official, Braulio Pereyra-Gabino, who faced criminal charges of “harboring illegal aliens.”
- In mid-December 2007, more than 40 warehouse workers quit or were suspended at FreshDirect, an online grocery delivery business in New York City, after the company announced that ICE was planning to inspect the records of every employee. Both the UFCW and the Teamsters had been organizing among the warehouse employees; a unionization vote was scheduled for December 22-23, shortly after the suspensions. The remaining workers opted not to affiliate with either union.2
ICE and its apologists will of course say that there was no intention to interfere with union activities in these operations; after all, the majority of the workplace enforcement efforts have targeted shops without a union presence. The raids are necessary, they’ll claim, to make employment in the United States less of a “magnet” for unauthorized immigrants. Well-to-do “populists” like Lou Dobbs will assure us that low-wage immigrant workers provide unfair competition to native-born workers and we need operations like Postville to protect our own pay and working conditions.
But can anyone seriously believe that a few workplace raids, however massive and brutal, will deter a significant number of the millions of workers who endured the expense, the hardships, and the dangers of crossing the border from Mexico? Let’s not forget that over the past 15 years some 4,000 people have died trying to come here.
The real effect of ICE’s workplace operations is not to slow immigration but to intimidate immigrants once they’re here — to make sure they won’t even think about demanding a living wage, or reporting labor violations, or joining a union. This intimidation of the undocumented workers in turn makes it all the harder for the workers around them to organize. And far from protecting other workers from low-wage competition, the raids guarantee that immigrants will accept still lower wages.
It’s time to call things by their real names. The workplace raids are designed to ensure that U.S. corporations can benefit from a terrified, inexpensive and non-union workforce. Working people who hope to win decent pay and conditions for themselves and their communities have no choice but to speak out, protest, and organize to stop this: no more union-busting, no more raids.
2 “1,282 Arrested in Meatpacking Raids,” INB, December 15, 2006; “NC Pork Plant Raided, Judge Throws Out LA 8 Case,” INB, February 4, 2007; “Union Rep Arrested, More Raids,” INB, July 22, 2007; “Hartford March; NYC Workers Fired; More Raids,” INB, December 16, 2008; and “Detainee Killed in Workplace Accident,” INB, December 30, 2007.
David L. Wilson is co-author, with Jane Guskin, of The Politics of Immigration: Questions and Answers (Monthly Review Press, July 2007).