Immigrant Rights Are Labor Rights

Today’s critical labor struggles revolve around immigrants’ rights, while today’s struggles over immigrants’ rights are grounded in workplace and labor organizing.  Global, national, and local histories have woven these issues tightly together.  In the U.S. we are seeing the beginnings of a multifaceted movement which engages these dynamically linked histories.

Twenty-five years ago, U.S. labor activists thought we were enmeshed in a struggle against concessions, fueled by a process of deindustrialization and capital flight.  Here in the Midwest, the epicenter of that formation was the Hormel strike of 1985-86, extending from plants in southern Minnesota to Iowa and Nebraska.  Hormel management wanted to reorganize everything about the work in their new flagship plant in Austin, from the calculation of wage payments to the sharpening of knives, with the intent of replicating these strategies throughout their plants.  They pushed veteran workers to retire, while insisting that remaining workers and new hires had no choice in a competitive industry but to accept management’s terms.  They made similar demands on Austin city officials — tax breaks, the construction of infrastructure at public expense, and subsidized access to electric power.

Hormel’s behavior was typical of the meatpacking industry, which was being swept by tumultuous change in the early-mid 1980s.  Companies went out of business; new companies, often conglomerates, bought those facilities and rehired their workers at cut-rate wages.  New plants were opened in small towns, away from urban centers, in search of isolated, even captive workforces.  Here and there, especially within the Hormel chain, local unions wanted to make a fight, but these efforts were consistently undermined by their own union, the United Food and Commercial Workers’ Union.  The UFCW national strategy of “controlled retreat” turned into a thorough rout.  By 1990, wages in the meatpacking industry had fallen 44% below their 1980 level.  They have never recovered, while working conditions in this dangerous industry have deteriorated even further.

Meatpacking proved to be the canary in the coal mine for U.S. labor relations in the late 20th Century.  Steel, auto, electronics, newspaper publishing, corn processing, and farm implement manufacturing followed suit, with transportation (from urban buses to transnational airplanes), services (from hospitality to healthcare), and public employment sliding downhill as well.  By the early 1990s it became apparent that what was happening was bigger than “the deindustrialization of America” and corporate America’s demands for concessions from its unionized workforce.

A major paradigm shift was afoot in the global economy, with neoliberalism and its “race to the bottom” supplanting the Keynesian, demand-driven economics of the post-WWII era.  Around the world, workers, peasants, and citizens were being sucked into a vortex of commodification and competition, with only shredded safety nets for protection.  Some lost land, some lost jobs, and many lost their way of life.  In response, many individuals and families moved.  Immigration to the U.S. reached levels never seen before in U.S. history, with much of it coming from Central and South America, Asia, and Africa.  In the U.S., some individuals and families sought to sell more labor, by taking two or three jobs or having more family members work for wages, but the markets paid less and less for their labor.

The very forces which drove down wages and benefits and undermined working conditions in an industry like meatpacking have also driven workers and peasants in southern Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Bosnia, India, Pakistan, and many, many other places to leave their home communities and find their way to jobs in meatpacking and poultry processing plants, or behind the wheels of taxi cabs, pushing gurneys in hospitals and mops in commercial skyscrapers, from the metropolises of New York City and Los Angeles to the small Midwestern towns of Worthington and Willmar, Minnesota.  Neoliberalism’s grip on the world economy has created, on the one hand, certain kinds of jobs, and, on the other, the workers who have little choice but to fill them.  By imperiling the economic security of native-born workers in industrialized countries, neoliberalism has also fanned the flames of nativism and xenophobia, providing fearful and angry workers with immigrant scapegoats as the objects of their furor.  In the U.S. these dynamics seem scripted by a long history of racism (most of the native-born workers at risk are white; most of the immigrants are not), and anti-immigrant nativism enforced by the state (the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the immigrant quotas of 1923-24, the deportation of Mexicans and Filipinos in the 1930s, the internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII, etc.).  It is little wonder that the regime which celebrates the dismantling of the Berlin Wall seeks to build a wall along the U.S./Mexican border.

It is in these contexts that we must consider the small (population 2,200) northeastern Iowa town of Postville, where a corporate meatpacking employer called AgriProcessors has built a workforce willing to work hard, for long hours and low wages.  Responding to AgriProcessors’ call for workers, hundreds of indigenous Guatemalans, driven from their rural communities, have found their way to Postville and taken those jobs.  Add to these conditions an ineffective and out-of-favor federal administration, desperate in an election year to look tough on “illegal” immigration.  In May 2008, Postville and AgriProcessors, became the target of the biggest immigration raid in U.S. history.  Hundreds of men and women were arrested on felony charges.  A legal procedure was cobbled together which placed the men in prison and the women under house arrest in electronic ankle bracelets for five months, until they switch places.  Ten months after the raid, all will be deported, with no possibility of return because of felony records.

Such raids and legal railroading reflect the redoubled efforts of ICE, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement unit of Homeland Security, to criminalize immigrants, in this worsening economic environment.  Their actions fan the flames of popular nativism.  In Minnesota, for instance, ICE arrests and prosecutions have increased 650% in the past five years.  Meat and poultry processors have cut jobs and wages — while expecting production to stay up — while resisting union organizing campaigns.  The Republican state administration of Minnesota (led by a Governor who would like to be John McCain’s Vice-Presidential candidate) has rebuffed proposals to issue drivers’ licenses to undocumented immigrants, to open public colleges and universities to undocumented youth who have graduated from local high schools, and to order local police not to ask questions about immigration status of people they interview in relation to other investigations.  All of this has fed representations of undocumented immigrants as “illegal” and “criminal,” adding fuel to popular nativism and racism.  Such forces have, not surprisingly, obscured and stifled the immigrant and labor rights movements which had roared into the public view in April and May 2005.

AgriProcessors is the largest kosher meatpacking plant in the U.S., selling not only to Jewish communities across the country but also exporting their products to Israel.  Only a few years ago they were a poster child for “diversity” in the U.S., hailed by “60 Minutes” and a best-selling book, Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America (Harvest Books, 2001).  Both the highly praised author of the book and the award-winning TV news magazine show were so captivated by the presence of Orthodox Jews in small town Iowa that they failed to ask many questions about who was actually working in the plant, how they were treated, and what they earned.  In the wake of ICE’s May 12, 2008, raid, coming in the midst of a UFCW union organizing campaign, AgriProcessors and Postville have become the poster children for the exploitation of labor in the U.S. within the neoliberal, global economy.

Commentators and consumers alike have had to give credence to the grim predictions of 1980s labor activists that management’s attack on unions and workers would bring meatpacking “back to the jungle” of Upton Sinclair’s heyday, the early 20th Century.  The brutality and horror of the May 12 raid and the ensuing judicial nightmare, detailed eloquently by interpreter Erik Camayd-Freixas in his impassioned public letter, grabbed widespread attention.  His letter provoked questions about the work experiences, treatment, pay, and conditions endured by the workers, as well as about the lives and hopes of the workers themselves.  Investigations by Conservative Jewish rabbis, the Jewish Daily Forward, the New York Times, the Des Moines Register, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Immigration, and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus have unearthed far more than the employment of workers who lacked proper documentation.  “Jungle” stories abound: the employment of underage workers; work and safety violations; forced overtime; abuse of workers by foremen, including the physical beating of men and the sexual harassment of women; pressure to buy cars from certain dealers in order to keep jobs; and the distinctly non-kosher abuse of animals.  Alarms have also been sounded by: an International Indian Treaty Council meeting in Guatemala who addressed the pressures on indigenous peoples to migrate in search of work; Jewish organizations that have asked how the treatment of workers in this plant and elsewhere should be included in the setting of kosher standards (what’s called hekhsher tzedek); the United Food and Commercial Workers’ Union, who questioned whether the timing of the raid bore a relationship to a growing organizing drive in the plant; and advocates for immigrants rights from around the world.

Hormel’s Austin plant was not only the icon of the corporate attack on workers in the mid-1980s but also the epicenter of an impassioned solidarity movement to resist that attack.  Today, Postville, Iowa, is the locus of a revived immigrant and labor rights movement which had sputtered after the great immigrant rights marches of the spring of 2005.  On Sunday, July 27, led by Jewish organizations such as Twin Cities Jewish Community Action and the Chicago-based Jewish Council on Urban Affairs, with the support of the New York City-based Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, buses converged on Postville from the Twin Cities, Milwaukee, Chicago, and LaCrosse, Wisconsin, while others drove in smaller groups from Madison, Iowa City, Des Moines, and elsewhere.  Nearly 2,000 people rallied on behalf of immigrant and labor rights, calling for lost wages and accrued vacation pay for the detained immigrants, the establishment of a $100,000 hardship fund by AgriProcessors, management neutrality in the face of workers’ efforts to unionize, and the passage in Iowa of a version of the “Meatpackers’ Bill of Rights” which had been approved by the Minnesota Legislature in 2007.  This coalition also called for “comprehensive immigration reform,” better federal oversight of working conditions, and a national environment that respects worker justice.  Jewish leadership of the protest reflected two years of work on the notion of hekhsher tzedek, the expansion of kosher guidelines to include worker treatment, several months of organizing in both the Twin Cities and Chicago, and the determination to tell the owners of AgriProcessors that their exploitation of workers cannot be done in Jews’ name.  On the four hour ride from the Twin Cities to Postville, bus riders discussed their relationship to the tradition of the civil rights freedom rides of the early 1960s and the immigrant rights freedom rides of 2003-2004 and participated in workshops that connected immigrant and workers’ rights with Jewish tradition and labor history.  On the way back, protestors discussed strategies for promoting change and made commitments to take on specific steps from lobbying congress to pressuring retailers and consumers.

While in Postville, labor, social justice, and immigrant rights activists mixed with Jewish activists.  Protestors from different cities shared experiences and stories, as well as phone numbers and email addresses.  The groups in Postville participated in an interfaith service at St. Bridget’s Catholic Church, which has been the center of assistance to the immigrant families, then marched a mile to the AgriProcessors plant (where there was a large sign reading “Now Hiring”).  At a children’s park, a group of Postville children, who were born in the U.S. and had experienced the raids as pulling their friends out of school, read a poem together, titled “I Am Latino.”  It was modeled after a poem “I Am A Jew,” that they’d learned while studying the Holocaust in school.  Children from many communities were very visible in the parade, embodying the movement’s ideals of education and change into the future.

In the weeks since the march (I am writing in mid-August), grassroots organizations have met and begun to lay out a plan of action, including: internal education about worker and immigrant rights through churches, synagogues, and community organizations; expanding a base for hekhsher tzedek in Jewish and non-Jewish organizations and families; raising material aid for immigrant families still victimized by the ICE raid; organizing a “rapid response network” in anticipation of future raids; lobbying Congress for comprehensive immigration reform; expanding the network of people and organizations in our communities who are committed to justice for immigrants, workers, and immigrant workers.

While there has been significant participation and support in the Twin Cities from UFCW Local 789 and some support from UNITE-HERE, SEIU, and the Workers’ Interfaith Network, there is much work yet to be done to bring the formal labor movement on board this project.  If we are to learn from the failures of the mid-1980s, when major labor organizations stood apart from — and even undermined — local union struggles, with disastrous consequences, activists from inside and outside unions must insist that the labor movement at all its levels bring its solidarity and resources to the new historic campaign, one that recognizes that labor rights and immigrant rights are tightly woven together.

Peter Rachleff
August 16, 2008

Peter Rachleff is a professor of history at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota.  In 1985-86 he served as chairperson of the Twin Cities Support Committee for Local P-9, the Hormel strikers.  In 1993 South End Press published his Hard-Pressed in the Heartland: The Hormel Strike and the Future of the Labor Movement.   He is currently working with Twin Cities Jewish Community Action on immigrant rights projects.

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