Immigrant Workers Are Organizing in New York — With or Without Immigration Reform

Some 50 to 60 union meat cutters and their supporters turned out on the afternoon of April 6 for a noisy protest against what they said was a lockout by Trade Fair, a chain of nine small supermarkets based in Queens, New York.

Standing in a picket line on a busy sidewalk outside a Trade Fair store in the Jackson Heights neighborhood, many wearing their white aprons, the workers explained that after a year without a contract, they held a brief strike the morning of March 13 over workplace abuses.  When they tried to return to work, they said, Trade Fair CEO Farid (“Frank”) Jaber responded by laying off all 100 or so meat cutters and hiring non-union replacements.

April 6 was a cool but sunny early-spring day.  By now the meat cutters had spent more than three weeks on picket lines and had held several rallies in other Queens neighborhoods, but their energy and enthusiasm seemed unaffected.  Strongly supported by their union, United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 342, and backed by a letter from ten members of the City Council, the picketers chanted loudly and blew on noisemakers at one store for an hour and a half and then marched 14 blocks through the Saturday crowds on 37th Avenue to the chain’s other Jackson Heights outlet, where they continued as loudly as before.

“Who’s a rat?” they asked and then answered themselves: “Trade Fair’s a rat.”  “Don’t shop here,” they told passersby during breaks from chanting.  The workers were mostly Latino, and at one point the chant changed to “Carniceros unidos jamás serán vencidos” — butchers united will never be defeated.

Organizing “Like Mad”

It wasn’t just meat cutters who seemed united.  Jackson Heights is an ethnically mixed neighborhood with a large immigrant population.  “No Trade Fair, no Trade Fair,” one passerby shouted after she’d read a picketer’s hand-lettered sign in Spanish.  Motorists showed their support by honking; at least eight drivers blasted out their solidarity during the march.

The workers clearly knew how to build on this support.  Leafleting teams, mostly women, darted in and out of stores and beauty parlors, conversing, explaining, making sure everyone along the march route could get the bilingual flier.  Without their butchers’ aprons, they would have passed for professional labor organizers.

Actions like this aren’t unusual in New York City these days.  Everywhere you look you see workers organizing: at supermarkets in Brooklyn, at restaurants and cafés in Manhattan, at carwashes in the Bronx.  And over and over again this organizing is in the low-wage service industries that largely employ undocumented immigrants.

So it was surprising to read in an April 2 blog post by Robert Reich, secretary of labor under Bill Clinton, that “[t]he only way . . . undocumented workers can ever become organized — and not undercut attempts to unionize legal workers — is if the undocumented workers also become legal.”  He advises unions “to embrace immigration reform, and organize like mad.”

Reich is certainly right to argue that keeping more than seven million immigrant workers in an “illegal” state is a constraint on labor organizing.  It’s not easy to agitate for a union when your boss can threaten you with deportation.  And Reich is right to urge the labor movement to push for a broad legalization program that would open up new opportunities for immigrant workers to organize.

But saying that out-of-status workers can’t be organized directly contradicts what we see every day on the streets of New York.  Not only can the undocumented be organized, but as Brooklyn College political science professor Immanuel Ness wrote in a 2005 book, Immigrants, Unions, and the New U.S. Labor Market, “immigrant workers are currently more prone to self-organization and unionization than are native-born workers.”  In case histories of New York organizing drives in the late 1990s and early 2000s — among Mexican greengrocer workers, West African supermarket delivery workers, and predominantly Muslim “black-car” drivers — Ness shows how the very isolation of these workers and their long hours at the job help develop a sense of class solidarity that can overcome the restraining effect of harsh anti-immigrant laws.

Immigration Reform From Below

Business interests are undoubtedly aware of the organizing among immigrant workers, and of the likelihood that it will increase if the United States carries out a massive legalization program.  They probably also remember that the immigrants who were legalized through the 1986 amnesty saw their wages go up by some 15 percent in a five-year period.  As a result, the only sort of “comprehensive immigration reform” business will support is one intended to put a damper on this potential organizing.

The legislative proposal unveiled by the Senate “Gang of Eight” on April 18 is a perfect example.  It provides for legalization, but with severe restrictions.  Unauthorized immigrants would register with the government but would then face a 10-year waiting period before they could become permanent residents — 10 years of probation during which any transgression could easily lead to deportation.  At the same time the government would intensify anti-immigrant measures like E-Verify, which has proven so useful to employers fighting unionization drives.  Immigrant workers in this semi-legal state would be sure to think twice before risking arrest in a militant picketing action or a sit-down strike.

Would this really succeed in restraining the organizing we see among immigrants now?  It’s hard to predict what impact such a plan would have on the current momentum.  But the labor movement doesn’t need to wait before following Reich’s advice to “organize like mad.”  Whatever the politicians and employers’ associations do with immigration reform in Washington, immigrants will still need to fight for better wages and working conditions, and the political power that comes from the simple fact of being organized.

Professor Ness’s research suggests ways that unions can help with this sort of immigration reform from below.  Ness emphasizes that the most successful of the drives he analyzed were the ones where the unions respected and built on the workers’ own organizing efforts.  In the Jackson Heights protest on April 6 it was apparent that Local 342 staffers had the same idea.  They seemed content to let the workers take the lead, literally: the staffers marched behind the members, clearly enthusiastic about the demonstration.  The union’s Facebook page later described the meat cutters as “a group who truly enjoys each other’s company, wants to fight for each other, and refuses to have their spirits broken.”

Update: The Trade Fair lockout was still on as of May 17.  In an apparent attempt to divide the workers, Trade Fair management has been hiring back the meat cutters — at reduced wages and hours, in violation of labor laws.  The rehired workers continue to join the picket lines after their shifts, and some participated, along with local politicians, in a Jackson Heights rally held on April 26.

David L. Wilson is co-author, with Jane Guskin, of The Politics of Immigration: Questions and Answers, Monthly Review Press, July 2007.  He also co-edits Weekly News Update on the Americas, a summary of news from Latin America and the Caribbean.

| Print