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Labor Board Deals Blow to Fired Immigrant Strikers in Wisconsin

Thursday, November 29th, 2012

WISCONSIN—The union campaign at Palermo’s Pizza in Milwaukee.—which offers a test case in integrating labor, immigrant and community-based organizing—was dealt a painful blow last week by the regional National Labor Relations Board. The NLRB told both sides it would not find the company’s mass firing of immigrant strikers to be illegal, would not protect other strikers from being “permanently replaced,” and would not order the company to enter collective bargaining.

“The Labor Board, it wasn’t very favorable to our cause,” Palermo’s striker Raul de la Torre tells Working in These Times in Spanish. “There was ample evidence to show that the company violated the rights of a majority of workers.”

The decision was announced by labor and management on November 21 and is expected to be issued in writing by the NLRB this week. Organizers celebrated some portions of the NLRB’s decision, including an expected complaint (similar to an indictment) against Palermo’s on other counts of union-busting, including nine other firings. But they pledged to appeal the NLRB’s choice not to pursue the mass termination–a significant legal setback for immigrant worker organizing–and not to require the company to negotiate.

Voces de La Frontera, a low-wage workers’ center and immigrant rights group, has been organizing Palermo’s workers around issues like staffing and wages since 2008 and has helped spur a nationwide boycott of Palermo’s products. Voces Executive Director Christine Neumann-Ortiz said the NLRB’s validation of some of the charges against Palermo’s offered “very good affirmation for the boycott.”

But Neumann-Ortiz called the decision not to prosecute the mass firings “a travesty of justice in terms of immigrant worker rights” that shows how immigration laws are being applied in a way that “is undermining federally protected rights for all workers.” She said workers and their supporters “fully intend on getting that decision overturned both in the streets and in the legal system.”

In an emailed statement, Palermo’s President Giacomo Fallucca wrote, “We are proud that the NLRB decision confirms that we complied with the applicable laws. Voces de la Frontera should be embarrassed that its blatantly false claims have been rejected so soundly.” Dismissing the NLRB’s remaining charges as “minor technicalities,” Fallucca described the decision as “a major victory for Palermo’s and our workers” and urged Voces to “get out of the way” of an NLRB election.

Richard Saks, an attorney for the Palermo’s Workers Union, said it was “significant that the NLRB found Palermo’s guilty of a wide range of various serious violations of federal labor law, including retaliation and surveiling and interfering with employee rights to support the union and engage in protected activities.” But he said the union was “disappointed” that the regional NLRB had not found the firing of 75 strikers to be against the law.

As I’ve previously reported for Working in These Times, Palermo’s workers began actively pursuing unionization in the spring with support from Voces, the AFL-CIO and the United Steelworkers (USW) union (an AFL-CIO affiliate). In May, three-quarters of production workers signed a petition seeking recognition as the Palermo’s Workers Union. By law, companies can choose to recognize a union based on such a demonstration of majority support. Or they can then be forced to recognize a union if workers win an NLRB-supervised election.

Palermo’s refused to recognize the union, and the same day, workers were told that they had 28 days (soon reduced to 10) to prove that their immigration status authorized them to work in the United States.

In response, workers submitted a petition to the NLRB seeking a union election. Many also went on strike. Federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement, in what appears to be the first application of an agreement with the Department of Labor designed to avoid manipulation of ICE for union-busting, announced on June 7 that it was suspending immigration enforcement at Palermo’s. But the next day, Palermo’s fired 75 striking workers. Management called this legal compliance; organizers called it obvious union-busting.

The workers have now been on strike for almost six months. The union election has been repeatedly delayed, both by successive union-busting allegations filed by Voces and, before that, by a petition from a rival union, the United Food & Commercial Workers, to appear as an alternative to the Palermo Workers Union (the PWU is expected to affiliate with the USW). Because of the gravity of the union-busting allegations, the change in the make-up of the potential pool of voters (as strikers are replaced by new hires), and the wide margin by which workers originally petitioned management, USW and Voces began arguing that a fair election was no longer possible, and that the NLRB should issue a bargaining order requiring Palermo’s to proceed directly to negotiations with the PWU instead. Such orders are rare.

The NLRB strategy carried risks from the beginning. Because of the opportunities they provide employers to intimidate workers, and because of the limited leverage they offer to compel employers to actually negotiate in good faith, some major unions have essentially abandoned NLRB elections, opting instead for “comprehensive campaigns” to pressure employers to voluntarily grant union recognition based on a showing of majority support.

Interviewed in September, AFL-CIO Director of Immigration and Community Action Ana Avendaño described the Palermo’s struggle as an example where filing for an NLRB election might be serving an important purpose, because it provided a formal demonstration to ICE that the workers were actively organizing, thus securing the suspension of enforcement. Avendaño said that could make the NLRB filing worthwhile, despite the risks, and even if actual union recognition was won through a voluntary agreement reached because of the strike and the comprehensive campaign.

But the ICE letter didn’t stop Palermo’s from firing 75 workers, and the regional NLRB is not planning to prosecute those terminations. According to Saks, the NLRB “is essentially saying that the company would have acted that [same] way absent the strike and absent the unionization effort.” He added that because the NLRB was not finding the mass firing to be illegal, it also would not consider the strike to be an “Unfair Labor Practices” strike, and thus Palermo’s could legally “permanently replace” those strikers who haven’t been fired.

Saks said that the NLRB’s choice not to issue a bargaining order means that “there will probably have to be an election at some point for union recognition.” He said the Board has not indicated how quickly that could happen. If the regional NLRB’s decision stands, it could wait to schedule an election until after reaching resolution on all the charges it is proceeding with against Palermo’s.

That leaves union activists hoping for one of three results: Getting the regional NLRB’s decision changed on appeal; winning a majority of the current voter pool in an NLRB election; or winning union recognition and the reinstatement of the fired workers directly from Palermo’s through its comprehensive campaign. “All of those options are still on the table,” said Neumann-Ortiz. She said that while the favorable aspects of the NLRB’s decision provide validation for the workers’ allegations, the disappointing ones demonstrate “the importance of continued public support for these workers to have justice prevail.”

So far, the comprehensive campaign’s main lever has been a consumer boycott of Palermo’s pizzas, including pressure on Costco, the chain where the majority of Palermo’s product is sold. Organizers credit behind-the-scenes pressure from Costco—which benefits from a progressive reputation as an “anti-Walmart”—for spurring Palermo’s to seek a meeting with AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka in September. This month, De la Torre and other Palermo’s workers made a national tour, demonstrating at several Costco locations before arriving at headquarters in Washington state, where they met with officials from the company.

De la Torre described the meeting as “very positive” and said the Costco representatives “were surprised to hear what Palermo’s has done to the workers.” At the end of the meeting, said De la Torre, a Costco official “made the comment that if the charges that we made against the company were validated [by the NLRB], they could buy their pizza from any other company.”

The campaign has also targeted universities, including the campuses of the University of Wisconsin. UW-Madison undergraduate Allie Gardner said the boycott is “absolutely a student issue, because we’re on campus and we’re the ones who are paying tuition to go to this school that is then creating contracts with corporations that aren’t honoring the labor policies that we’ve created as an institution.” Gardner is a board member of the United States Students Association and of the statewide UW student council, both of which have passed resolutions calling on universities to support the boycott. The licensing committee at UW-Madison has unanimously called for the university to end its Palermo’s contract; students are pressing the university’s chancellor to honor that recommendation. The UW-Milwaukee student senate recently voted to endorse a boycott as well.

Last month, in an AFL-CIO report and legislative testimony by workers, the campaign also questioned state subsidies provided to Palermo’s.

 “With the progress of the strike and the boycott so far, I feel happy,” said De la Torre. “But I’m not yet satisfied.”

Full disclosure: The United Steelworkers is an In These Times sponsor.

This post was originally posted on Working In These Times on November 28, 2012. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Josh Eidelson is a freelance writer and a contributor at In These Times, The American Prospect, Dissent, and Alternet.  After receiving his MA in Political Science, he worked as a union organizer for five years.  His website is http://www.josheidelson.com. Twitter: @josheidelson E-mail: “jeidelson” at “gmail” dot com.

NLRB Chairman: New Penalties Needed for Union-Busting of Undocumented Workers

Tuesday, October 30th, 2012

NEW YORK CITYNational Labor Relations Board Chairman Mark Pearce says his agency could pursue new remedies to punish employers who retaliate against undocumented immigrants for organizing. Last year Pearce interpreted a 2002 Supreme Court decision to rule out back pay as a remedy in such cases, limiting the NLRB’s options of financial penalties.

Interviewed Friday by Working In These Times, Pearce called the tension between immigration law and labor law “extremely frustrating,” and the tools available for protecting undocumented workers against employer crimes “insufficient.”

“The concept of ‘made whole’ by us needs to be examined,” said Pearce, referring to a legal guideline for NLRB remedies. “Perhaps there are things within that concept that we can utilize. Now I can’t articulate what they are, because we’ve got to consider it.”

Pearce made these comments following a forum hosted by Cornell University’s ILR School. In his remarks to the assembled attorneys, Pearce said he “had angst over” his ruling in the NLRB’s Mezonos Maven Bakery case last year. In that 3-0 decision, the NLRB found that a bakery that fired a group of workers who had collectively complained about a supervisor could not be required to pay them back pay, because they were undocumented.

The Mezonos decision cited the US Supreme Court’s 2002 decision in Hoffman Plastic Compounds v. NLRB, which overturned an NLRB ruling granting back pay to an undocumented worker who was fired after trying to form a union (the NLRB is tasked with enforcing and interpreting private-sector labor law, but federal courts have the power to overturn the NLRB). Writing for a 5-4 majority, then-Chief Justice William Rehnquist said that “awarding back pay in a case like this not only trivializes the immigration laws, it also condones and encourages future violations.”

At Friday’s forum, Pearce said that the Hoffman decision had forced him to deny back pay in Mezonos and “continues to create that problem where an employer could get away scot-free” with firing undocumented union supporters. Pearce said he had “struggled with the tension between the National Labor Relations Act, immigration law, and the rights of undocumented workers.” While the NLRB can still use non-economic remedies in such a situation, like requiring a company to post a notice saying it will comply with the law in the future, Pearce said that “seems a little empty” without a financial cost attached.

After the forum, Pearce told Working In These Times that the tension he’d identified could be resolved if a future Supreme Court case offers the NLRB “a more promising, or a more significant remedy to be applied for discriminatees who happen to be undocumented. But otherwise, it would probably have to take a change in the law.”

In the meantime, said Pearce, “the board has a certain degree of discretion with respect to the remedies.” He noted that the NLRB is legally empowered to “make whole” workers who are illegally punished or discriminated against, but is barred from assessing punitive damages against employers. That means that financial penalties against companies generally come in the form of back paywhich Mezonos took off the table for undocumented workers. “So exploration would have to be had,” said Pearce, “as to the full parameters of [the 'made whole'] concept, to see whether or not a remedy could be fleshed out [for] those kinds of violations.”

Such a move “would be significant,” said Ana Avendaño, the AFL-CIO’s director of immigration and community action. “Because under the current structure, employers basically get a free bite at the apple. They can violate the law with impunity.”

Interviewed Saturday by phone, Avendaño disputed Pearce’s view that the Supreme Court’s Hoffman ruling required the NLRB to deny back pay in Mezonos. She said that a lower-level NLRB judge had been right to find that Hoffman didn’t apply in Mezonos, because in Hoffman it was the undocumented worker that had been proven to have violated immigration law, and in Mezonos it was the employer. Avendaño, who was among the attorneys arguing for back pay in Mezonos, said she hopes the second circuit court will reject the NLRB’s Mezonos reasoning and send the case back for a new ruling.

But Avendaño echoed Pearce’s criticism of Hoffman, which she said “has a chilling effect” on undocumented immigrants seeking to organize at work. Ultimately, she said, new legislation will be necessary to restore such workers’ rights, perhaps as part of a broader immigration reform.

Still, Avendaño welcomed the NLRB Chairman’s comments about the possibility of other remedies under current law. Given that the law bars punitive damages, and Hoffman restricts back pay awards to workers, Avendaño said, “one idea that advocates haveand the legal basis for this is soundis that there could be a fund established, where employers would still have to pay the back pay, but it would go into the fund, not directly to the worker.”

Avendaño said such a “special remedy” would be “less than ideal,” but would be an improvement over the status quo, where employers face a “perverse incentive … to just violate the immigration law, and then violate the [National Labor Relations Act], and have no responsibility for it.”

If a fitting test case reaches the NLRB, said Pearce, “We would have to see whether the board has that kind of authority, or is there something that causes us to feel that we are able to create an exception to the standard remedy.” Avendaño said the AFL-CIO hopes that will be the case: “If there was an opportunity, and we may have one soon, then we certainly are going to advance that argument.”

This article was originally posted on In these Times on October 29, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

Workers and Activists Look Ahead after Gov. Brown Vetoes Pro-Immigrant Bills

Thursday, October 11th, 2012

As two critical bills waited quietly on California Governor Jerry Brown’s desk last weekend, immigrants across the state held their breath, hoping that the progressive legislation could affect the national immirgation debate. By Sunday night, the anticipation gave way to disillusionment with two stunning vetoes.

The highly anticipated Domestic Workers Bill of Rights would have enacted major protections for tens of thousands of housekeepers, nannies and other caregivers and closed loopholes ignored by federal labor law. It would have extended California’s policies for overtime pay and workers’ compensation, and helped ease in-house workers’ arduous, sometimes-abusive work routines by providing for a set amount of sleep and the ability to cook one’s own food.

Above all, the Bill of Rights would place California alongside New York (where similar legislation has already passed) in formally recognizing the rights and unique needs of this burgeoning, cross-cutting sector. The bill won support from a huge array of groups, from labor unions to celebrities, precisely because of the myriad social issues that domestic work braids together: the changing demographics of the workforce, the challenges of securing affordable childcare or elder care for families, and the struggles of immigrant workers, particularly women of color, in a largely unregulated industry.

But Brown scrapped the bill (sadly following an earlier veto by former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger) and aligned himself with the business lobby, led by the California Chamber of Commerce, which had complained that the provisions of the bill would be unworkable and overly burdensome for employers.

The California Domestic Workers Coalition will continue its campaign (with plans to deploy sponge bombs to help Brown “clean up his act”) by building on its growing network of allies, including women’s rights, labor and faith groups. Looking ahead, Katie Joaquin, a Filipino community activist with the California Domestic Workers Coalition, tells Working In These Times, “We’re going to continue to build upon those relationships. And the first step is to hold Governor Brown accountable for what we view as a blatant lack of leadership.”

Inspired by the New York example, Joaquin says, the California bill is part of a movement for what the National Domestic Workers Alliance calls “an alternative vision of care,” which is based on sustainable working conditions and better training in the care industries, in order to meet the growing need for caregivers as the population ages. “We need to have a vision for training and caring for caregivers at the same time that we’re making care accessible for families,” Joaquin says.

Immigration policy complicates the labor struggle. Brown delivered a one-two punch to California’s migrant communities by also vetoing the Trust Act, which would have restrained the power of local police to route arrestees suspected of immigration violations into the custody of Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE). That means that the mass deportation of undocumented immigrants, including domestic caregivers and other low-wage workers, will continue.

Immigrant rights activists had pushed the Trust Act to counter the Obama administration’s enforcement regime, particularly the Secure Communities program, which encourages federal and local police to collaborate to nab undocumented immigrants. The program mirrors Arizona’s infamous SB1070 law and other state initiatives that threaten to expand racial profiling of Latinos and feed the federal deportation machine (which hasn’t significantly eased up in spite of the administration’s slippery claims of refraining from deportating “low priority” cases, such as students with clean records).

Still, aside from the painful vetoes, Brown managed to approve more modest pro-immigrant measures, such as allowing driver’s licenses for some undocumented immigrants (a move apparently aimed at the youth who would qualify for temporary immigration relief and work permits under the White House’s new “deferred action” policy).

The problem is that making it easier for undocumented workers to drive isn’t going to prevent them from being pulled over and ensnared in deportation proceedings. A young man named Juan Santiago told the Associated Press:

he was pleased he would be able to get from his home in Madera to his college classes 30 miles away once his work permit application is approved. But he said the measure does little for his mother, who brought him across the Arizona desert into the U.S. when he was 11.

“It was a happy and a sad day for us,” Santiago said. “The fact that the governor vetoed the TRUST Act, it means there’s nothing to protect the rest of my family members.”

The legislative changes that immigrants most need now are those that protect the whole neighborhood–at work, in school and at home. In an email to Working In These Times, Chris Newman, legal director of California-based National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON), one of the leading advocates for the Trust Act, says:

Equality demands that all Californians have faith in law enforcement, and the vetoes send a message that whether it’s civil rights, labor rights, or public safety, Jerry Brown does not respect the interests of immigrant workers in California.

While the vetoes were a blow to the movement, passing pro-immigrant policies is not an end in itself. Even in New York, where a hard-fought Domestic Workers Bill of Rights is already on the books, workers have faced difficulty in using the law to directly challenge employers over workplace violations.

Building political savvy and leverage on the street level is critical, with or without supportive legislation. As NDLON activist Pablo Alvarado wrote on the group’s blog, the governor “can veto a bill but he cannot veto a movement.” Ultimately, it’s the community’s power, not the letter of the law, that defines justice.

This post originally appeared in Working In These Times on October 3, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Michelle Chen work has appeared in AirAmerica, Extra!, Colorlines and Alternet, along with her self-published zine, cain. She is a regular contributor to In These Times’ workers’ rights blog, Working In These Times, and is a member of the In These Times Board of Editors. She also blogs at Colorlines.com. She can be reached at michellechen @ inthesetimes.com.

A Friend to Day Laborers

Wednesday, August 10th, 2011

kari-lydersenCHICAGO—Gretchen Moore was coming home from the dentist in December 2009 when she saw about 125 men at the corner of Belmont and Milwaukee avenues in sub-zero weather and, baffled, decided to find out what was going on. “Hi guys, what are you doing?” she naively asked some men, she remembers.

When told they were looking for work, she invited about five of them to the nearby Dunkin’ Donuts and began to hear their stories. Mostly immigrants, many of them undocumented, the men had come from Latin America and Eastern Europe searching for work.

Gretchen Moore advocates for day laborers in Logan Square on Chicago's North Side.

Gretchen Moore advocates for day laborers in Logan Square on Chicago's North Side.

Moore could relate—her husband came to the United States from Germany as a child and World War II refugee. Her husband’s father struggled to make a living opening a laundromat that burned down and later he opened a wholesale business on Canal Street. Her grandfather sponsored refugees during that period too, and told his family that it was their duty to protect immigrants who make this country as diverse and strong as it is, Moore explained.

She grew up in a racially homogenous part of Rockford, Ill., so moving into Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood about 20 years ago was a new experience for her, she said. She founded a chamber of commerce for the neighborhood, and the majority of members were immigrant local business owners.

So shortly after talking with the day laborers, Moore began dedicating the majority of her free time to working with them. She drove groups of men—arranged by country of origin—around the city pointing out social services and low-cost housing. She leveraged her network of friends and contacts to help the men get legal services and healthcare. Shortly after meeting them she got a shoe store to donate 50 pairs, she said, and a Michigan Avenue hotel to donate 500 soap and shampoo sets.

After she mentioned her work and the issue to the priest at a nearby Catholic Church, Resurrection, he urged her to gain 501(c)3 status—which she did in December 2010—to expand her reach.

She notes that many groups, including the similarly-named Instituto del Progreso Latino have offices on Chicago’s South Side, but the North Side lacks the same cohesive and politically organized culture among immigrants even though many neighborhoods on the city’s wealthier side have increasing immigrant populations.

Even though she speaks little Spanish, many workers turn to Moore for assistance on various fronts. Recently she was helping a Honduran with a special needs teenage son deal with a flooded basement. “If you’re undocumented, you don’t get insurance,” she said. She was also assisting a worker who had been arrested for selling bootlegged Mexican DVDs.

“Every morning they run up to my car with new problems, real human problems,” she said.

Now Moore is trying to raise at least $55,000 to open what she calls a “Latin men’s center” which would be similar to a workers center of the type the Latino Union runs in Albany Park just to the north. That one was formed primarily by immigrant day laborers who used to wait on the corner of Foster and Pulaski avenues. She sees it as a place workers could learn more English and business and construction skills, and also a place for injured day laborers to recuperate.

Like the Albany Park workers center, Moore sees her idea as a way to cut down on the wage theft that is rampant in immigrant communities. She said that along with the priest at the Catholic church where her 501(c)3 is now based, she calls contractors who haven’t paid workers. Sometimes they hang up and even change their number, she said, while other times they have come through with the money. She’s also verbally tussled with police officers who are known to harass the workers at Belmont and Milwaukee.

“The workers are taken advantage of horribly,” she said.

Ironically, in her hometown of Rockford, Moore made the news because her small construction firm was known for hiring nonunion workers. Now that Moore is a full-time advocate for day laborers, she doesn’t see the day labor issue through a lens of labor rights or worker organizing necessarily, but rather as a human rights and civil rights struggle—and as a matter of economic well-being for the workers’ families and the city as a whole.

“These are marvelous guys who have really needed skills,” she said.

Moore said that donations of funds, jeans (preferably size 32 to 36), shoes (size 6 to 10) or other goods can be dropped off at or otherwise made to the Resurrection Church, 3043 N. Francisco Ave. Chicago, Illinois 60618. For more information, e-mail [email protected]

This blog originally appeared In These Times on August 8, 2011. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Kari Lydersen is an In These Times contributing editor, is a Chicago-based journalist whose works has appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Chicago Reader and The Progressive, among other publications. Her most recent book is Revolt on Goose Island. In 2011, she was awarded a Studs Terkel Community Media Award for her work. She can be reached at [email protected]

Supreme Court’s E-Verify Decision Devastating for Employers, Immigrant Workers

Tuesday, May 31st, 2011

kari-lydersenImmigrants rights advocates and employers, including farmers, are lashing out at the Supreme Court’s May 26 decision upholding Arizona’s right to demand employers use the controversial e-Verify system, which is meant to confirm whether someone is in the country legally.

The decision also allowed Arizona to continue the so-called “business death penalty,” which entails denying a business license to employers found guilty more than once of violating a 2007 law against hiring undocumented workers.

The e-Verify system has been widely criticized for errors, including flagging legal and native-born residents as undocumented. That’s among the reasons Illinois sought to ban its use by private employers. A federal court shot down those efforts, but the Illinois legislature did pass a state law trying to safeguard against the misuse of the system.

All employers with federal contracts are required to use E-Verify, and Texas Republican Congressman Lamar Smith is among those pushing to make it mandatory nationally.

Immigrants rights groups are allied with employers – even those that they allege exploit undocumented immigrants – in stridently opposing mandatory e-Verify use. The Supreme Court decision was the result of a lawsuit filed by the Chamber of Commerce opposing Arizona’s law. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other employer groups also sued unsuccessfully over the mandate that E-Verify be used by federal contractors. Florida has proposed a bill similar to Arizona’s regarding E-Verify. The Hispanic Chamber of Commerce opposes it.

Agricultural employers and immigrants rights groups point out that the nation’s guest worker program and overall immigration system are so badly broken that agricultural growers will simply not be able to find the needed employees especially during harvest times if they really are barred from hiring undocumented workers.

Lynn Tramonte, deputy director of the group America’s Voice Education Fund, said in a press release:

Yesterday’s Supreme Court ruling is a dagger in the heart of Arizona agriculture.  If this type of law spreads nationwide, we will essentially deport the entire agriculture industry—including jobs held by Americans—and be forced to import more of our nation’s food supply. Passing a mandatory E-Verify law without comprehensive immigration reform will kill American jobs and farms, burden small businesses, reduce tax revenue, and drive undocumented workers further underground.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack made similar points in an op-ed:

As Secretary of Agriculture I have met farmers and ranchers all over the country who worry that our immigration system is broken. They are unable to find the necessary number of farmworkers and sometimes struggle to verify their work authorization papers – all while wondering if they’ll have enough help for their next harvest.

And while some American citizens step up and take these jobs, the truth is that even when farmers make their best efforts to recruit a domestic work force, few citizens express interest, and even fewer show up to spend long hours laboring in the hot sun.

In a twist on the misguided idea that immigrants “steal” American jobs, Vilsack described immigrant farm workers essentially protecting U.S. jobs through their crucial role on U.S. farms:

If American agriculture lost access to adequate farm labor, it could cost the industry as much as $9 billion each year. Already, some American producers are opening up operations in Mexico. So we must take action to prevent the further outsourcing of farm-related jobs.

Meanwhile, the Bay Citizen nonprofit news outlet described how lucrative wineries in Napa Valley, Calif., have found it in their own self-interest to treat undocumented workers fairly, rather than paying them as little as possible or sometimes not at all as is often the case in agriculture and other industries that hire large numbers of undocumented workers.

Emmy-winning producer Scott James reported:

Without migrant labor, most of it from Mexico, the wine producers in Napa would be hard pressed to fill a carafe, much less the valley’s nine million annual cases. Experts estimate that 8,000 to 12,000 illegal migrants reside (often seasonally) in Napa, although the number is impossible to confirm.

Ten years ago, they could be found living in the woods in makeshift camps, sleeping on fetid mattresses and drinking from dirty streams. Today they receive subsidized housing, or can reside in three tidy dormitory complexes near St. Helena and Yountville where up to 180 workers pay $12 a day for room and board.

This Blog Originally appeared in These Working Times on May 30, 2011. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Kari Lydersen is an In These Times contributing editor, is a Chicago-based journalist whose works has appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Chicago Reader and The Progressive, among other publications. Her most recent book is Revolt on Goose Island. In 2011, she was awarded a Studs Terkel Community Media Award for her work. She can be reached at [email protected]

Immigrant Workers’ Exploitation Highlights Perils of Job Placement Agencies

Tuesday, May 24th, 2011

akito_yoshikaneAs the nation’s unemployment rate remains at record levels, it’s no surprise that employment agencies have become a popular destination for those in search of work. Immigrants, especially new arrivals, have increasingly turned to these places with the hope of building a better life.

But recent reports across the country shows a troubled industry, one that routinely takes advantage of workers despite government efforts to enforce labor regulations. Many immigrants are often bilked out of money through bogus placement fees. Those who are placed into jobs – if at all – find themselves in deplorable working conditions, adding to the prevalence of low-wage jobs.

Job-seekers typically pay a fee to an agency in order to find employment and utilize other services such as resume writing. Employment agencies vary from providing staffing services for executives and white-collar workers, but immigrant-oriented offices are typically centered in low-income neighborhoods, often catering to those with limited English skills. Others draw in workers from abroad, charging high fees that leave many new immigrants in severe debt in settings that were far from what was originally promised.

The two accounts were recently profiled in separate stories by the New York Times, each providing immigrant accounts of exploitation.

In Houston, 50 welders from Vietnam arrived in the United States only to find themselves in what they called “indentured servitude.” After the welders were originally recruited by an agency sanctioned by the Vietnam government, they took out loans to pay for the $10,000 agency fee to be placed into an American company.

When they arrived in the U.S., the workers were overcharged for rent on substandard apartments, contained by the company at their homes with threats of deportation, and were laid off at least a year before their contract expired, leaving many unable to pay off their debts. The workers settled a lawsuit out of court with the two American companies, but have yet to see a penny of the $60 million in damages.

In New York, these types of agencies have grown since the recession. The official tally is 350, but labor advocates say that there more than 1,000, according to the New York Times. Agencies are not allowed to provide job guarantees to workers, or refer jobs that pay below minimum wage, according to the city’s labor law.

But agencies have been doing otherwise. The Times reports:

Consumers frequently complain that agencies require non-English speakers to sign contracts in English, or demand upfront payments, which in most cases are illegal. City officials say they have encountered agencies that plotted with businesses to dupe consumers and steal their money, and cases of women being sent for work to strip clubs, rather than to restaurants as they thought.

Others find that the working conditions are too harsh, filled with 12 to 15 hour days at places like restaurants that sometimes do not even pay. As reported last year in the Spanish-language newspaper El Diario, many workers find themselves in an endless cycle, returning to the job placement agency after an unsatisfactory job, only to pay more fees to find employment elsewhere.

New York City cracked down several years ago and has recovered more than $300,000 from job agencies. But it has been difficult enforce the rules. Many of the immigrants are unaware of the legal rights, and coupled with language barriers, find it difficult to report wrong-doing to the authorities.

Some measures are being considered to curb the exploitation of transnational labor and the most vulnerable folks in immigrant communities. Increasing fines and making employee rights more visible at agencies are some ideas being circulated. But many of these agencies have proven too elusive, with some taking fees and disappearing. As a result, the nature of the industry makes it difficult to enforce.

But another key idea is that of consent. Many of these workers have been misled on potential job prospects and placed into work that wasn’t originally promised. Giving employees more rights to freely choose instead of unilateral placement by the agency would provide more flexibility in determining one’s own livelihood.

This article originally appeared on the Working In These Times blog on May 18, 2011. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Akito Yoshikane is a freelance writer and reporter for Kyodo News. He regularly contributes to the In These Times blog covering labor and workplace issues. He lives in New York City.

Chipotle Workers Under New Scrutiny by the Feds

Friday, May 6th, 2011

Denver-based Chipotle Mexican Grill is once again facing close scrutiny from the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). We told you about Chipotle earlier this year when the company fired 450 workers in Minnesota—more than one third of its workforce—after a probe by immigration authorities.

This week, federal agents questioned employees at more than two dozen Chipotle restaurants in Los Angeles, Atlanta, Minnesota, and Washington, D.C., as part of a probe into the chain’s hiring practices in several states. Chipotle employs about 26,500 workers.

Robert Luskin, Chipotle’s outside counsel and a partner at Patton Boggs in Washington, told Reuters: “We’ve got nothing to hide. We’re absolutely convinced that nobody did anything wrong.”

ICE spokeswoman Cori Bassett told the Denver Post that as a matter of policy, ICE doesn’t comment on ongoing investigations.

The Wall Street Journal reports the Chipotle has been one of the most prominent high-profile employers to be investigated under President Obama’s immigration policy of cracking down on employers.

The intensified scrutiny of employers is having a severe economic impact on undocumented workers, not to mention the businesses. Immigrants, whether undocumented or not, make-up about a quarter of workers in the restaurant and food services industry. A 2009 report by the Pew Hispanic Center estimated that about 12 percent of the workforce in food preparation and food serving in 2008 was undocumented.

In February, Chipotle began using E-Verify at all its 1,100 restaurants. E-Verify is an electronic database that verifies the eligibility of workers to work in the U.S.

UC Berkeley hunger strikers enter Day 10

And now for something slightly different. Six students continue a hunger strike at UC Berkeley where they are protesting the consolidation of Ethnic Studies with African American studies, and Gender and Women studies departments.

The result is staff reductions and the demotion of full-time faculty to half time. Last semester Ethnic Studies lost two positions and now will eliminate 2.5 full-time equivalent staff positions.

A dozen students began their strike on April 26. The consolidation of the departments takes place under the “Operational Excellence,” an effort by UC Berkeley to cut costs and streamline bureaucracy. The consolidation of the three departments would save $500,000 in staff costs.

This is not just for us,” Veronica Rivas, one of the hunger strikers, said on KPFA’s Morning Mix. “Today it’s ethnic studies, African-American studies and women gender studies. Tomorrow it’s toxicology or its economics.”

On April 26, the students and their supporters sent a letter to university officials to outline four demands: re-instate staff positions eliminated under Operation Excellence, end the current process of Operation Excellence, publicly support ACR 34—an Assembly resolution that would formally recognize the work of Ethnic Studies departments statewide—and publicly acknowledge the unfulfilled promise to create a Third World College at the university.

Administrators responded in a letter, “Our hope is to understand one another better, given that we have the same ultimate goals for equity and inclusion. This hope also applies to questions about the particular structure of ethnic and related studies and their place in the academic organization.”

*This article originally appeared in Working in These Times on May 6, 2011.

About the Author: R.M. Arrieta was born and raised in Los Angeles. She has worked at three daily newspapers and two television stations and is a former editor of the Bay Area’s independent community bilingual biweekly El Tecolote. She currently lives in San Francisco, where she is a freelance journalist writing for a variety of outlets. She can be reached at [email protected]

U.S. Appeals Court Rules Against Arizona’s Immigration Law

Tuesday, April 12th, 2011

zz_andrea_nill-e1291085868161Back in July, federal district court judge Susan Bolton imposed a preliminary injunction on parts of the controversial immigration law passed by Arizona last year, SB-1070. She enjoined provisions relating to warrantless arrests of suspected undocumented immigrants and document requirements and also struck down the requirement that police check the immigration status of anyone they stop, detain, or arrest if they reasonably suspect the person is in the country illegally. Bolton argued that “the United States is likely to succeed on the merits in showing that…[the enjoined provisions] are preempted by federal law” and the “United States is likely to suffer irreparable harm” in the absence of an injunction.

A federal appeals court agreed. Today, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Bolton’s preliminary injunction on several major provisions of SB-1070. In their stinging legal critiques, 9th Circuit Judges Richard Paez and John Noonan wrote in their concurring opinions that each of the provisions blocked by Bolton are outright “unconstitutional” and that SB-1070 is preempted by federal law and foreign policy:9thcircuit

By imposing mandatory obligations on state and local officers, Arizona interferes with the federal government’s authority to implement its priorities and strategies in law enforcement, turning Arizona officers into state-directed DHS agents. [...] [T]he record unmistakably demonstrates that S.B. 1070 has had a deleterious effect on the United States’ foreign relations, which weighs in favor of preemption. [...]

Finally, the threat of 50 states layering their own immigration enforcement rules on top of the INA [Immigration and Nationality Act] also weighs in favor of preemption.

The 9th Circuit Court probably won’t have the final say on the issue. Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (R) has pledged to take her case all the way to the Supreme Court. SB-1070?s sponsor, state Senate President Russell Pearce (R), has entered the legal challenge now following a recent decision by the U.S. District Court to allow the Arizona State Legislature to intervene as a defendant in the Department of Justice’s lawsuit against Brewer and her state. Today also happens to be the deadline for U.S. Justice Department lawyers to file an answer to Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer’s countersuit that accuses the federal government of failing “to live up to its Constitutional duty to protect Arizona against invasion and domestic violence,” amongst other things.

In his opinion, Noonan recognized that SB-1070 has “become a symbol.” Noonan noted that, “For those sympathetic to immigrants to the United States, it is a challenge and a chilling foretaste of what other states might attempt.” The 9th Circuit’s decision comes as several states around the country are in the final stages of approving similar “copycat” pieces of legislation.

About the Author: Andrea Nill is an immigration researcher/blogger for ThinkProgress.org and the Progress Report at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

This blog originally appeared in the Wonk Room on April 11, 2011. Reprinted with Permission.

American Workplaces are Safer...But Not for Everyone

Wednesday, April 6th, 2011

kari-lydersenU.S. workplaces are getting safer, according to national Department of Labor statistics for the past two decades. But immigrant workers in the most dangerous occupations have not shared in the increased safety, according to statistics and a recent report by seven worker centers nationwide.

On March 9 Arise Chicago Worker Center released their study, done in conjunction with other workers centers, wherein 208 predominantly Chicago immigrant workers were surveyed about their workplace health and safety experiences.

About a quarter of workers reported suffering a work-related injury or illness; and a disturbing 41 percent said they had never received safety training on the job and 31 percent said they were not provided protective equipment. The workers, 88 percent Latino with an average age of 39, worked primarily in low-wage jobs in construction, restaurant, cleaning and maintenance jobs.

Construction is known to be a dangerous occupation, but the survey found even immigrant workers in the other seemingly less-dangerous fields suffered high rates of illness and injury.

Work-related injury and illness can be especially devastating for undocumented workers since they are often fired because of their injury and they often don’t collect workers compensation or other benefits due them. Because of their immigration status and unfamiliarity with their rights, they often don’t complain. The survey found 59 percent of workers were not aware of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA); and 87 percent had never filed a complaint against their employer.

Arise Chicago’s report says:

“Job ghettoes,” where foreign-born groups seeking employment provide a steady stream of workers to jobs that are undesirable to US born workers—in residential construction, agriculture, and service—tend to be the most hazardous jobs and the jobs that fly below the radar of wage and hour regulation. Lack of training and absence of OSHA-mandated engineering controls, administrative controls, and personal protective equipment are further contributors. Finally, language, literacy, experience, and cultural factors may play a role.

Workers and immigrants rights advocates think official safety statistics for industries including manufacturing, meatpacking and construction greatly undercount injuries and accidents, for this reason. A 2009 Government Accountability Office report says non-fatal workplace injuries could be under-reported by 80 percent.

The GAO report says:

In 2007, there were approximately 4 million cases in which workers in the United States were injured or became ill as a result of unsafe or unhealthy working conditions, and more than 5,600 workers died as a result of their injuries…The rate of nonfatal occupational injuries and illnesses among private sector employers as reported by BLS in 2007 has generally declined since 1992; the rate of worker fatalities decreased from 1992 to 2001, and has remained relatively constant since 2002.

But…

OSHA overlooks information from workers about injuries and illnesses because it does not routinely interview them as part of its records audits…In addition, some OSHA inspectors reported they rarely learn about injuries and illnesses from workers since the records audits are conducted about 2 years after incidents are recorded. Moreover, many workers are no longer employed at the worksite and therefore cannot be interviewed. OSHA also does not review the accuracy of injury and illness records for worksites in eight high hazard industries because it has not updated the industry codes used to identify these industries since 2002.

Arise Chicago cites government statistics in noting that Latino workers are disproportionately impacted by workplace health and safety problems, in Illinois and nationwide. Foreign-born Latinos also suffer injury and illness at a much higher rate than U.S.-born Latinos.

In Illinois, the fatality rate per 100,000 full time employees has decreased, on average, from 1997-2002. However, Hispanic workers have not experienced the same trend in the State. In addition, Hispanic workers’ average age at death, 34.9, was found to be approximately 10 years lower than non-Hispanic workers, 45.

To mitigate the injuries and illnesses suffered by low-wage and immigrant workers, Arise Chicago recommends increasing both workers’ awareness of their rights and enforcement by government agencies. Workers centers can play an important role, the study says, by offering workers information, support and advocacy. It also recommends support for the OSHA Susan Harwood Training Grants, meant to help improve workplace training and safety. These grants can go to unions, non-profit groups, employers groups and other entities.

The report also recommends increasing penalties for health and safety violations, which now often amount to little more than a slap on the wrist. And it recommends OSHA officials collaborate with workers centers and other community groups who have more grassroots contact with workers. And it says the Department of Labor’s two separate enforcement arms, the Wage and Hour division and OSHA, should cooperate more closely.

About the Author: Kari Lydersen, an In These Times contributing editor, is a Chicago-based journalist whose works has appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Chicago Reader and The Progressive, among other publications. Her most recent book is Revolt on Goose Island. In 2011, she was awarded a Studs Terkel Community Media Award for her work. She can be reached at [email protected]

This blog originally appeared In These Times on March 25, 2011. Reprinted with Permission.

Utah Governor Gary Herbert Signs Immigration Bills, Distances State From Arizona Approach

Monday, March 21st, 2011

zz_andrea_nill-e1291085868161On March 15th, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert (R) signed off on a bundle of four immigration bills which includes proposals that were specifically introduced as proactive alternatives to Arizona’s harsh immigration law. One of the measures would allow undocumented immigrants who meet certain requirements to carry a state-issued guest worker permit. A separate bill would create a migrant worker partnership with Mexico. Another piece of approved legislation will allow Utahns to sponsor migrants wanting to work or study in the state.

GOP delegate coordinators have dedicated a significant amount of time and resources to pushing back against the proposal with robo-calls and a petition. “As GOP delegates, we support the governor and everything he’s done up until now,” said Brandon Beckham, a Utah County GOP delegate who opposes guest worker and sponsorship proposals. “If he signs this bill, I don’t think he’s going to muster enough delegate support to make it past convention.” On the other side of the spectrum, some labor advocates worry that the guest worker permits will “give employers cheap labor without providing additional protections for workers or a path to citizenship.” “It gives illegal immigrants false hope because it makes them think they could become legal,” Ana Avendano of the AFL-CIO said. “But they’re still illegal, and could be deported.”

Gary Herbert

Gary Herbert

Meanwhile, several Latinos in Utah have been organizing against the other bill that Herbert signed into law today — HB-497. The legislation is a “watered down” version of Arizona SB-1070 that gives Utah police officers the authority to investigate a person’s immigration status if they’re suspected of felony or misdemeanor crimes.

Litigation has been threatened by both sides — immigration restrictionists who argue that the guestworker and sponsorship bills violate federal law and immigration advocates who say that the enforcement-only bill is unconstitutional. While it’s pretty monumental that such a conservative state has enacted a set of proposals that aren’t just aimed at making life completely miserable for undocumented immigrants, both sides of the debate are going to have a tough time arguing that the bill they oppose is preempted by federal law while maintaining that the one that they support is not.

Yet, maybe that’s the whole point. Utah Senate President Michael Waddoups (R) told the Salt Lake Tribune that the signing of the bills is “putting the federal government on notice.” “They’ve been on the sidelines way too long,” Herbert said. “They need to get in the game.” In fact, state officials are reportedly talking with the White House and congressional officials about using the “Utah Solution” as a model for comprehensive immigration reform at the federal level. The laws won’t go into effect for another two years. The U.S. Congress could spend that time to enact a legalization and a worker program that would render all of these state and local initiatives null.

About the Author: Andrea Nill is an immigration researcher/blogger for ThinkProgress.org and the Progress Report at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

This blog originally appeared on Wonk Room on March 15, 2011. Reprinted with permission.

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