Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Posts Tagged ‘Immigrants’

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.

Pesticide Threat Looms Large Over Farmworker Families

Monday, October 22nd, 2012

No matter how good your next meal tastes, it’s likely it made society ill.

A new analysis by the Pesticide Action Network North America (PAN) draws a disturbing connection between pesticides in our food system and serious health problems among women and children. The report reviews empirical research linking agricultural chemicals to birth defects, neurological disorders, childhood cancers and reproductive problems.

Some of these chemicals make their way into the foods we eat, but they are more acutely concentrated in the environments surrounding farmlands. Children in or near farming areas can be exposed through myriad channels, from contaminated soil to the air in playgrounds.

But children in farmworker communities are especially at risk. While the report confirms the growing public concerns about health risks permeating our food chain, it also shows how socioeconomic inequalities can shovel many of the worst effects onto exploited, impoverished workers.

There’s been much public debate over the importance of organic produce, sustainable farming and regulating genetically modified foods–usually spurred by concerns over consumer health or animal rights. We hear less about the safety concerns that affect the workers who handle our fruits and vegetables before anyone else. For many Latino migrant workers, there’s no equivalent of a comprehensive safety label–no option to avoid the ubiquitous poisons in the field. Many worry that to complain about working conditions would mean being fired. Others simply–and quite reasonably–have little faith in the anemic government regulatory systems.

PAN cites research showing that pesticide injuries are prevalent among agricultural workers. Various studies cited in the report also suggest an epidemic of chemical “drift” from fields into nearby homes and neighborhoods. According to a 2009 report by the advocacy groups Earth Justice and Farmworker Justice (FWJ), “a growing number of epidemiological studies link pesticide drift to specific adverse health effects in humans, including autism spectrum disorders, Parkinson’s disease, and childhood acute lymphoblastic leukemia.”

While the problem is politically invisible, the effects are all too apparent. The PAN report describes the experience of Ana Duncan Pardo, a community health activist in North Carolina, who had a jarring encounter with farmworker families:

Within five minutes I had noted multiple cleft palates and several children with apparent Down Syndrome…. It was shocking and disturbing to walk into a room with a group of parents and children that easily represented three to four times the national average for birth defects.

The effect is likely compounded by the widespread use of child labor in agriculture–children barely in their teens can legally work on farms. That puts kids in daily contact with toxins that could irreparably harm their brains and bodies.

A FWJ briefing paper points to a history of vast dissonance between the federal regulation of harmful pesticides for heavily exposed workers, and parallel standards for the general public. The Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act establishes public health-based safety protections, for example, but environmental advocates point out that farmworker families’ health vulnerabilities are neglected and essentially ignored in regulatory assessments of the social costs of industrial pesticide use.

Children of farmworker families are left with far weaker protections despite their special vulnerability. Despite some restrictions on child workers handling pesticides, according to FWJ, “Children under 16 can still handle Category III or IV pesticides even though the chronic hazards associated with these chemicals include ‘potential neurotoxicity, reproductive toxicity, endocrine disruption, and carcinogenic effects.’”

Even if they don’t work in the fields, the children of farmworkers are not necessarily safe in their own homes. Virginia Ruiz, FWJ’s director of Occupational & Environmental Health, explains that farmworkers working with pesticides carry “take-home residues” on their clothes and skin. While safety warnings recommend avoiding physical contact with contaminated workers, Ruiz says, “It’s sort of unrealistic expectation of people to refrain from hugging their children and other family members as soon as they get home.”

The PAN analysis urges consumers and parents to take action for stronger safety protections. These could include mandates to phase harmful pesticides out of the market, and promoting pesticide-free school lunches and playgrounds.

Nonetheless, the battle against the pesticide threats on farms can’t be limited to the consumer end of the food chain. Farmworkers need to be engaged as stakeholders in pursuing just solutions to the unique risks posed to their communities. Farmworkers have played a leading role pushing for tighter EPA regulations as well as grassroots efforts to mobilize communities against pesticide drift. For example, a community-driven campaign in California’s Central Valley led to the creation of buffer zones to keep pesticide contamination away from sensitive locations like schools, farmworker camps and residential areas.

Kristin Schafer, coauthor of PAN’s report, tells Working In These Times, “Farmworker families were essential to the success of these efforts–some working behind the scenes, others speaking out to demand protections for their families.” She adds that environmental monitoring projects in other farmworker communities have provided opportunities for laborers “to document pesticide drift from neighboring fields, and use [this] as scientific evidence to advance these protections.” Community activists are now pressing California’s regulatory authorities to transition farms away from pesticides and toward greener alternatives.

Still, in every policy debate, farmworker families will face tremendous barriers of race, language ability, political disenfranchisement and poverty. Those aren’t chemical threats, but they constitute the climate of oppression that blankets the nation’s farms, and that corrosive cloud is now drifting into all our communities.

This post originally appeared in Working In These Times on October 20, 2012.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Michelle Chen’s 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.

Hershey Strikers Say Solidarity is the Best Cultural Exchange

Wednesday, August 31st, 2011

mike elkSinging the Italian solidarity song “Bella Chao” in a variety of different languages, approximately 30 cultural exchange guest workers rallied last Friday at SEIU’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. for the end of exploitation of guest workers in the United States.

“These students came to this country to get a cultural exchange, Hershey didn’t give it to them so now we are giving them a true cultural exchange in solidarity,” said SEIU President Mary Kay Henry, whose union helped organize solidarity with guest workers when they decided to go out on strike to protest unfair working conditions.

Two weeks ago, 300 students walked out of a Hershey warehouse run by subcontractor Exel. The guest workers were students who signed up to work in the United States on a four month cultural exchange visa. Students pay fees and travel ranging from $3,000-$6,000 to work on a temporary contract and then travel freely in the United States.

The guest workers were supposed to be paid $7.85-$8.35 an hour. The workers, however, were forced to live in company housing and were charged $395 a month for rent – nearly twice the rate of rent for Americans living in similar housing in rural central Pennsylvania, according to the National Guestworker Alliance spokesman Stephen Boykewic. After deducting rent and other fees from their paychecks, guest workers took home between $40-$140 a week. The jobs they were originally filling were union jobs paying $18 an hour before Hershey subcontracted the warehouse jobs out to Exel, who hired the student guest workers.

Guest workers had initially staged a three day strike, with about 300 of the 400 guest workers in the warehouse participating. The guest workers are demanding a return of the $3,000-$6,000 each student paid for the cultural exchange program to work at Hershey, that Hershey end its exploitation of J-1 student cultural exchange workers, and that the 400 jobs the guest workers filled instead be given to local workers paid a living wage. According to the National Guest Worker Alliance, Hershey has yet to make a direct response to the students demand. Instead, Hershey opted to merely give guest workers a week’s paid vacation in order to comfort those who were upset by the exploitation.

After three days of most of the workers being out on strike, the majority have returned to work. 30 guest workers have refused to return to work and touring the country to speak at union halls, churches and college campuses about the growing problem of guest worker exploitation. On Monday, students delivered a petition to Hershey’s trust board chairman LeRoy Zimmerman signed by 63,000 people calling on Hershey to meet the guest workers’ demands for an end to the exploitation of the guest workers program and to provide good jobs for local workers.

Now, 30 students are embarking on a tour of the nation, organized by the National Guest Worker Alliance, that will help draw attention to a growing problem of the exploitation of guest workers in the United States. Increasingly, companies in the United States are using guest workers for jobs that could easily be filled by American workers at a time of record unemployment. The National Guestworker Alliance was formed as a project of the New Orleans Worker Center for Racial Justice after thousands of guest workers were brought to the Gulf Coast for clean-up operations.

“It was outrageous. We had guest workers working at hotels when there was record unemployment and at the same time we had guest workers being held in conditions of essentially forced labor,” said Saket Soni, executive director of the National Guestworker Alliance. “So we saw how these two problems were connected and we started the National Guestworker Alliance as result of the organizing we were doing of guest workers in the Gulf Coast.”

The use of guest workers is increasingly becoming a big problem in the United States, as these workers can easily be exploited to work for less than minimum wage through a variety of tricks and traps (made possible by poor oversight of guest worker programs) as Hershey did to its guest workers. Currently, according to Economic Policy Institute immigration analyst Daniel Costa, approximately one and half million people come to the United States every year to work under a variety of guest worker programs. Increasingly companies are turning to J-1 cultural exchange work programs to use workers, since it is not considered a guest worker program but a cultural exchange program and is regulated by the State Department. The State Department only has 13 compliance officers to monitor a program in which 353,603 guest workers participate.

Hershey may have picked the wrong visa category of students to exploit in the J-1 visa cultural exchange guest worker program. While many of the student guest workers do indeed come from third world countries, they are typically college students from middle and upper class backgrounds. They of course were shocked to find themselves working in sweatshop warehouse conditions for little pay. Now, the Hershey guest workers are starting to do something about it. In the J-1 visa program alone, 30 of the Hershey guest workers have vowed to tour the country, spreading awareness of these abuses.

“I never imagined when I came to the United States that I would go to some labor meeting and get involved in the labor movement, but Hershey forced us to become part of the labor movement,” said Godwin Efobi, from Nigeria, who is studying medicine in Odessa, Ukraine. “The solidarity and support from Americans has truly been incredible. In a roundabout way this is the best cultural exchange we could have had.”

Appeared originally in Working In These Times on August 30, 2011. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Mike Elk is an In These Times contributing editor, has worked for the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers union, the Campaign for America’s Future and the Obama-Biden campaign. Based in Washington D.C., he has appeared as a commentator on CNN, Fox News, NPR, Democracy Now! and MSNBC. His work has also appeared at Alternet and in The Nation, The Atlantic and The American Prospect.

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 northsidelatinprogress@hotmail.com.

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 kari.lydersen@gmail.com.

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 kari.lydersen@gmail.com.

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

Temporary Workers on the Auction Block? And the Complicated Economics of Immigration

Tuesday, March 15th, 2011

kari-lydersenImmigration reform experts propose tying system to labor market, and creating govt.-run auction for temp workers…While also touting economic benefit of immigrants.

DALLAS, TEXAS—Do immigrant workers—specifically, undocumented workers—contribute value to the economy through their labor, taxes and Social Security contributions? Or are they a net drain on government services and a big depresser of wages?

As states consider anti-immigrant bills modeled on Arizona’s SB 1070, this question has been debated hotly by activists on both sides of the immigration reform debate and by economists and other academics. The need for federal immigration reform remains impossible to ignore.

At the Institute for Journalism and Justice’s “Immigration in the Heartland” conference in Dallas Thursday and Friday, experts tried to get beyond rhetoric and politics in ascertaining the concrete economic and fiscal impacts of immigrant workers on the U.S. economy. Among other things, they argued for a reformed immigration system that is strictly tailored to the current labor market, and a temporary worker system based on a government-run auction. They also stressed the importance of understanding the separate fiscal and economic impacts of immigration. The fiscal impact is the direct cost of services, while the economic impact includes the wide-ranging ripple effects of their roles as consumers and entrepreneurs.

Washington Post Writers Group pundit Ed Schumaker-Matos, a Cuban immigrant, cited World Bank, Social Security Administration and other figures while positing that immigrant workers mirror native-born workers in the fact that highly skilled and educated people contribute a net gain to the economy, while low-skilled immigrant workers cost more than they contribute on the fiscal level considering their use of social services, education and healthcare.

But he said the cost of low-skilled workers in using social services and in competing with native-born low-skilled workers must be considered in light of the fact that immigrants of all skill levels do much to grow the economy as a whole.

A migrant worker's teeth are inspected at a tobacco leaf farm on August 11, 2010, in Windsor, Conn. The University of Connecticut Migrant Farm Worker Clinics visit area farms to offer health screenings to migrant farm workers and their families. There are an estimated 3.5 million migrant and seasonal farm workers in the United States, and many of these workers lack access to health professionals due to language barriers and fears of deportation.   (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

A migrant worker's teeth are inspected at a tobacco leaf farm on August 11, 2010, in Windsor, Conn. The University of Connecticut Migrant Farm Worker Clinics visit area farms to offer health screenings to migrant farm workers and their families. There are an estimated 3.5 million migrant and seasonal farm workers in the United States, and many of these workers lack access to health professionals due to language barriers and fears of deportation. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

And he said that as opposed to decades past where many native-born U.S. citizens were high school dropouts, today only a small fraction of the U.S. population qualifies as “unskilled” and hence in competition with unskilled immigrants for jobs. He noted that studies show immigrants are much more likely than native-born U.S. citizens to start businesses, and that their role as customers and the income they inject into the economy expands the economy and U.S. productivity as a whole.

And he noted that while low-skilled immigrant workers may be a financial drain on local or to a lesser extent state social services, as anti-immigrant critics often charge, their children are likely to obtain levels of education and skill that help compensate for their parents’ effect on the economy by contributing more in taxes than they cost the system.

He said:

Is it an investment in the future or a burden? You don’t say to the local white kids that they’re a burden – they are in fact – they cost more than they put in. But you think of it as an investment in the future.

He pointed out a similar double standard regarding the “stealing jobs” argument.

Just like with natural population growth, the more people you have the more the economy grows. But people don’t stop having children because they’re afraid they’ll steal jobs from their parents.

A recent report by the Dallas Federal Reserve, “From Brawn to Brains: How Immigration Works for America,” noted that only 11 percent of second generation immigrants lack a high school diploma, compared to 30 percent of first generation immigrants. The report says:

One silver lining is that these costs dissipate in the very long run as their descendants assimilate and “pay back” the costs imposed by their predecessors. Economic or educational assimilation is, therefore, a very important piece of the immigration calculation.

Shumaker-Matos added that a less-publicized part of the immigration debate involves (usually legal) high-skilled immigrants, especially in the sciences, who compete with highly educated citizens for those high-end jobs. He said that while high-skilled immigrants may drive down wages slightly in these jobs, the innovation and overall economic and technological growth they contribute expands overall economic efficiency and productivity.

Pia Orrenius—a senior economist with the Dallas Federal Reserve, co-author of the aforementioned report and former advisor on labor, health and immigration to the Bush administration—said that high-skilled immigrants are a boon to the U.S. economy while low-skilled immigrants are a drain, at least in the immediate sense.

In her recent book, Orrenius proposes an “employment-driven” immigration system that awards temporary work visas without a wait based on the immediate needs of the labor market; rather than the current legal immigration system that according to government figures awards 85 percent of green cards to family members and only 7 percent based on employment.

Orrenius said that the U.S. lags behind other developed countries including South Korea, her native Switzerland, Spain and Italy, which base their legal immigration system primarily on the needs of the labor market rather than family relationships and humanitarian concerns.

The Dallas Federal Reserve report said that:

Estimates from 1996—the most recent comprehensive estimates available—indicate that immigrants with less than a high school diploma cost $89,000 more than they contribute in taxes over their lifetimes, while immigrants with more than a high school education contribute $105,000 more in taxes than they use in public services.

In other words, low-skilled immigrants are a net fiscal drain, but overall, immigration need not be. High-skilled immigrants can offset the fiscal cost of low-skilled immigrants.

Orrenius, whose book was published by the pro-business, free market American Enterprise Institute, would like to see a system wherein the government would auction off permits for high-skilled, low-skilled and seasonal temporary workers, and employers willing to pay the most for the permits would legally hire workers. The permits would only be good for a year, with the number of visas constantly adjusted based on the labor market and economy.

She said that under her proposal, workers would be allowed to quit their jobs if they suffered exploitation or abuse of the type common under the U.S.’s current guest worker program. In that case workers would have to find a new employer who had also bought permits, Orrenius said, which she suggested would likely not be a problem in urban areas but could present problems in rural areas with fewer employers. She said immigrants could theoretically petition for green cards – with the numbers awarded also determined by the current labor market – after five or 10 years in the temporary worker program.

Though in theory this might protect immigrants from exploitation by employers, in reality such a system would likely be ripe for abuse, as many immigrants likely would be afraid of leaving their jobs for fear of endangering their visa. And employers unwilling or unable to pay for the permits would likely continue to employ undocumented workers.

Orrenius’ proposed system would allow reunification of spouses and minor children with no wait, but it would greatly reduce the number of other relatives of citizens or permanent residents – a move sure to be blasted by immigrants rights groups. She said:

With an employment-based system, legal immigration would act more like unauthorized immigration. It is demand-based, so it benefits native workers – you don’t want a lot of immigrants coming in when the labor market is doing poorly.

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 kari.lydersen@gmail.com.

This blog originally appeared in In These Times on March 11, 2011. Reprinted with Permission.

Labor Day's Legacy: A More Inclusive America

Tuesday, September 7th, 2010

Amy DeanAt some point in their lives, almost all parents think about making a will to ensure that their assets are passed on to the next generation. But material gains, of course, are the least of what we give our children. Far more important are the values we teach them.

This Labor Day, I propose we think less about the material gains that working Americans have secured for their families over the past century. Instead, we should consider the values that organized labor embodies that we might hope to pass along to our children.

What I inherited from my grandparents — and what I want to see the labor movement impart to the next generation — is a legacy of inclusion.

In the early 1900s, my grandparents came to this country as Jewish immigrants fleeing pogroms and oppression in Eastern Europe. Although they worked low-paying jobs in the textile and apparel sectors, they were deeply motivated by a vision of building a better society.

Part of their motivation was secular, and part came out of their faith. Their vision of creating a better America involved a politics of mutual aid and mutual support. Working with this in mind, they helped to establish some of the foundational institutions of our democracy. Their generation built hospitals and synagogues. They built public schools. And they built trade unions.

When I was a child, my grandfather brought me from meeting to meeting, where we would hear people talk and argue. They would discuss pooling their resources to take care of someone who was sick, or to bury the dead, or to help a family whose breadwinner had been suddenly thrown out of work. Those informal networks of support, which existed for generations, were the precursors to modern trade unions. In more recent decades, unions have been the means for employees to come together, work in their collective interest, and help provide one another with a measure of economic security.

The result has been profound. Because my grandparents’ generation built unions of textile and apparel workers — as well as unions in other industrial sectors of the economy — their children were able to go to college. Many in the next generation became educators and public servants, and they built organizations of their own. Today’s teachers unions and public sector unions stand in this same tradition of being a bulwark of middle class life in America.

On this Labor Day, we can witness a new wave of immigrants coming to this country with a vision of building a better life. They may come from different countries, their complexions may be different, and they may be more likely to work as janitors or housekeepers than as factory workers. But their hopes and aspirations are the same.

The question for us as a society is: Will we leave a legacy behind of inclusion and preserve our country as the place that the world looks to as a haven of opportunity? Or will we take America down a very alien path, close our doors, and become a nation laden with fear-mongering, scapegoating, and exclusion?

This is an especially important question for Labor Day, because organized labor has been the central institution in our country that has allowed previous generations of immigrants — people like my grandparents — to enter into the economic mainstream of their communities. Today, as we work to create pathways that will allow newly arrived immigrants to weave themselves into the civic fabric of American society, a large part of our efforts must be to create a revitalized labor movement, one eager to welcome them into its ranks.

We need look no further than labor’s past to give us direction toward a more inclusive future.

About This Author: Amy B. Dean served as President of the South Bay AFL-CIO in Silicon Valley from 1992-2003 and chaired AFL-CIO President John Sweeney’s committee on the future direction of labor strategy at the regional level. She is co-author, with David B. Reynolds, of A New New Deal: How Regional Activism Will Reshape the American Labor Movement.

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