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Thursday, August 23, 2007

ICE: The Union Buster's Trusty Tool

Well, as I promised yesterday, here’s an update on the Immigration and Customs Enforcement middle of the night raid on Smithfield employees yesterday in Tar Heel, North Carolina, and four other counties surrounding the plant.

To start with, the scenario was not nearly as dire as I originally reported, but it’s heartbreaking nonetheless. In the confusion that often occurs when an eyewitness calls in, excited, scared, and confused, some of the facts got garbled. To clear up those earlier distortions, as far as I can tell from reading multiple accounts in North Carolina papers (here and here), there were no dogs and doors were not kicked down.

But ICE agents knocked on doors between 3 and 6 a.m., took people into custody and broke up families, in a few cases leaving parents to scramble to find childcare in the middle of the night for crying and terrified children as they watched their parents being escorted, in handcuffs, to detention facilities.

Here’s an eyewitness account, from the News Observer, by a union organizer, Eduardo Pena:
Union worker Eduardo Pena said he watched agents surround several mobile homes throughout the day, sometimes coaxing suspects to come out after negotiations through closed doors. In other cases, he said, agents waited hours for suspects who didn't answer their doors.

Pena said that he knew of at least two cases in which single mothers were arrested. In one case, he said, a child was left with a relative. In another, three children were left with a neighbor, Pena said.

He said union representatives were talking with the neighbor and woPena called the raid a "humanitarian disaster" and said that the arrests sparked fear among the Smithfield plant's Hispanic employees.
Twenty people were taken from their homes between 3 and 6 a.m. Eight others were picked up at Smithfield’s pork slaughterhouse at 4:30 a.m., during their shift. Twenty-five of those in custody are from Mexico, two are from Guatemala, and one is from Honduras.

Although Smithfield claims they were only informed about the raid a short time before it happened, other ICE raids, such as one last January, also occurred during a period of intense union organizing efforts. A major rally in support of the workers has been planned for the August 29 Smithfield Annual Shareholders Meeting in Tar Heel.

The timing of these ICE raids could, of course, just be a convenient coincidence for Smithfield. But the company has a long reputation for abysmal working conditions and for use of intimidation tactics to fight efforts of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union to organize. Indeed, Duke 1676, from MyDD, wondered on June 24, 2007, about the ties between the ICE raids and the company’s union busting activities.

Here’s what Duke 1676 had to say
There is mounting evidence that the recent spate of immigration raids might have more far-reaching implications than originally thought. Appearing at first to be the result of increased pressure from the right to take a tougher stance on illegal employers, growing evidence suggests that in some cases the raids are instead being used by businesses to help them fight union organizers.

Any question of collusion between employers and ICE were put to rest in January with the revelation of a new program called IMAGE that has allowed employers to essentially use ICE as modern day Pinkertons in union disputes...

...Prior to it's announcement, Bush administration officials spent months trying to persuade businesses that rely heavily on immigrant labor to join the ICE Mutual Agreement Between Government and Employers (IMAGE) program. Operated by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement division of the Department of Homeland Security, the IMAGE program calls on businesses to submit all their current I-9 records for employment eligibility to ICE for an audit and verification. ICE would then also verify worker's Social Security Numbers. The upside for employers who voluntarily joined the new program and handed over worker's documents to the government would be some protections from penalties and the freedom from embarrassing immigration raids.
Duke also reported on the efforts to intimidate and harass Smithfield workers who try to organize. H/T to Duke for this link to the Raleigh-Durham Independent Weekly, which had this description of conditions as far back as 2005:
The fear factor: It's the fear part that the Justice @ Smithfield campaign wants to underscore. Approximately half of the 5,500 to 6,000 employees of the Tar Heel plant are Spanish-speaking immigrants, an unknown--but large--number of whom get hired after presenting phony documents that the company accepts, but might at any time "check into."

These illegals--and legal immigrants, too, if they're unsure about American laws--are unlikely to complain about the low pay ($8.10 an hour to start) and brutish working conditions in the plant, which were brilliantly described by Charlie LeDuff of The New York Times in 2000 as part of a Pulitzer-Prize winning series on race in America. (LeDuff got hired at Smithfield, and after three weeks on the line, he understood the saying that the company doesn't just kill hogs, it kills people, too. He reported that turnover in Tar Heel was around 100 percent a year--that is, there are 5,000 new hires, and 5,000 who leave, every year.)

But seven years later, when it finally addressed the union's appeal, the NLRB found that Smithfield had systematically harassed pro-union employees while openly favoring anti-union workers; it also threatened in forced-attendance meetings to cut wages or even close the plant if the union won. All of which is illegal.

In addition, the NLRB said, in the run-up to the election the police presence both inside the plant and outside (thanks to the Bladen Sheriff's office) was deliberately suffocating to the organizers and designed to intimidate those workers--immigrants especially--who might be thinking about voting pro-union.

Then, just after the votes were tallied, the NLRB found, the Smithfield cops helped mug two union activists, dragged them out of the plant in handcuffs and arrested them on phony charges that were later dropped for lack of evidence. The two won damages of $755,000 from Priest and Smithfield in a civil jury trial; their award, however, was overturned on legal technicalities by a Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals panel.

The NLRB ordered a new election, and though Smithfield's appealing its ruling in the courts, and in particular the part that says the election must be held somewhere other than the plant, the UFCW's already begun a third organizing drive.
As you can see, not much has changed. For more information on the rally at the Shareholders meeting and general information about abysmal conditions at the Smithfield plant, which is one of the largest pork slaughterhouses in the world, go here and here.

1 comment:

Dean Settle said...

And you bury the word ILLEGAL for what reason?
Illegal is illegal. You either are, or you are not.
I welcome all who came to this country by the proper means with open arms. But if they snuck in and have been living amongst us as an illegal, they can go home now by ANY means available. They are not now, nor will they ever be my responsibility to pay for.