Meatpackers union sues on immigration raids

Mike Graves, a 21-year veteran at the Swift & Co. plant in Marshalltown, Iowa, stood in front of a crowd of reporters in Washington, D.C., Sept. 12 and held a pair of handcuffs high over his head. Graves is a U.S. citizen who moved from his home in Mississippi 22 years ago and went to work as a meatpacker in Iowa.

“I was arrested last Dec. 12 for doing my job,” he told the World in a phone interview. “They took 400 of us into the cafeteria where they searched and handcuffed us. Then they started to interrogate us one by one. They told me that if I was really from Mississippi I should be able to give them driving directions to Mississippi from Iowa. They kept us in there with no access to lawyers, no food or water, and did not even allow us to use the bathroom for 12 hours.”

After U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement was finished with the 400 workers in Marshalltown, its agents continued the terror by rounding up 11,600 additional union workers at Swift plants in Hyrum, Utah, Cactus, Texas, Greeley, Colo., Grand Island, Neb., and Worthington, Minn. Every single union member arrested was found to be either a permanent resident or a U.S. citizen, according to the United Food and Commercial Workers, the union that represents the workers.

Without warrants, the Bush administration had arrested all 12,000 on suspicion of being “illegal immigrants.”

Nine months later, the workers and their union held the Sept. 12 press conference to begin their fightback. The UFCW sued federal immigration authorities that day, alleging agents violated the workers’ rights.

The union and eight workers named as plaintiffs in the lawsuit seek not only unspecified

damages but also an order to stop ICE from conducting what the UFCW says are illegal raids. The suit says that 12,000 workers suffered false imprisonment and abuse during the raids.

A spokesman for Swift, which is not involved in the lawsuit, says the company lost $50 million because of the raids.

UFCW President Joseph Hansen told the World, “What happened to the Swift workers is something that should never, ever happen in America. This is absolutely an outrage.”

Hansen said, “These are men and women, hard workers, who were taken and handcuffed. Then they were held for many hours and denied access to telephones, bathrooms, legal counseling and their families.”

Sergio Rodriguez, a union worker arrested in the Greeley, Texas, raid, told reporters, “I am a U.S. citizen and I was held all day in handcuffs with no water and not allowed to go to the bathroom. They [the agents] kept firing rifles into the air to scare the people.”

Adding insult to injury, ICE agents returned to the same plants in July and arrested 20 more people, including a human resources manager and a union representative, on charges of recruiting and harboring illegal immigrants. The latter two cases are still pending.

The union lawsuit, filed in federal court in Amarillo, Texas, names as defendants Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and Assistant Secretary Julie Meyers, the Homeland Security Department, ICE and unnamed federal agents who conducted the raids.

Peter Schey, president of the Los Angeles-based Center for Human Rights and Consitutional Law, is the lead counsel in the UFCW lawsuit.

“What they have done here is a constitutional no-no,” he said. “The Department of Homeland Security violates the Constitution and federal law when it conducts workplace raids by engaging in mass detentions of all workers without any basis for believing they have all violated any laws. Such mass detentions have long been considered unlawful by the U.S. courts. … If Department of Homeland Security Secretary Chertoff is unwilling or unable to stop the unconstitutional conduct of his agents, then we are sure the federal courts will step in to do so.”

Hansen said, “Our purpose is to protect all workers in all industries and to protect all Americans. Workers in the United States don’t expect that just by going to work they can have their constitutional rights violated and that government agents will storm their workplaces in riot gear and with guns drawn.” He added, “Workers don’t expect such conduct because this is America and there is a constitution to protect their rights.”

The UFCW, Hansen said, will also press Congress to hold hearings on the issue.

jwojcik@pww.org