Workers, not guests

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Ten days before Christmas, the Woodfin Suite Hotel in Emeryville, Calif., fired Luz Dominguez and 20 other housekeepers. Managers announced they’d received a letter from Social Security saying the numbers they’d given when they were originally hired didn’t match government records. The 21 housekeepers have been making beds, washing toilets and vacuuming carpets there for years. Dominguez recalls, “Before, they sometimes told us they’d received a notice about our numbers not matching. We never had to do anything about it.”

What had changed?

In 2005 an Oakland-based worker advocacy group, the East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy, convinced Emeryville voters to pass Measure C. The new ordinance established a $9 hourly minimum in the town’s four hotels. Housekeepers required to clean more than 5,000 square feet in an eight-hour shift now had to be paid time and a half. “Before the law was passed, we cleaned 16 suites, sometimes 17,” says Marcela Melquiades, another fired housekeeper. The new law dropped that to 10.

The four hotels — Woodfin Suite, Sheraton Four Points, Marriott and Holiday Inn — spent $115,000 to defeat the measure (garnering only 1,100 “no” votes). When they lost, they tried to get an injunction to prevent it from taking effect, and lost again. Workers began asking Woodfin to comply.

That’s when the hotel suddenly demanded new Social Security numbers. “We felt defrauded,” Dominguez says. “We’d worked really hard for them.”

No-match letters have become a form of immigration enforcement increasingly favored by the Bush administration. But they’re often used, unions charge, to retaliate against workers when they stand up for themselves.

Such workplace enforcement cost the jobs of thousands of workers last year. In December raids at six Swift meatpacking plants, five of which had union contracts, the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detained over 1,300 laborers. Hundreds were deported. At other worksites, like Woodfin Suite, the Social Security Administration has been pressed into service.

In November hundreds of meatpackers walked out of the huge Smithfield pork processing plant in Tarheel, N.C., after the company fired 60 workers for Social Security discrepancies. Mark Lauritsen, UFCW packinghouse director, says that the government and the company were colluding to thwart the union’s organizing efforts at the plant. “They were worried about people organizing a union, and the government said, here are the tools to take care of them,” he charges. In late January, ICE agents picked up 21 Smithfield workers for deportation.

Immigration enforcement measures have often been used to target unions. But this most recent wave of raids and firings has a political purpose as well.

In a press conference, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff told reporters that the Swift raids would show Congress the need for “stronger border security, effective interior enforcement and a temporary-worker program.’’ Bush wants, he said, “a program that would allow businesses that need foreign workers, because they can’t otherwise satisfy their labor needs, to be able to get those workers in a regulated program.”

The firings and raids highlight the vulnerability of immigrant workers under current U.S. law. In 1986 Congress passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act, making it a federal crime for an employer to hire a worker without valid immigration documents. While few employers have ever faced penalties, in reality the law made it a crime for undocumented workers to hold a job. That has given employers like Woodfin Suite lots of leverage over their own employees.

No current law requires employers to fire workers whose Social Security numbers don’t jibe. But this fall, President Bush proposed a new administrative rule, which would tell employers to fire anyone with a no-match. The regulation has never been officially issued, but companies claim they’re already complying with it.

Bush’s proposed regulation has its roots in a political deal. Almost since taking office, the administration has tried to get Congress to approve proposals for guest workers advanced by the Essential Worker Immigration Coalition (EWIC), an association of the 40 largest manufacturing and trade groups in the U.S., including Wal-Mart, Tyson Foods and Marriott. Two years ago, Senators Edward Kennedy and John McCain introduced a bill that would allow large employers to bring 400,000 temporary workers into the country annually. Increased enforcement of employer sanctions — Bush’s raid and no-match strategy — would force workers to stay in the program. Meanwhile, undocumented immigrants already here would have to sign up for a similar program, in hope of someday gaining permanent residence visas.

When the Senate and House couldn’t reconcile conflicting immigration bills last fall, the president took the one thing they all agreed on — increasing employer sanctions — and proposed the new regulation. The ICE raids and wave of no-match letters are putting the policy into practice.

Both the enforcement and the agenda behind it are alarming many unions. In 1999 the AFL-CIO called for the repeal of employer sanctions, as well as for a generous legalization program, greater chances for family reunification and enforcement of workplace rights. The federation was already on record opposing new guest worker programs. The Service Employees, and the two garment unions (who later joined with hotel workers to form Unite Here), were among the first to push for this position. “We still call for the repeal of employer sanctions, as we have from the time it was passed,” says Bruce Raynor, Unite Here president. “There are 12 million undocumented people living here, who are important to the economy,” he fumes. “They have a right to seek employment, and employers have a right to hire them. The only way to deal with this is to give workers rights and a path to citizenship.”

Today, the AFL-CIO still advocates the 1999 position in Congress. But the labor movement split last year on the Kennedy-McCain bill. “We did support [the bill], because we thought it was what was possible under those circumstances,” Raynor says. Both his union and SEIU argued that harsher sanctions and guest workers were an acceptable price for legalization.

The administration is driving that price higher. Labor’s most important organizing victories, like the 5,300 Houston janitors who won their first SEIU contract last year, could be easily undone. Terror generated by the no-match checks and deportations at Smithfield will hurt that campaign too. The UFCW’s Lauritsen says raids and no-match checks not only attack workers’ rights, but also are being used to promote “a drumbeat for [guest worker] reforms that aren’t in the interest of working people. Why do we want temporary workers for permanent jobs?” he asks. “If employers need workers, why not give people green cards instead? With guest workers, the threat of deportation is always there if a worker becomes unemployed.”

Like the labor movement, the Democratic Party is divided on immigration. Newly appointed House Intelligence Committee head Silvestre Reyes, a former Texas Border Patrol agent, last year introduced a bill paralleling Bush’s no-match regulation. Co-sponsors included fellow Texas Democrat Charles Gonzalez and California Republican David Drier. Party strategist Rahm Emanuel of Illinois believes a tough enforcement stance is the key to winning in 2008. The raids they call for, however, risk alienating the base of labor and Latino votes that helped elect Democrats last November.

Last fall, the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, the AFL-CIO and dozens of community immigrant rights coalitions called for an alternative program including legalization, repeal of sanctions, no guest worker expansion and more opportunities for legal immigration. Other groups involved in organizing the huge immigration marches last spring have discussed similar ideas. Many supported Texas Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee’s legalization bill in the last Congress, which had no guest worker scheme and proposed job programs to reduce competition between immigrants and communities with high unemployment. However, incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi failed to appoint Jackson Lee chair of the House Immigration Subcommittee. Instead she named Democrat Zoe Lofgren, defender of Silicon Valley’s H1-B guest worker programs.

Raynor believes Democratic control of Congress means “circumstances have changed. We supported Kennedy-McCain as what was possible then. Other things are possible now.” Like Lauritsen, Raynor says, “We’d rather see people get green cards as a pathway to citizenship than have a guest worker provision.”

Nevertheless, while Unite Here and SEIU call for legalizing undocumented workers and replacing employer sanctions with labor law enforcement, both unions have renewed their alliance with the EWIC, the employers’ organization that backs guest worker programs. The AFL-CIO, meanwhile, is standing firm against guest worker programs. Along with their Bush administration allies, the companies in the EWIC — Wal-Mart, Marriott and Tyson — want a congressional deal on comprehensive immigration reform that includes the weapons they use against workers now — raids and no-match checks — and the ones they plan to use against them in the future — guest worker programs. No such deal is possible without selling out immigrant workers’ rights.

David Bacon is the author of “The Children of NAFTA” and “Communities Without Borders,” a photodocumentary on transnational communities.