By David Bacon
A year ago, in the middle of the nation’s most bitterly fought union organizing drive, management at the Smithfield Foods pork slaughterhouse in Tar Heel, North Carolina, sent a letter to 300 workers. The company, Smithfield claimed, had been notified by the Social Security Administration that the workers’ numbers didn’t match the SSA database. Come up with new numbers, the company ordered, that could pass the “no-match check,” or they’d be fired within two weeks.
The Smithfield plant, largest of its kind in the world, employs 5000 people, about half of them immigrants. No one can say for sure how many lacked immigration papers, but as in most meatpacking plants, many undoubtedly did. Despite their status, during the prior year those workers walked out twice to join immigrant rights marches. They even shut down production lines over the high accident rate. The fear created by the no-match check was an easy way to cut that activism short.
For the last two decades employers have threatened, and often implemented, similar terminations in workplace after workplace. At the Wood-fin Suites in Emeryville, California, the hotel threatened no-match firings after workers began demanding compliance with the city’s living wage law. At the Cintas Laundry chain, plant mangers fired hundreds of employees last year in no-match checks during UNITE HERE’s national organizing drive. The list goes on and on.
Now the Bush administration says that vastly increased checks will become a fact of life in every U.S. workplace. On August 10, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff told reporters that SSA will soon send letters to all sizeable employers, listing all workers whose numbers don’t jibe. After a ninety-day grace period, the administration will require employers to discharge those whose numbers are still in question.
If the Chertoff regulation is implemented as announced, as many as eight or nine million people will lose their jobs at the end of this year.
Merry Christmas. You’re fired.
Tens of thousands of workplaces would fall silent, as those industries most dependent on immigrant labor would virtually cease to function. Crop cultivation and harvesting would stop immediately. So would meatpacking and most food processing. Hotels and restaurants would turn away customers.
Many of these industries contribute heavily to Bush and the Republican Party, including to candidates who have called for this kind of draconian immigration enforcement. Accepted wisdom in Washington says the administration is pandering to win the support of anti-immigrant extremists in the Republican Party. While this may be true, it hardly explains why the administration seems so intent on biting the corporate hand that feeds it.
At the August 10 press conference, both Chertoff and Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez provided an explanation. Employers worried about the loss of their workers, Gutierrez said, could avail themselves of existing guest worker programs, which allow corporations to recruit workers outside the U.S. and bring them into the country on visas tied to employment. The administration, he promised, would make the programs easier for employers to use.
Chertoff’s enforcement regulations, and Gutierrez’ guest worker expansion, simply implement by executive order provisions of the immigration bill Congress wouldn’t pass two months ago. That bill also coupled big guest worker programs with no-match checks and raids. These are the centerpieces of the administration’s immigration reform program, and were originally proposed by some of the country’s largest corporations and industry groups.
“We do not have the workers our economy needs to keep growing each year,” Gutierrez said at the recent press conference. ”The demographics simply are not on our side. Ultimately, Congress will have to pass comprehensive immigration reform.”
Chertoff rolled out the same message last year, after huge immigration raids at the Swift meatpacking plants. Congress had to understand, he said, that Bush wants “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.”
Because firing several million people at once would be economically disastrous to the administration’s corporate supporters, actual enforcement will be, as always, selective. At the August press conference Chertoff acknowledged that ICE couldn’t track down every failure to fire workers listed in no-match letters, but would instead mount highly-publicized raids to scare employers into line. The order is intended to encourage employers to act on their own, as Smithfield did. In justifying its no-match firings, the company said it was simply implementing Bush’s no-match proposal in advance.
It’s time for a few reality checks about what this enforcement scheme will and won’t accomplish.
Reality check 1: Workers who lose their jobs won’t leave the country. Immigrant communities are deeply imbedded in the social fabric of this country, not only in cities like New York and Los Angeles, but also in tiny towns like Bridge-ton, NJ and Kennett Square, PA. To get here, migrants often take out loans on homes in their countries of origin. Losing a job here can mean losing that home. Family members living there, depending on remittances from the states, would go hungry. And for many who emigrated because they were hungry themselves, going back is simply not an option.
Reality check 2: When Bush and many Congress members push for new free trade agreements, and implementation of NAFTA and CAFTA, they are creating the very conditions of poverty which are driving people north. With 200 million people in the world living outside the countries where they were born, the flow of migration is not stoppable. Anti-immigrant measures like raids and no-match checks create human misery, but don’t stop the movement of people.
Reality check 3: Firing millions of undocumented migrants won’t create jobs or raise wages for other workers. When Operation Vanguard’s railroaded thousands of immigrant workers out of Nebraska meatpacking plants in 1999, there was no wave of hiring that followed in Omaha’s African American neighborhoods. The de facto color line keeping Black and Chicano workers out of many U.S. workplaces instead reflects the belief by employers that they will demand high wages and will try to organize unions. At Smithfield, where Black workers did organize, no-match firings and deportations created such fear that in-plant activism virtually stopped.
Reality check 4: Employers complain about the no-match regulation, and many are sincerely concerned about its impact on business and workers. But some employers will benefit. Increased fear and vulnerability makes immigrant labor cheaper, by making it riskier to protest bad conditions, or ask for higher wages.
These realities are inspiring a rising wave of protest in unions and immigrant communities.
In California, the Mexican American Political Association and the Hermandad Mexicana Latinoamericana have organized sit-ins in the offices of Congress members, to demand that they take action to protect immigrant communities. Activists were outraged when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi greeted the no-match announcement by saying, “securing our border remains a top priority for the New Direction Congress.”
“Democrats should remember that undocumented people live in Latino and Asian families and communities that include millions of citizens as well,” warned MAPA President Nativo Lopez. “They will need our votes next year to elect a new administration. If they don’t defend us now, they give us no reason to come out to the polls a year from now.”
Both Lopez and Ernesto Medrano, organizer for Teamsters Local 952 in Orange County, opposed the Senate bill because of its enforcement provisions, and criticized Democrats for supporting it. “We are not seeing any leadership from our elected officials,” Medrano said bitterly. “Why aren’t they speaking out on our behalf? We need to take this to the streets.”
This article is an edited version reprinted from “The Nation.” For the full version visit their web site at: http://www.thenation.com/doc/20070827/bacon