November 26, 2008

Commentary:

Supreme Court decision a victory for labor rights

By Premilla Nadasen

The U.S. Supreme Court just made a good decision by not making a decision. It declined to hear a case brought by Agriprocessors, the Kosher meatpacking company. By so doing, it has assured undocumented workers the right to organize.

Agriprocessors has received front-page headlines for its alleged hiring of undocumented workers, including several underage children, in Postville, Iowa. The former CEO of Agriprocessors, Sholom Rubashkin, has been indicted on charges of conspiracy to harbor undocumented aliens for profit, aiding and abetting document fraud, aiding and abetting aggravated identity theft, and bank fraud.

But the case that went up to the Supreme Court dealt with a different situation. It involved a bitter union struggle on the Brooklyn waterfront. In 2005, 20 workers at a meat distribution facility owned by Agriprocessors decided to join the United Food and Commercial Workers Union. After the union initiated a strike, the company promptly fired most of the workers, claiming that they were undocumented. The National Labor Relations Board supported the union and took Agriprocessors to court.

In January, a federal appellate court ruled in favor of the workers, citing a 1984 Supreme Court decision that the National Labor Relations Act protected undocumented workers. The company petitioned the Supreme Court to hear the case and overturn the 1984 decision.

The Supreme Court’s proper refusal to reconsider the decision of the lower court has significant consequences.

The question of immigration is a pressing national issue, with an estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants within our national borders — the vast majority of whom come here in search of work. They are hired because they are a source of cheap and — some may argue — compliant laborers. Yet immigrant workers seek the same labor protections as other American workers — including safe working conditions, health insurance, minimum wage and overtime pay.

Labor rights are human rights. Workers of whatever background, nationality or legal status should never be subject to extreme exploitation by employers. When workers within our borders are undocumented and have no recourse to defend or protect themselves, employers are more likely to violate their human rights. If workers are denied the right to speak in their own interests, such abuses will undoubtedly multiply.

Granting undocumented workers their human rights is also good for American workers. When undocumented workers organize, they raise labor standards and thus slowly begin to close the gap between themselves and American workers. If that gap narrows, employers have fewer reasons to seek out undocumented workers over legally resident workers.

The Agriprocessors case demonstrates the interconnectedness of immigrant rights and worker rights. Agriprocessors was allegedly more than willing to flout the law and hire undocumented workers — until they began to unionize, demand higher wages and assert their rights.

By affirming the rights of undocumented workers to organize, the Supreme Court sets us on a path of easing the problem of immigration. The surest way to bridge the divide between undocumented workers and other workers is to guarantee undocumented employees the right to organize.

It’s a fundamental right, and it will have the effect of raising wages and labor standards across the board.

Premilla Nadasen is an associate professor of history at Queens College, City University of New York, and author of “Welfare Warriors: The Welfare Rights Movement in the United States” (Routledge, 2005). She can be reached at pmproj@progressive.org.

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