$4.5 Million and a Deportation

$4.5 Million and a Deportation


Between 2009 and 2017, the long running campaign by subcontracted retail custodial workers in the Twin Cities culminated in several one-day strikes, union recognition, and a first contract worth $4.5 million in wages and benefits over three years.

A workers’ center in the Twin Cities, Centro de Trabajadores en Lucha / Center of Workers United in Struggle (CTUL), began the organizing campaign among the largely undocumented immigrant custodial workers who clean and maintain the big box retail stores in the area. Their organizing effort utilized a variety of Alinskyite tactics, like hunger strikes, protest marches and pressuring companies like Target to sign corporate responsibility pledges. They also cultivated an organizing committee made up of interested workers and formally connected with Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 26 in Minnesota.

On February 17, 2016, Local 26’s 4,000 members in Minneapolis struck all city employers to facilitate their demands for wage parity between full and part time workers, raises for everyone and stronger work rules. The next day on February 18, 2016, the immigrant workers organizing through CTUL launched their 7th one-day strike in Minneapolis and St Paul, Minnesota in as many years.

By the beginning of 2017, the CTUL workers subsequently received union recognition (as members of SEIU) and a first contract. It was the first city-wide collective bargaining agreement covering retail custodial workers in the country. In addition to an immediate $1.50/hour raise and an average 18% wage increase over the life of the agreement, paid-time-off, vacation time and work rules covering the volume of work, were won.

One of the leading workers in the CTUL-SEIU organizing efforts was Luciano Mejia Morales, who moved to the US from Guatemala. Luciano was arrested over moving violations by local police in June 2017 and placed in the Hennepin County jail in Minneapolis, where his bail was set at just over $3,000. Unfortunately, his family raised the money and promptly bailed him out of jail, only for Luciano to be immediately detained again—this time by ICE agents– upon his release. He and his family are fighting for his release. Between 2007 and 2014, 73 trade unionists have been murdered in Guatemala. According to the American government, at least 83 deportees to Guatemala have been murdered upon their arrival to the Central American nation in the last 18 months. Luciano’s life is certainly imperiled by his imminent deportation. Luciano’s case highlights many important issues which intersect at this moment in the class struggle in the US.

In the recent case involving Tom Cat Bakery workers in New York, the very best that the labor movement has been able to do for undocumented workers was on display. After an I-9 audit of the business revealed to the Federal government that 26 workers did not have valid immigration documents, their union (Bakery, Confectionary, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union Local 53) negotiated a deal. According to a contemporary media account of the 26 affected workers:

“Four immediately produced the correct papers, according to the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union that reps the employees at Tom Cat.

Two quit and found work elsewhere, the union said.

Another five signed off on a severance package negotiated by the union, which gave them six months to find the right paperwork and return to the job — with no loss of seniority.

If they failed to pass DHS muster in six months, Tom Cat promised one week’s pay for every year of service, plus cashed-out sick, holiday and vacation days and health care for 90 days.

The remaining 15 workers have yet to take the deal — but Tom Cat was leaving the offer on the table for a few more days, said BCTGM Local 53 president Joyce Alston.”

Compare this to what the left-labor publication Labor Notes recommended to its trade unionist and militant worker readers:

“Does your union have contract negotiations coming up? Start talking about how you can use bargaining to strengthen workplace protection for immigrant members.

UNITE HERE Local 2850 in the Bay Area has won language that allows workers to take leaves of absence—and protects their seniority—if they need time to complete immigration paperwork. It bars employers from penalizing workers who change their names or social security numbers.

The contracts also limit how employers cooperate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, “so they don’t go over and above what is required [by law],” says President Wei-Ling Huber. And the local has negotiated a legal fund that employers pay into, which members can draw on for immigration-related cases.” 

They also published an example of model contract language to protect undocumented members. The model contract language was negotiated by an SEIU local, the same International union to which Luciano belongs.

BCTGM Local 53 could basically substitute itself for the most progressive UNITE HERE or SEIU local in that Labor Notes article with its application of what is essentially the best the so-called “labor-left” can come up with– maintenance of seniority, leave of absence, employers sticking to a minimalist cooperation with ICE, severance pay and limited continuation of benefits, possible joint employer-union funding legal counsel/assistance, etc.

No one on the inside is even talking about mobilization let alone resistance.

Why not?

BCTGM Local 53 has 2,150 members in the NY-NJ area, of which only a small fraction work at Tom Cat Bakery, of which 26 were directly affected by this I-9 audit (over half of which were terminated as a result).

As described in the last issue of Anti-Capital, sacrificing the interests of the minority for the majority of union members is just another day in the life, because after these workers lose their jobs today, the other 2,137 members are still going to have theirs tomorrow.

These contract provisions and negotiated settlements absolutely constitute material gains to defend. But they are not a solution for the special oppression faced by immigrant workers and in particular, those who are undocumented.

For identical reasons, the leadership, structure and the other 6,044 members of SEIU Local 26 in Minnesota will not engage in acts of resistance in Luciano’s case or that of any other members who are targeted by ICE– whether inside or outside of the workplace.

In addition, Luciano’s case highlights the myth of ‘sanctuaries’, be it cities, counties or any other administrative or regional division of the state. The local newspaper said as much when it reported on his re-incarceration immediately after being released on bail:

“He is now in the Carver County jail, pending removal proceedings, ICE said in a statement. Protesters on Tuesday questioned that turn of events and the role of the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office.

Sheriff Richard Stanek has said that though his office does not honor ICE requests to hold inmates for immigration agents, it will notify ICE when the subject of a request is about to be released. His office said it was simply a housing facility in the Morales case.”

How hollow the claim of ‘sanctuary’ is when the end result remains the same with or without such pretensions. The designation of a ‘sanctuary’ is based on the timeline of when and why local police cooperate with ICE– as though it matters whether they ‘hold’ immigrants for ICE or simply ‘alert’ them when an undocumented immigrant is going to leave a particular facility.

There are promising, if embryonic and muted, developments which show the way toward class-based resistance, and it’s in the growing over and functional unity of particular channels of the contemporary class struggle.

This can be seen in the growing formal and informal involvement of the labor movement and explicit working-class issues emerging in the struggle against voter suppression in South Carolina, where the fight by low wage workers for $15 an hour and trade union rights for public sector workers has merged with the demand to repeal voter ID laws. The working-class is intuitively connecting the struggle against voter suppression to other manifestations of its class interests.

This can be seen in the undercurrent to the insufficient but first rudimentary efforts by American trade unionists to both organize and explicitly defend undocumented immigrant workers: they have finally admitted, openly, that undocumented immigrants are members worth defending, that the needs and interests of undocumented immigrant members are union interests and needs. As inadequate as these new efforts have been, as in the cases of Tom Cat Bakery workers in New York or the contract language negotiated by SEIU and UNITE HERE, it is a first step that’s been painfully absent ever since 1881 when the AFL’s predecessor was formed and supported the exclusion of Chinese workers from America. In Minnesota, a workers’ center formed by immigrant workers successfully connected with an established trade union and won a significant victory. The working-class is intuitively connecting the struggle for immigrant rights to other manifestations of its class interests.

This can be seen with the AFL-CIO recently publishing the story of the racist origins of right-to-work legislation, mostly based on the work of the Labor and Working-Class History Association. This is an opening to breach the typical, decades-old objection to right-to-work legislation by trade unionists. This objection has always centered on the legal argument that the benefits of collective bargaining and union representation constitute private property which the state has no right to redistribute to the freeloaders who would benefit from union representation and collective bargaining while refusing to pay dues and cover its cost under a right-to-work arrangement. Instead, it opens a path to object to right-to-work on a class basis by recognizing right-to-work emerged as an attack on the proletariat that was layered upon and complimentary to previous attacks on the proletariat—specifically, the use of reactionary ideologies, legislation and terror to permanently isolate and degrade black labor. Even on the terrain of the AFL-CIO, with its lurid history of tolerating all varieties of reactionaries, the organized working-class can find a path to intuitively connect the struggle against right-to-work to the struggle against voter suppression (the degradation of black labor) and defense of immigrants (documented and undocumented) and manifest its class interests.

‘Unite and Fight’ sloganeering and ultra-radical sounding (but empty) demands must be replaced by the conscious effort to make tangible connections to real struggles and work for their growing-over. Unity born from the concrete, from the growing-over of material interests across the diverse segments of the class (white and non-white, immigrant and citizen, documented and undocumented, union and non-union), is manifesting. The path forward must be one of common work by socialists to cultivate and nurture this growing-over, to facilitate and escalate it. Our starting point must be the diverse manifestations of the class struggle as we find them.

To the credit of SEIU, they helped organize the support rally that was held in front of the jail in support of Luciano and to bring attention to his case, his struggle for asylum and the failure of the so-called ‘sanctuary’ of Minneapolis.

This is more than was done in the case of the Tom Cat Bakery workers, and that case directly involved the workplace—in other words, the immediate purview of their local union. However, while organizing, endorsing and participating in a demonstration is something, it isn’t a strategy. For years, undocumented immigrants have been considered an un-organize-able segment of the working-class. But examples like this recent victory in Minnesota definitively prove that this always was a mistaken notion, even when staying solely on the terrain of the traditional unionization campaign. Their victory is real; it happened. It’s a case that shows that promoting unionization of the undocumented isn’t an empty platitude. Neither is organized resistance to ICE.

In Arizona, the patient zero of the current crop of anti-immigrant legislation, undocumented leaders and activists have developed an effective means to actively resist punitive deportation sweeps and raids:

“. . . in the wake of S.B.1070, Puente adopted a new organizing strategy, setting up neighborhood defense committees, or comités del barrio, throughout Maricopa County. “We had to build a base,” Garcia explains; five or six leaders planning actions in a room was no longer enough. Through the comités, Puente cultivated relationships with hundreds of undocumented people and their families with the goal of piecing together a detailed understanding of how ICE and Arpaio worked. By 2011, it could draw a map tracing the system from arrest to deportation — and mark each point along the way where a person had the possibility of release.

In comités, people learned several ways of avoiding deportation. If a police officer pulled them over while driving, they could exercise their constitutional right to remain silent when they were asked whether they were American citizens. If an officer didn’t explicitly detain them, they could walk away from their cars to avoid further questions. If officers appeared at their homes, they could demand to see a warrant before opening the door. The comités also taught people how to argue their own cases if they were handed over to ICE. (Undocumented immigrants have no right to a public defender but often may plead their cases before an immigration judge.) Puente encouraged its members to hash out legal strategies with a lawyer before they ever were detained — and to sign a copy of a Department of Homeland Security form authorizing media interviews in detention. Because their weekly meetings built genuine social ties, the comités also helped mobilize rapid responses to deportation. Members were more likely to show up for one another at protest rallies.”

This is a model of resistance that is working. Organized undocumented workers have the potential to become the center of gravity in organizing resistance to ICE—in the workplace, and by extension and inertia, the rest of the undocumented immigrant community. Agitating for the use of union resources to organize and train immigrants with the tools to resist the modern police/deportation apparatus exemplified in Arizona’s SB1070 is no hollow demand or vain sloganeering.

Links between immigrant workers’ centers and the trade unions already exist. At the top of the labor movement, formal partnership arrangements have developed between the National Day Laborer Organizing Network and the AFL-CIO, at the regional level like the cooperation between the New York Taxi Drivers Alliance and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and at the local level through situations like that in the Twin Cities with CTUL and SEIU Local 26.

The growing movement to both unionize and specifically represent undocumented workers through the development of collective bargaining contract language that deals with undocumented needs and interests is real.

Deliberately building on these links and widening this breach to create more space for practical class unity is a concrete potential in the present moment. The momentum created in the significant victory by unionized undocumented workers in Minnesota has built a significant membership base in their local union. As members they have a say in what their dues money is spent on. Use of the union hall(s) and offices for training sessions and meetings on resistance to ICE, deportation and anti-immigrant legislation; free up union staff to provide administrative support to training and undocumented organizing efforts; use of union financial resources to fund the nuts and bolts of creating the organizational infrastructure and logistics to launch a campaign on the lines of what immigrant rights groups like Puente have done in Arizona are examples of the possibilities. Achieving membership equality with their co-workers and co-members with citizenship was a highly significant development. It’s necessary to leverage this victory to ensure that no more of their co-workers, family members and neighbors are locked-up, on or off the clock, and slated for deportation.

You can read more about Luciano’s case on the Facebook page that was created for his defense.


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