Immigrants Strike by the Thousands

by Dan DiMaggio and Sonia Singh

Tens of thousands of immigrant workers struck across the country during “Day without Immigrants” actions, including 30,000 in Milwaukee. Photo: Susan Ruggles 

Arkansas poultry workers, Brooklyn warehouse workers and house cleaners, Twin Cities roofers, and thousands of students in places like Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Charlotte, North Carolina. They were all among the tens of thousands who stayed home from work or school across the country during Thursday, February 16’s “Day without Immigrants.”

The action, largely spread over social media and informal networks in working-class immigrant communities, was a response to President Donald Trump’s promise to dramatically expand immigration enforcement and the wave of raids by Immigration and Customs Enforcement the prior week.

YOUR RIGHT TO STRIKE

In a Facebook post, Minnesota worker center CTUL suggested sample language for workers who planned to strike:

“My co-workers and I are going on strike to show that immigrant workers are a crucial part of the economy. We want our employers to declare that they will not discriminate against workers based on national origin or religion. We also want our employer to call the White House to oppose Donald Trump’s immigration policies. We are on a one-day strike on February 16, 2017 and we will come back to work the next day, on February 17, 2017.”

“Submit this message by letter, text, or email to your boss,” wrote CTUL. “Keep a copy and document any response you get from your boss. If you are a member of a union, contact your union rep first.”

Workers thinking about participating in similar strikes may also want to consult the NLRB’s Guideline Memorandum Concerning Unfair Labor Practice Charges Involving Political Advocacy, issued in the wake of the mass strike by immigrant workers on May 1, 2006.

For more on organizing collective actions even in non-union workplaces, see “How to Beat Retaliation, Even without a Union” from the January 2016 issue of Labor Notes.

“They’re calling us criminals and rapists,” said Jose Flemate, a member of Roofers Local 96 in St. Paul, Minnesota, who struck with his co-workers. “We’re not like that—we came to America looking for a better life, and we worked hard and built America.

“We want to make sure that people understand that this city would stop functioning if we weren’t there to build, or cook, or clean,” said Ligia Guallpa, an organizer with the Worker’s Justice Project in Brooklyn.

WORD SPREADS LIKE WILDFIRE

In most areas, strikes weren’t coordinated by any organization—and even veteran organizers were taken aback by the scope. “This is a definitely a time when the movement is ahead of organizing,” said Susan Kikuchi, an organizer with the Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en Lucha (CTUL) in the Twin Cities.

“It’s incredibly surprising to get a call saying, ‘We’re 120 workers and we’ve already told the employer we’re not going in on Thursday,’” said Jorge Mujica, an organizer with Chicago-area worker center ARISE.

After getting a number of similar calls from workers who said they’d already asked their boss for the day off and wanted to know where to meet, ARISE decided to coordinate an action. With less than two days’ notice, over 3,000 people showed up at Chicago’s Union Park.

Restaurant worker Jose (who preferred to not give his last name), a member of the Chicago Workers Collaborative, first heard about the Day without Immigrants on the news. Friends promoted the strike through social media. “People were saying, ‘Don’t go to work, don’t buy anything, don’t go to school.’”

Many of his friends and family members did not go to work. “Everybody was like, ‘We’ve had enough. We don’t really care if they fire us.’” It was the first time he had ever participated in a march or protest.

Flemate also decided to strike after seeing an announcement on social media.

“I said, ‘Look what happened with the Muslim community. They organized in a few hours [after the travel ban],’” he says. “That community got united and showed to the world and the media that they were defending their rights. So why don’t we get united and defend our rights too?”

He was able to convince three co-workers at his roofing company. “The guys said, ‘Yeah, we have bills to pay and we have families, but this is something very important to participate in.’”

Flemate met up with other workers and students in front of the Mexican consulate, then marched to downtown St. Paul, picking up more and more people along the way. He estimated there were 3,000-4,000 people at the state Capitol by 1 p.m.—even though no rally had been called.

In Portland, Oregon, local Latino radio stations announced the strike and encouraged listeners to participate. No one organization took the lead, but their were multiple rallies and many businesses closed down, said Romeo Sosa of the VOZ Workers Education Project, a Portland day laborer organization.

His organization is witnessing widespread fear and panic over rumors of immigration raids, which helped drive participation in the strike. VOZ has set up a raid hotline and is mobilizing rapid response teams.

Fernando Garcia of the Northwest Arkansas Workers’ Justice Center said that most of the organizing in his area was by word of mouth or took place online, mainly through Facebook. He estimated fifty Latino and immigrant businesses across the region, the poultry capital of the world, closed in support.

The center opened its doors for any striking workers to meet and strategize with other strikers. Around 11 a.m., folks started trickling in. Strikers talked about how to get more co-workers involved next time.

“Not everyone went on strike,” said Maria Araujo, who works in one of the local poultry plants. “So we need get more folks involved. As a mother, it’s very important to me to show my children who I choose not to send to school today the importance of standing up for ourselves.”

RIGHT TO ORGANIZE

Organizers scrambled to make sure workers knew their rights. “Having organized strikes in the past, we knew employers would retaliate,” said Kikuchi.

CTUL posted a Facebook image outlining steps workers could take to boost their protection against retaliation. These included communicating to their boss the reason for striking—via letter, text, or e-mail, placing a demand on management, and making clear that workers would return to work the day after the strike.

The Brooklyn-based Worker’s Justice Project phone-banked members who organizers knew planned to strike, sharing similar information. “We had a lot of conversations with members about what ‘protected concerted activity’ was, and also that they needed to connect their strike to the conditions in their workplace,” said Guallpa. Under U.S. labor law, workers have the right to organize collectively to address workplace issues, including the right to strike without being fired.

“Tell your boss you’re striking not just because of political beliefs, but because of the conditions on your job,” said Guallpa. “Tell them your action is an action to improve wages, and to improve health and safety.”

The center even suggested that workers post on Facebook their intentions to strike over working conditions—so that if the employer retaliated, they would have proof.

MILWAUKEE SHUTS DOWN

A massive Day without Latinos, Immigrants, and Refugees on Monday, February 13 in Milwaukee, coordinated by the immigrant rights group Voces de La Frontera, was an inspiration for many around the country. Voces estimates 30,000 people marched downtown, with buses bringing in supporters from 25 cities across the state.

The strike was called in response to the fear that Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke, a major Trump supporter, would begin deputizing county police to arrest undocumented immigrants.

After November’s election, Voces immediately started taking the temperature of the community via mass meetings. “We were asking people, ‘Would you be willing to organize more sustained actions for multiple days or multiple times?,’” says Christine Neumann-Ortiz, the organization’s executive director. “The response we got was overwhelmingly yes, and that people were even willing to go further than one day.”

The strike was the sixth organized by Voces since 2006. Its success owes in part to the network of churches and supportive small businesses that grew out of another Day without Latinos last year to protest a state bill outlawing sanctuary cities.

Voces is now calling for escalating actions leading up to a national Day without Latinos, Immigrants, and Refugees on Monday, May 1 to demand Trump rescind all of his executive orders on immigration. In the meantime, the organization is building its rapid response network, recruiting churches to provide sanctuary for undocumented immigrants, holding know your rights trainings, and engaging local law enforcement to limit cooperation with ICE. For more info, visit vdlf.org.

Still, over 100 workers around the country were fired for participating in the strike. These include 30 bricklayers in Commerce City, Colorado, 21 workers at a boat building company in Lexington, South Carolina, and 12 line cooks at a restaurant in Catoosa, Oklahoma.

In many instances, however, worker centers and immigrant organizations have been able to bring enough community pressure to get employers to back off retaliation.

That was the case at Chicago grocery chain Pete’s Market. On February 15, a worker posted a picture of a letter workers had received from management there, threatening that anyone who didn’t show up to work the next day would be suspended for a week.

ARISE responded right away with a letter advising Pete’s Market that the workers’ action was protected under labor law. Meanwhile the original post circulated quickly on social media, along with a call for a boycott. Two and half hours later, the company put out a statement that it would be closing six stores for the day, so that workers could participate in the day of action.

Overall, it seems the amount of retaliation around the country was low. Kikuchi said the retaliation was less than what she expected.

CTUL backed workers facing reprisal in eight workplaces, following its usual playbook. After determining how many workers are affected, organizers help workers make a plan, which usually involves calling the boss right away. “A lot of employers haven’t dealt with strikes,” said Kikuchi. “We tell them this strike is legal and protected and the community is watching.”

Often, that causes employers to back down. If not, CTUL organizes a group of allies to accompany workers back to work on their first shift after a strike. CTUL has helped workers resolve five of the eight cases this way so far. Three are still pending.

Although CTUL and other worker centers do everything they can to make sure workers will have legal recourse, ultimately, “it’s community support that’s protecting workers and letting them go back to work, not the law,” said Kikuchi.

It’s important to let workers know that organizations have their backs if they do suffer retaliation, said Neumann-Ortiz of Voces, even if they are unable to get their jobs back. “We’ve worked with people to find new work, or to pay medical bills, or to make rent payments. Workers feel like it’s important to tell that story.” Still, she says, the amount of retaliation has been relatively small in the six Day without Immigrants actions the organization has pulled off since 2006.

AWAKENING A GIANT

As the day unfolded, businesses around the country shut their doors and classrooms stood half-empty. In Grand Rapids, Michigan—hometown of new Education Secretary Betsy DeVos—so many students stayed home that the school day will not count.

Isabel Castillo, a Worker’s Justice Center member and housecleaner, kept her son home from school. When she brought him back the next day, “people were very emotional. We felt like human beings,” she said. “We lost a day of work, but we took a big step forward.”

Several organizations have issued a call for a national Day without Immigrants on May 1. These include Voces in Milwaukee, SEIU-United Service Workers West and the Women’s March in California, and the national Cosecha network.

“We believe strongly that the strategy of a communitywide general strike must be an important tool,” said Neumann-Ortiz. “I think immigrant workers have an inherent understanding of their power in the workplace. They know the economic value they produce.”

“The giant is waking up again,” said Mujica. “It feels like 2006. The community is ready to do something, the community is ready to act.”

[Some quotes in this article have been translated from Spanish.]

A version of this article appeared in Labor Notes #456, March 2017.  It is reposted on Talking Union with the permission of the authors.

How Immigrants Built Labor and the U.S. Left

How Immigrants Built the American Left—And Can Build It Again
Nelson Lichtenstein ▪ February 22, 2017
day_without_immigrants_dc2_16_17666
At a “Day Without Immigrants” rally in Washington, D.C., February 16 (Lorie Shaull / Flickr)
Last Thursday’s “Day Without Immigrants” work stoppages, which closed hundreds of restaurants, grocery stores, garages, retail shops, and other businesses, offered a taste of the capacity for militant action wielded by immigrant America. Led in many cities by Latino activists calling for a “huelga general,” the February 16 coast-to-coast walkouts augur well for an even larger set of strikes and demonstrations, including a March 8 “Day Without a Woman” and quite possibly a May Day general strike, already endorsed by one of the Service Employees International Union’s biggest and most active California locals. This year’s May Day mobilization looks to replicate or even exceed the stupendous success of the original May 1, 2006 “Day without Immigrants,” which shut down agribusiness fields, poultry processing plants, warehouses, and the ports of Los Angeles, Long Beach, and Newark.

Read the entire piece at Dissent.

Labor, Civil Rights Groups,Condemn New Trump Deportations

Trumka_Center_for_American_Progress_TPP_TTIP_Global_New_DealRichard Trumpka: 20/15/2017- AFL-CIO Now

Working people deserve to go to work every day without fear for their safety or being harassed. They deserve to go out the door and make a living without worrying about their lives being upended.

These are sacred tenets people and their unions value.

Hotel workers, farm workers, teachers, taxi drivers, airport, construction and retail workers have been making their voices heard in Los Angeles; Phoenix; Austin, Texas; New York City; Minneapolis, Minnesota; Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and many points in between over the past week. Why?  We are defending our neighbors, co-workers and friends who are being swept up in a series of immigration raids. Working people understand in our bones that when the government terrorizes people who are simple living their lives and going to work each day, we all lose. When we allow ourselves to be divided, we are weak, when we are weak, standards erode for all of us.

The early weeks of the Trump administration have sent alarming signals that its law enforcement priorities will target and punish working people, rather than those who steal their wages, harass them on the job and expose them to dangerous working conditions. Such strategies make people afraid to go to work and take their children to school, let alone take action to demand better working conditions or speak up when they encounter abuse. Moreover, they drive down the pay and protections for all working people—immigrant and non-immigrant alike.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, sometimes in collaboration with local law enforcement, has arrested hundreds of immigrants, regardless of how long they have lived in the United States or how strong their ties to the community. These highly visible enforcement actions make working people far less likely to exercise their rights at work or to cooperate with law enforcement in their communities. Worse, we hear accounts that racial profiling tactics are leading to collateral arrests and that detainees are being denied due process and access to counsel—further chilling the exercise of fundamental rights.

The labor movement calls on the administration to rein in the tactics that terrorize immigrant workers and fail to make our communities safer or our jobs better. Cities and states around the country have shown a better way forward by committing to ensure basic rights and protections to all members of their communities. The labor movement will stand proudly and firmly with all local leaders who support workers’ rights and prevent exploitation. We know these communities are defending our right to organize to lift standards and cracking down on abusive employers who retaliate against working people. These are core values of the labor movement. Continue reading

Unions Resist Trump

It’s been just one month since President Trump was sworn in, and already we have seen attacks on working people, women, Muslims, the press, immigrants… and the list goes on and on.

But Americans are standing up to fight back in a way I’ve never seen. The day after the inauguration, we marched with millions of women and men in Washington, D.C., and around the world to stand up against Trump’s agenda—and we’ve stood again and again to oppose Trump’s outrageous policies.

People are standing up—and resisting and persisting is working. But with the GOP leadership bent on giving the wealthy steep tax cuts while cutting funding from vital programs like public education and stripping Americans of their rights and their healthcare, the pressure on Congress is absolutely imperative if we hope to stop the worst of Trump’s plans. Continue reading

Puzder Withdraws!

 

Si Se Puede! We have great news to share with you. News has just broken that Trump’s unqualified, anti-worker nominee to be U.S. Labor Secretary, Andy Puzder, has withdrawn his nomination in the face of growing opposition by senators from both parties.

We hope he chooses for his next nominee someone who believes in enforcing and abiding by the nation’s labor laws.

———————

CNN: Andrew Puzder withdraws as a labor secretary nominee

(CNN) Andrew Puzder has withdrawn as President Donald Trump’s choice for labor secretary, a source close to Puzder and a senior administration official said.

The decision came as Senate Republicans told the White House he was losing support, a senior GOP source said, adding there were four firm Republican no votes and possibly up to 12.

Puzder needs at least 50 votes to pass with the tie-breaking vote of Vice President Mike Pence, and Republicans only hold control of 52 seats.

Puzder, the CEO of the company that owns the Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. fast food chains, has faced fierce opposition mostly from Democrats in part related to his position on labor issues as well as the fact that he employed an undocumented housekeeper. Continue reading

Myths About Immigration

Myths about immigration.

The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) has created some information cards concerning some of the most popular myths about immigration. For example, the myth that Immigrants take our jobs.

The cards and information are here. http://www.seiu.org/cards/the-8-worst-myths-about-immigration

Why U.S. Unions Must Organize Globally

by Carl Proper

Global_union-GUF_logo

“If a worker in China or India can do the same work as one in the United States, then the laws of economics dictate that they will end up earning similar wages….  That’s good news for overall economic efficiency, for consumers, and for workers in developing countries – but not for workers in developed countries who now face low-cost competition.”

“New World Order:  Labor, Capital, and Ideas in the Power Law Economy”; Erik Brynjolfsson, Andrew McAfee, and Michael Spence; Foreign Affairs, July-August, 2014

Academics have described the world.  The point, however, is to change it.

The world the capitalists have created is irreversibly global.  As they scan the world for the cheapest qualified labor, a global workforce scours the planet for opportunity.  From the perspective of a global capitalist, U.S. workers differ from workers in other parts of the world mainly in their cost.  For manufacturing industries, this means sending the work where labor is cheapest.  For hotel and some other service workers, by contrast, wage competition is local. Hotels catering to the global wealthy can afford to pay above-average wages.  But competition for better-paid jobs will grow fiercer as other wages fall.  No industry or union can indefinitely escape the pressure of low global wages.  Over time, national differences will decline, and wages will tend to equalize in services as well as manufacturing.

Without global solidarity, they will not equalize up.

In my original union, the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union / ILGWU, for almost a century, organizers “followed the bundle,” as employers ran from Manhattan to Brooklyn to Pennsylvania and New England, and eventually to Los Angeles and Atlanta.  And early generations of internationally-minded, immigrant labor leaders like Sam Gompers, John L. Lewis, Sidney Hillman, David Dubinsky and Jay Lovestone understood Europe as part of their territory.  They were comfortable meeting with unionists – and national Presidents — there.  But for their U.S.-born successors, foreign was foreign.  Organizing stopped at the water’s edge.

U.S. union “demands,” of course, are much less welcomed by most overseas governments than employer dollars.  But mostly, we have simply not imagined a better world, or considered that within the range of business unionism.  With the heroic exception of the 1999 “Battle in Seattle,” we have not demanded that U.S. labor or human rights accompany U.S. job exports.

Today, we are overpowered, when not ignored, by worldly corporate honchos.  And we are in steady decline as nominally American corporations expand even in formerly communist nations like China or Vietnam.

I believe that Unions, like all organizations in our time, must globalize or die.  If global parity is destiny, as the authors quoted above assert, only global solidarity can equalize wages up.

Is global working class cooperation possible? 

Most U.S. trade unionists dismiss this out of hand.  But I have seen global solidarity succeed among workers and governments — and it works.
https://wordpress.com/post/talkingunion.wordpress.com/2816

Half a century ago, I was a Peace Corps community organizer in a Panama City squatter community.  My most savvy and committed fellow-organizer was communist (“Partido del Pueblo”) bus driver and union leader Carlos Zorita – “Camacho” to all who knew him.  He read books.  And he had balls.  I was his “Ugly American” friend.  On the massive front bumper of his bus were the words “Realidad Objetiva.”  He understood the sociology of his country and the world.  He was sympathetic to the left-oriented military dictator, Omar Torrijos, who took power eleven days after the election — for the third time in forty years — of pro-fascist coffee plantation owner Arnulfo Arias.  When now-President Torrijos came to our neighborhood to speak with the people, Camacho was the only resident with the nerve to stand next to the General and propose what our “Betterment Committee” had formulated:  residents wanted sewage lines, paved roads and, eventually, title to the land.  Torrijos’ wealthy successor, Ricardo de la Espriella (then in Torrijos’ cabinet) walked our muddy streets with our betterment committee.  Torrijos listened.    Over the next few years, all this was done.  U.S. A.I.D. provided a share of the funding.

It was a win-win for global cooperation, U.S. — and labor — values.

Also accomplished, over the next few years, on a larger playing field:  a shift in control over the Panama Canal from the U.S. to Panama, as negotiated by Torrijos and U.S. President Jimmy Carter. Despite predictions of catastrophe under Latino management, U.S. and global shipping are unharmed. The Canal has been successfully widened.  U.S.-Panama relations are good.

No harm, no foul – no loser.  The doubters were wrong.  All humans are created equal.

When I visited the old neighborhood two years ago, I did not hear complaints of Yankee imperialism.  With paved streets and modern water infrastructure, homeowners had improved the cinder-block houses they had once built and now legally owned.  They had become the struggling middle class, friendly to the U.S.A..

Would they, or other Panamanian workers, object to joining a U.S.- based union, and building strength, with the understanding that a truly International union was the goal?  In my view, no.­­­  U.S. Labor’s isolation and decline reflect no defeat by global capitalism or global working-class anti-imperialism.  We have surrendered to our own fear and ignorance, without a fight.  Afraid to grow, we have begun to die. What is wrong with “workers of the world, unite!”?

For a union with global ambition and imagination, Panama, the crossroads of the world, is an obvious organizing opportunity.

Hotels and casinos could be perfect early targets.  Every U.S. hotel chain has one or several hotels in Panama.  U.S. President Donald Trump owns two hotels, and several other buildings.  Casinos catering to global travelers prosper.  Panama City could be a base for a UNITE HERE VP, on a par with San Francisco or Las Vegas.  And after success in Panama, a truly “International” union could look to Costa Rica Argentina, and Vietnam.  Why would they not?

Victory for UNITE HERE in Panama could mark a turning point for U.S. labor.  We might salvage our long-term future by going global like every other organization.

But UNITE HERE, like other U.S. unions, has no Panama affiliate.  We have not challenged global hotel chains on a global basis.  We are, as the story goes, more sensitive than capitalists to the patriotic sentiments of people in other countries.  But what if the people would actually prefer a U.S. standard of living?  How would we even know?

I believe the barrier to global unions is maintained by our parochial union leaders, each with his or her established (and shrinking) turf.  Most seem unmotivated or baffled by the thought of challenging capital on its limitless turf.

Does this matter?  I would say that if U.S. and Panamanian representatives could work together to turn a squatter neighborhood into a middle-class community, or an imperialist Canal Zone into a highly efficient point of pride for that nation; and if nominally “U.S.” corporations can manage much of Panama’s economy; then U.S. labor must not fear organizing Hyatt, or Trump, or Hilton wherever they roam.

Why should we not look forward to a Mexican President of the UAW, or a Hong Kong Vice President of SEIU?  Are we really concerned about appearing “imperialist?”   Or do we simply know so little about the world that we are afraid to put our toes in the global water?

If we cannot follow, we will not survive.

Is asking U.S. labor to go global like asking a hippopotamus to fly?

Ask any capitalist.  You grow or die.  There is a lot of evidence that today’s U.S. labor movement, after inheriting the fruits of a century of struggle, is dying for lack of respect and innovation.  We must return to pursuing capital, as we did in our glory days, wherever it goes.

Globally.

Carl

Carl Proper was a member and staff member for the ILGWU, UNITE and UNITE HERE for forty years. After leaving the Peace Corps, he took a job as a cloth spreader in a union factory, and was hired from there as an Organizer. He served at various times as Organizer, Educational Director and Business Agent for the New England Joint Board; and as Assistant and Executive Assistant to ILGWU and UNITE President Jay Mazur.  He lives in Bethesda, MD. He can be reached at cproper2@gmail.com