1,282 illegal aliens were arrested in Swift & Co. meat-packing plants in six states on Dec. 12, 2006. More than 1000 federal agents swarmed the plants in near-simultaneous raids. Most of 1,300 were slated for immediate deportation, while a few were held pending other criminal charges.
“This investigation has uncovered a disturbing front in the war against illegal immigration,” Julie L. Myers, the head of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said at a press conference. “We believe that the genuine identities of possibly hundreds of U.S. citizens are being stolen or hijacked by criminal organizations and sold to illegal aliens in order to gain unlawful employment in this country.”
Unions see it differently. The United Food & Commercial Workers union, which represents 10,000 employees at five of the six affected plants, was outraged. “Essentially, the agents stormed the plants, many of them in riot gear, in an effort designed to terrorize the workforce,” UFCW food division director Mark Lauritsen said in a prepared statement.
Some 12% of all unionized members at the five plants organized by the UFCW were found to be here illegally.
Nonetheless, the union has been vigorous in its defense of its undocumented workers. The union spokeswoman, Jill Cashen, quickly announced that the union’s lawyers would go to federal court to block the deportation of the almost 1,300 workers snared in the raid. “Our job is to seek to end any point of exploitation at the hands of employers or the government that takes place,” Cashen told Pajamas Media. “It’s our job to defend workers.”
Defending illegal workers against deportation, even if they’re union members, marks a sharp break with more than a century of union policy. Up until the present moment, unions have opposed not only illegal migration but immigration in all forms. Richard Vedder, a professor of economics at Ohio University, has written a number of well-regarded books and articles about immigration and labor policy. “Historically, this would have been unheard of,” Vedder told Pajamas Media. “The traditional AFL craft unions were anti-immigration.”
What triggered the change?
As union membership plummeted, union attitudes toward immigration have shifted. Private sector unions accounted for only 7.9% of the private workforce in 2004, down from 12% in 1990, and well below the peak of 35.7% in 1953, according to the Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics.
In search of new members, unions have increasingly reached out to immigrants with little evident concern about their legal residency status. In fact, union leaders plainly don’t care about how many of their members are illegal. UFCW spokeswoman Jill Cashen told Pajamas Media: “The immigration policy that exists in this country turns over immigration authorization to employers. The union doesn’t hire people. Our job is to represent people hired at the plant. We will not discriminate and be a second immigration authority.”
In addition to the five lawsuits related to the raids on the Swift plants, one federal official told Pajamas Media that there are at least three other cases in which unions are knowingly defending illegal workers. Defending illegal immigrants with union-paid lawyers is rapidly moving from the unthinkable to the commonplace. “When our workers are at work and get confronted by federal agents with guns, that is our business,” Cashen told Pajamas Media.
Indeed, some pro-union observers see the federal raids not as ordinary law enforcement actions but some sinister anti-union activity. “The real motivation for these immigration raids is more cynical,” writes David Bacon in the web edition of The American Prospect, a liberal monthly. The raids, Bacon writes, are “concentrated in workplaces where immigrants are organizing unions or standing up for their rights.”
But the idea that the Swift & Co. raids were inspired by the employer seems farfetched. The federal raids were a financial disaster for Swift & Co., costing the firm its reputation and an estimated $30 million: $20 million in lost operating efficiency and another $10 million to find, hire or retain workers.
Another factor driving unions to embrace undocumented workers is falling wages. While meat-packing processing workers enjoyed a rise in pay from $8.06 per hour in 1980 to $11.80 per hour in 2000, a 46.4% increase, these gains have been outpaced by comparable manufacturing jobs, which experienced a 97.8% wage increase over the same period, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That 51.4% difference in the rise in hourly pay is caused in some measure by the availability of immigrants who are prepared to work for less pay than natives. In theory, unionizing immigrant workers should gradually erase that pay differential.
When immigrant workers cannot be directly unionized, unions are forming unprecedented partnerships with them. The AFL-CIO partnered with the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, an association of 40 worker centers across the country, in August 2006. AFL-CIO locals agreed to defend local worker centers from law enforcement and jointly seek better working conditions.
“The NDLON sprung up in 2000 as a collaborative effort between community-based organizations’ worker centers that support day laborers-overwhelmingly poor, illegal immigrants from Latin America-by providing meeting spaces, staff to handle workplace violations, and access to healthcare, English classes and workers’ rights education,” according to CNN.
Joseph A. McCartin, a labor historian at Georgetown University, told CNN that this alliance with illegal immigrant labor was surprising. “The AFL-CIO was for immigration enforcement in 1999,” he said.
Shady union organizers sometimes exploit workers with limited English, tricking them into joining organized labor against their will or unlawfully forcing their dismissal if they refuse to join the union. California’s Agriculture Labor Relations Board found that more than 100 berry pickers had been unlawfully terminated at the union’s insistence when they declined to join the United Farm Workers union. California awarded more than $105,000 in back pay to the workers. “It’s an outrage that the union would attempt to drive dissenting workers into financial ruin,” National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation vice president Stefan Gleason said.
These days, unions are even against sanctions for companies that hire illegal immigrants, as required under the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (sometimes known as the “Simpson-Mazzoli Act”). Under that law, it became both a civil and criminal offense for employers to hire illegal workers for the first time in American history. At the time, unions were strong supporters of the legislation. Now they want it gutted or repealed. “We call for the repeal of employer sanctions,” UFCW spokeswoman Jill Cashen told Pajamas Media.
Representatives from a number of unions have endorsed a document called the Unity Blueprint for Immigration Reform, which calls for massively liberalizing immigration laws, including the repeal of employer sanctions. This document was signed by representatives of the AFL-CIO and United Farm Workers union, and has been endorsed by the UFCW.
Unions are getting increasing support from scholars. Employer sanctions are already doing more harm than good, according to Yale Law School clinical professor Michael J. Wishnie. In a forthcoming law review article entitled “Prohibiting the Employment of Unauthorized Immigrants: The Experiment Fails,” Professor Wishnie argues for their repeal.
Opponents of illegal immigration contend that employer sanctions should be toughened, not abandoned, and extended to unions. “At some point you need to go Enron on those guys and send the CEO to jail,” John Keeley, director of communications at the Center for Immigration Studies, told Pajamas Media.
Under current law, the legal incentives of business and labor point in opposite directions: firms face fines and other sanctions for hiring undocumented workers, while the quickest path to union membership growth is by turning a blind eye to illegal immigration. Sanctioning unions that allow illegal immigrants to join their ranks would harmonize incentives, and give both Big Business and Big Labor the same interest in obeying the law.
“Perhaps we need to rethink all of our immigration laws,” Prof. Vedder told Pajamas Media, noting that he favors more libertarian immigration policy. “But the laws being what they are,” he said, “perhaps we should rethink this mismatch in incentives. If we apply these laws to employers, we should apply them to unions as well.”
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a Pajamas Media correspondent, is the author of My Year Inside Radical Islam. Richard Miniter is the Washington editor of Pajamas Media and the best-selling author of Losing bin Laden and Shadow War.