Should Illegal Workers Be Unionized?

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Julio Vargas sits quietly in a small gray house in Red Springs, North Carolina, making notes in his native Spanish before another day of working to organize Smithfield Foods meatpacking workers. Vargas, originally from Mexico, was fired from his sanitation contractor job for Smithfield, in nearby Tar Heel, N.C., in 2003 after protesting working conditions. Now, an organizer for the United Food Commercial Workers Union, he is part of a growing nationwide effort to organize what was once considered a no-win labor population: Latino immigrant workers.

The Latino immigrant workers at Smithfield, the world's largest hog-processing plant, are not union members. But a month ago nearly 1,000 of them walked off the job for two days, protesting hundreds of recent firings in a crackdown on undocumented workers. The company quickly capitulated and agreed to rehire the workers, and made other concessions, like meeting with the workers' representatives and agreeing that no one would be disciplined for the walkout.

Smithfield is just one place where immigrant workers are showing new assertiveness: walking off jobs, going on strike and joining unions. In the past, unions used to regard immigrant workers as the enemy, saying they depressed wages, took jobs and agreed to work without benefits or contracts. Now, with the large influx of Latino immigrant workers, unions are taking a different tack — moving to organize this growing work force by learning to speak Spanish literally and figuratively.

In Los Angeles and Sacramento, hotel workers have recently won contracts by taking to the streets and going on strike. In Houston, Latino immigrant janitors went on strike in late October for a month, blocking downtown traffic until they won an agreement between the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and five major cleaning companies for higher wages, medical benefits, paid vacation and more hours. "We're building a much broader movement," says Stephen Lerner, director of the SEIU's Justice for Janitors campaign. "The union writes, talks and acts in the language and culture of the people we're organizing."

At Smithfield, the trouble began when the company voluntarily entered into a program with the Immigration Customs and Enforcement agency to review Social Security numbers of workers, after immigration agents raided a plant in Virginia and found several undocumented workers. About 500 to 600 workers at the Tar Heel plant were found to have Social Security numbers that could not be verified, and Smithfield fired the workers. The workers argued that the company did not give them enough time to resolve their Social Security problems. (Not every person with Social Security problems was illegal; some numbers may not have matched because the workers had married, changed their names, or had applied for a new number at some point.) But Smithfield executives insisted they had little choice. "The last thing we wanted to do was to let those people go — some of them had been with the company for eight or nine years — but there was nothing we could do," says Dennis Pittman, a spokesman for Smithfield.

"The workers who had been notified felt like death-row inmates waiting for their turn," says Eduardo Peņa, the lead Smithfield union organizer for the United Food Commercial Workers Union. "So, people said, 'This is it.'" The union says it did not organize the job walkoff last month, which brought the plant — which slaughters more than 30,000 hogs a day — to a standstill. Pittman downplayed the impact the walkout had on the plant saying it reduced their productively by about 25%. And while the workers have won a stay, the company says it is only temporary unless they can fix their Social Security number problems.

But the walkout at Smithfield has given Vargas and other union organizers confidence they can make more inroads with immigrant workers. "We are the same people from the same places in Mexico," Vargas says. "People have a lot of trust in us. All my family, my wife, my cousins, they work in the plant, and now that I work for the union, they trust me." He adds: "I think now they are understanding how to reach Latinos, because, look, I am Latino, I can say that the law says it doesn't matter if you are undocumented, you have the same rights as any other workers."

With reporting by Wendy Grossman/Houston