Original Workers Overcome Divisions After Mississippi Raid
Monday 08 September 2008
by: David Bacon, t r u t h o u t | Report
Laurel, Mississippi - In the recent raid of the Howard
Industries electrical plant in Laurel , Mississippi , 481
workers have been detained for almost two weeks in
Jena, Louisiana. Neither they nor their attorneys know
when they will be formally charged, deported or
released, and Barbara Gonzalez, spokesperson for the
Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, says
simply, "Their cases are being investigated."
"We don't know the fate of those people or what they
may be charged with," says Patricia Ice, attorney for
the Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance (MIRA).
"These people were rounded up and just dumped in a
privately run detention center. We've heard reports
that there weren't even enough beds and that people
were sleeping on the floor. Because they haven't been
charged, so far as we know, there's no process for them
to get bail. My gut reaction is that this is an outrage."
Ironically, Jena was the site last year of massive
protests over racial discrimination in the criminal
justice system, after a group of young African-American
men faced felony charges in a confrontation with a
group of young white men, who were not charged.
Approximately 100 women were released the day of the
Laurel raid for "humanitarian reasons," to care for
children or because they are pregnant, according to
ICE, and 50 of them have been required to wear ankle
bracelets with electronic monitoring devices. Their
situation is also desperate, according to MIRA
organizer Victoria Cintra. "People were living paycheck
to paycheck and rent is due," she explains. "They can't
work and provide for their families now, and many
others are dependent on husbands and fathers and
brothers who were all detained. We need to redefine
what humanitarian means."
Meanwhile, MIRA and other labor and community activists
say media coverage of the raid has heightened racial
tensions. Newspaper stories have painted a picture of a
plant in which African-American and white union members
were hostile to immigrants, based mostly on an incident
in which some workers "applauded" as their coworkers
were taken away by ICE agents. This simplistic picture
obscures the real conditions in the plant, activists
say, and the role the company itself played in
fomenting divisions among workers.
According to Clarence Larkin, African-American
president of IBEW Local 1317, the union at the plant,
"this employer pits workers against each other by
design, and breeds division among them that affects
everyone," he says. "By favoring one worker over
another, workers sometimes can't see who their real
enemy is. And that's what helps keep wages low."
Workers at Howard Industries, however, do not simply
look at each other as enemies across race lines. On
August 28, Cintra led a group of women fired in the
raid to the plant to demand their pay, after the
company denied them paychecks. Managers called Laurel
police. "They tried to intimidate us with 10 vehicles
of police and sheriffs. They tried to arrest me and
make us leave." After workers began chanting, "Let her
go!" and news reporters appeared on the scene, the
company finally agreed to distribute checks to about 70 people.
The following day, Cintra and the women returned to the
plant to get paychecks for other unpaid workers. They
sat on the grass across the street from the factory in
a silent protest. "When the shift changed,
African-American workers started coming out and they
went up to these Latina women and began hugging them.
They said things like, "We're with you. Do you need any
food for your kids? How can we help? You need to assert
your rights. We're glad you're here. We'll support
you.' There's a lot of support inside the factory for
these workers who were caught up in the raid."
Meanwhile, the union has been in negotiations with the
company since its contract expired at the beginning of
August. In preparation for those negotiations, the IBEW
brought in a Spanish-speaking organizer, Maria
Gonzalez, to recruit immigrant workers into the union.
She visited people at home to help explain the benefits
of belonging. Larkin says many immigrant workers
joined, complaining of bad treatment. "Supervisors yell
at people a lot," he says, "not just immigrants, but at
everyone. Howard has always been an anti-employee
company, and treats workers with no respect, as though
they make no contribution to its success."
When workers have volunteered to become stewards,
Larkin says, or to serve on the negotiations committee,
the company "institutes a very aggressive discipline
against them, so people fear reprisals. It's a
challenge to get people involved. Bear in mind, this is
the South. It's always a tall order to talk about
forming a union here."
Local 1317 hasn't been as active as other unions in
nearby poultry plants, however, in bringing workers
together across racial divides. In Mississippi fish
plants, Jaribu Hill, director of the Mississippi
Workers Center, has worked with unions to help workers
understand the dynamics of race. "We have to talk about
racism," she says. "The union focuses on the contract,
but skin color issues are still on the table. We don't
try to be the union, but we do try to keep a focus on
human rights." Organizing a multi-racial workforce
means recognizing the divisions between
African-Americans and immigrants. "We're coming
together like a marriage," she warns, "working across our divides."
Hill says it's important for workers to understand the
historical price paid for racial division in the South.
"Our conditions are the direct result of slavery," she
explains. "Today, Frito Lay wages in Mississippi are
still much lower than Illinois - $8.75 compared to
$13.75 an hour. This is the evolution of a historical
oppression. Immigrants have come here looking for
better lives - we came in chains."
Larkin makes the same point. Wages at Howard
Industries, the world's largest manufacturer of
electrical transformers, are $2 lower than other
companies in the industry, he says. That difference
goes into the pocket of the Howard family. "The people
who profit from Mississippi 's low wage system want to
keep it the way it is," alleges Jim Evans, a national
AFL-CIO staff member in Mississippi, a leading member
of the state legislature's Black Caucus, and MIRA's board chair.
Some state labor leaders, however, have contributed to
racial divisions and anti-immigrant hostility. After
the Howard Industries workers, many of them union
members, were arrested, state AFL-CIO President Robert
Shaffer told The Associated Press that he doubted that
immigrants could join unions if they were not in the
country legally. US labor law, however, holds that all
workers have union rights, regardless of immigration
status. It also says unions have a duty to represent
all members fairly and equally.
Divisions are likely to be deepened as well by repeated
public statements by ICE spokesperson Barbara Gonzalez
that the raid took place because of a tip by a "union
member" two years before. She claimed ICE waited two
years before conducting the raid, because "we took the
time needed for our investigation," but declined to say
how that investigation was conducted, or what led ICE
to believe the tip had come from a union member.
"It's hard to believe that a two-year-old phone call to
ICE led to this raid, but whether or not the call ever
took place, that possibility is a product of the
poisonous atmosphere fostered by politicians of both
parties in Mississippi ," says MIRA director Chandler .
"In the last election, Barbour and Republicans
campaigned against immigrants to get elected, but so
did all the Democratic statewide candidates except
Attorney General Jim Hood. The raid will make the climate even worse."
During the 2007 election campaign, the Ku Klux Klan
organized a 500-person rally in Tupelo , and when MIRA
organizer Erik Fleming urged Republican Governor Haley
Barbour to veto a bill making work a felony for the
undocumented, he was attacked by state anti-immigrant organizations.
Evans called the raid "an effort to drive immigrants
out of Mississippi . It is also an attempt to drive a
wedge between immigrants, African-Americans, white
people and unions - all those who want political change
here. But it will just make us more determined," he
declared. "We won't go back to the kind of racism
Mississippi has known throughout its past."