Saturday, September 13, 2008

Original Workers Overcome Divisions After Mississippi Raid

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."


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