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The Tomatoes of Wrath September 26, 2011

Posted by rogerhollander in Agriculture, Human Rights, Immigration, Labor.
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Published on Monday, September 26, 2011 by TruthDig.com

  by  Chris Hedges

It is 6 a.m. in the parking lot outside the La Fiesta supermarket in Immokalee, Fla. Rodrigo Ortiz, a 26-year-old farmworker, waits forlornly in the half light for work in the tomato fields. White-painted school buses with logos such as “P. Cardenas Harvesting” are slowly filling with fieldworkers. Knots of men and a few women, speaking softly in Spanish and Creole, are clustered on the asphalt or seated at a few picnic tables waiting for crew leaders to herd them onto the buses, some of which will travel two hours to fields. Roosters are crowing as the first light of dawn rises over the cacophony. Men shovel ice into 10-gallon plastic containers from an ice maker next to the supermarket, which opens at 3:30 a.m. to sell tacos and other food to the workers. The containers—which they lug to pickup trucks—provide water for the pickers in the sweltering, humid fields where temperatures soar to 90 degrees and above.

(Illustration by Mr. Fish)

Ortiz, a short man in a tattered baseball cap and soiled black pants that are too long and spill over the tops of his worn canvas sneakers, is not fortunate this day. By 7 a.m. the last buses leave without him. He heads back to the overcrowded trailer he shares with several other men. There are always workers left behind at these predawn pickup sites where hundreds congregate in the hopes of getting work. Nearly 90 percent of the workers are young, single immigrant men, and at least half lack proper documents or authorization to work in the United States.

Harvesting tomatoes is an endeavor that comes with erratic and unpredictable hours, weeks with overtime and weeks with little to do and no guarantees about wages. Once it starts to rain, workers are packed back onto the buses and sent home, their workday abruptly at an end. Ortiz and the other laborers congregate at the pickup points every morning never sure if there will be work. And when they do find daywork they are paid only for what they pick.

“I only had three days of work this week,” Ortiz says mournfully. “I don’t know how I will pay my rent.”

Ortiz, who along with many others among these migrant workers sends about $100 home to Mexico every month to support elderly parents, works under conditions in these fields that replicates medieval serfdom and at times descends into outright slavery. He lives far below the poverty line. He has no job security, no workers’ compensation, no disability insurance, no paid time off, no access to medical care, Social Security, Medicaid or food stamps and no protection from the abusive conditions in the fields. The agricultural industry has a death rate nearly six times higher than most other industries, and the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that of the 2 million farmworkers in the United States 300,000 suffer pesticide poisoning every year.

“We are standing on the threshold of achieving significant change in the agricultural industry,” Marc Rodrigues, with the Student/Farmworker Alliance, tells me later in the day at the CIW office in Immokalee. “But if the supermarkets do not participate and support it then it will not go any further. Their lack of participation threatens to undermine what the workers and their allies have accomplished. They represent a tremendous amount of tomato purchasing. They wield a lot of influence over conditions in the field. For those growers not enamored of the concept of workers attaining rights and being treated with dignity, they will know that there is always a market for their tomatoes with no questions asked, where nothing is governed by a code of conduct or transparency. If we succeed, this will help lift farmworkers, who do one of the most important, dangerous and undervalued jobs in our society, out of grinding poverty into one where they can have a slightly more decent and normal life and provide for their families.”

The next major mobilization in the campaign will take place at noon Oct. 21 outside Trader Joe’s corporate headquarters in Monrovia, Calif. This will follow a week of local actions to target supermarkets across the country. To thwart the campaign, the public relations departments of Trader Joe’s, Publix and other supermarkets are churning out lies and half truths, as well as engaging in unsettling acts of intimidation and surveillance. Publix sent out an employee posing as a documentary filmmaker to record the activities of the organizers.

“Publix has a cabal of labor relations, human relations and public relations employees who very frequently descend from corporate headquarters in Lakeland, Fla.—or one of their regional offices—and show up at our demonstrations,” says Rodrigues. “They watch us with or without cameras. They constantly attempt to deflect us: If we attempt to speak to consumers or store managers these people will intercept us and try to guide us away. These people in suits and ties come up to us and refer to us by our first names—as if they know us—in a sort of bizarre, naked attempt at intimidation.”

If you live in a community that has a Whole Foods, which is the only major supermarket chain to sign the agreement, shop there and send a letter to competing supermarkets telling them that you will not return as a customer until they too sign the CIW Fair Food Agreement. Details about planned protests around the country can be found on the CIW website.

Workers in the fields earn about 50 cents for picking a bucket containing 32 pounds of tomatoes. These workers make only $10,000 to $12,000 a year, much of which they send home. The $10,000-$12,000 range, because it includes the higher pay of supervisors, means the real wages of the pickers are usually less than $10,000 a year. Wages have remained stagnant since 1980. A worker must pick 2.25 tons of tomatoes to make minimum wage during one of the grueling 10-hour workdays. This is twice what they had to pick 30 years ago for the same amount of money. Most workers pick about 150 buckets a day. And these workers have been rendered powerless by law. In Florida, collective bargaining is illegal, one of the legacies of Jim Crow practices designed to keep blacks poor and disempowered. Today the ban on collective bargaining serves the same purpose in thwarting the organizing efforts of the some 30,000 Hispanic, Mayan and Haitian agricultural laborers who plant and harvest 30,000 acres of tomatoes.

The CIW, which organized a nationwide boycott in 2001 against Taco Bell, forced several major fast food chains including Yum Brands, McDonald’s, Burger King, Subway, Whole Foods Market, Compass Group, Bon Appétit Management Co., Aramark and Sodexo to sign the agreement, which demands more humane labor standards from their Florida tomato suppliers and an increase of a penny per bucket. But if the major supermarkets too do not sign this agreement, growers who verbally, sexually and physically abuse workers will be able to continue selling tomatoes to the supermarkets. This could leave at least half of all the fields without protection, making uniform enforcement of the agreement throughout the fields difficult if not impossible.

“Supply chains are very opaque and secretive,” says Gerardo Reyes, a farmworker and CIW staff member. “This is one of the reasons a lot of these abuses continue. The corporations can always feign that they did not know the abuses were happening or that they had any responsibility for them as long as there is no transparency or accountability.”

One of the most celebrated modern cases of fieldworker slavery was uncovered in November 2007 after three workers escaped from a box truck in which they had been locked. They and 12 others had been held as slaves for two and a half years. They had to relieve themselves in a corner of the truck at night and pay five dollars if they wanted to bathe with a garden hose. They were routinely beaten. Some were chained to poles at times. During the days they worked on some of the largest farms in Florida. It was the seventh such documented case of slavery in a decade.

“As long as the supermarket industry refuses to sign this agreement it gives the growers an escape,” says Reyes. “We need to bring the pressure of more buyers who will sign the agreement to protect the workers. We have gotten all of the major corporations within the fast food industry and food providers to sign this agreement. Two of the three most important buyers within the industry are on board. But if these supermarkets continue to hold out they can put all the mechanisms we have set in place for control at risk. If Wal-Mart, Trader Joe’s and other supermarkets say the only criteria is buying from those growers who offer the lowest possible price then we will not be able to curb abuses. If the agreement is in place and there is another case of slavery then the growers will be put in a penalty box. If we do not have the ability to impose penalties then there will always be a way for abusive growers to sell. The agreement calls on these corporations to stop buying from growers, for example, that use slave labor. Without the agreement there is no check on these practices.”

“Supermarkets, such as Trader Joe’s, insist they are responsible and fair,” Reyes goes on. “They use their public relations to present themselves as a good corporation. They sell this idea of fairness, this disguise. They use this more sophisticated public relations campaign, one that presents them as a friend of workers, while at the same time locking workers out of the discussion and kicking us out of the room. They want business as usual. They do not want people to question how their profits are created. We have to fight not only them but this sophisticated public relations tactic. We are on the verge of a systemic change, but corporations like Trader Joe’s are using all their power to push us back.”

Members and supporters of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers will march from a Trader Joe’s store at 604 W. Huntington Dr. in Monrovia, Calif., to the market chain’s headquarter a mile away, starting at noon Oct. 21. The farmworkers organization is demanding that Trader Joe’s support the human rights of the men and women who harvest tomatoes sold in its stores. For more information, click here, send an email to damara@justharvestusa.org or telephone (510) 725-8752 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting            (510) 725-8752     end_of_the_skype_highlighting.

© 2011 TruthDig.com



Chris Hedges

Chris Hedges writes a regular column for Truthdig.com. Hedges graduated from Harvard Divinity School and was for nearly two decades a foreign correspondent for The New York Times. He is the author of many books, including: War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning, What Every Person Should Know About War, and American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America.  His most recent book is Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle.

25 Comments so far

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Posted by corvo
Sep 26 2011 – 10:50am

Well, expecting that Aldi (a hyperconservative German family that owns Trader Joe’s) will budge is kind of unrealistic, noble as it may be.  Even more extremely than Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s sells a feel-good lifestyle for liberals who’d rather not think too long or too hard about where their money is going.

Of course the laborers deserve to be treated fairly.  But really, who in his/her right mind and with three functioning taste buds buys tomatoes from a supermarket to begin with?

Posted by Ollupsutit
Sep 26 2011 – 10:51am

Sorry Chris, this is all the price of supporting illegal immigration. Until these workers adopt the methods and restrictions of Caesar Chavez they will continue to be exploited. And there will continue to be cases of virtual slavery discovered.

How anyone can call themselves Progressive and support the exploitation of these workers is beyond understanding.

Posted by redballoon
Sep 26 2011 – 11:14am

Titus Pullo – do you eat tomatoes, ketchup, pizza, etc. Nothing we consume is free of evil.

Posted by Ollupsutit
Sep 26 2011 – 2:53pm

You have a point, however, buying the produce is not the same as actually supporting the business’s involved and helping them exploit these poor workers. And the thing that strikes me most is remembering what Chavez said about it’s not just the undocumented that suffer, it’s the American worker too. Our fields are not just serviced by the undocumented, no matter what the Right say’s.

But, you have a point, none the less.

Posted by Paranoid Pessimist
Sep 26 2011 – 4:30pm

Good point indeed.  If we tried to consume only products produced by people who were paid American standard-of-living wages, there would be nothing.  People can understand the situation and purchase responsibly as much as possible, but all that’s accomplishing is salving their personal consciences — like ecologically correct consuming (“It’s not my fault; I bought only green socially responsible stuff”).  It won’t help to have lived that way once the big crunchdown begins in earnest.

The business wing of the right wing says that they have to offsource jobs because the American workers are paid so much more than third world peasants.  They say that it’s because American workers are selfish (not because our way of life is barely affordable even with “living” wages) and that if we had real competitive community spirit, we’d give up all that minimum wage b.s. and enthusiastically join in on the race to the bottom, assured that because we’re God-blessed Americans we’d somehow come out on top.

Posted by SJRyan
Sep 26 2011 – 11:47am

Two wrongs don’t make a right. “Nearly 90 percent of the workers are young, single immigrant men, and at least half lack proper documents or authorization to work in the United States.” I’ll bet it’s considerably more than 50%. The workers don’t belong here. They are exploited by big and small Agra business. The tomato industry makes billions for its wealthy owners. We have to pay $2 a pound in the grocery store for tomatoes. Losers: American consumers & Illegals;   Winners: Wealthy Agra Business owners

Simple solution is to grow your own. I grew cherry tomatoes this years. It was fun and easy. I’m not a gardener. I think we should be given tax credits for planting fruit trees. Zucchini is easy to grow and produces so much that the excess could be given to food banks. If the masses started to grow food big time, prices would come down. Grocery stores would not be able to charge so much.

Supporting our illegal problem is not a solution. Illegals need to fight for their rights in their own countries. If we stopped illegal immigration and tomatoes rotted in the fields and the price of ketchup skyrocketed then we would start growing our own. Local small organic farms would spring up. The price of tomatoes would go down. We would not have an illegal problem and the only losers would be those getting rich charging $2 for tomatoes.

Posted by pjd412
Sep 26 2011 – 2:26pm

I don’t know what is worse, your suburban-bourgeois-liberal self-absorbed smugness or your complete lack of understanding understanding of basic economics.

The Mexican/central American workers worker’s alternative is either to come up here for work or watch themselves and their families starve.  Understand?  What would YOU do if you were in their situation?

Posted by Galenwainwright…
Sep 26 2011 – 2:31pm

Eat the rich?

Posted by SJRyan
Sep 26 2011 – 2:42pm

The Mexican/Central American worker’s should overthrow their masters or remain poor for a few more centuries. How about a Mexican/Central American Spring? The easy way is to head north. We have problems of our own.

Posted by Sonmi451
Sep 26 2011 – 2:56pm

Easy way?  Define easy.  And we?  Excuse me, but I think most of us have more solidarity with the poor Mexican/Central American workers who may “remain poor for a few more centuries” than with you.

Posted by raydelcamino
Sep 26 2011 – 3:03pm

Those Mexican/Central American workers have been governed by “masters” installed and protected by higher and mightier masters in New York (and the politicians they own in Washington DC) for more than a century. Any overthrows during that time would have resulted in a subsequent US-approved master replacing the previous one.

Posted by SJRyan
Sep 26 2011 – 4:26pm

“…most of us have more solidarity with the poor Mexican/Central American workers…”

I do not agree. I believe you’re claimed solidarity is a liberal myth. Jobs, jobs, jobs are on the minds of most Americans. Illegals flood the job market and suppress wages. Jobs Americans won’t do, they would do for more money. No more money is offered because ‘Manuel’ the laborer from south of our border will work for slave wages.

Tomatoes need to rot in fields year after year till wages and working conditions improve. It would be a form of strike that will never happen because ‘Manuel’ and his friends are waiting every morning at 6 am in parking lots across the south to work for slave wages. Gandhi marched to the sea and made salt. We could certainly grow a few tomatoes! (tomatoes – cook and add salt and you have ketchup; cook and add sugar you have tomato soup)

Illegal immigration needs to be dealt with. No more kicking the frijoles can down the road. I’m all for putting the no vacancy sign on the Statue of Liberty. We no longer have a western frontier to explore and settle. We need all the jobs we can get for our own children and our own ex-slaves. All liberals are not bleeding hearts.

Posted by Siouxrose
Sep 26 2011 – 3:04pm

SJRyan: You appear to be morphing into Thomas More here!

As for me, I will write that letter to Publix. There must be ten Publix supermarkets in Gainesville, and many cater to “upscale” community members. The university, added to two hospitals, seems to fuel a complex of well paid employees and the shelves at Publix all but glitter like gold. The extra penny or so is NOTHING to this operation or the vast majority who shop at Publix.

I will be writing a letter in support of this initiative.

Some in this forum are so adamant that they can only accept radical, immediate solutions. These are not likely to happen. By discarding what CAN be done, they show no respect for, nor tolerance of increments that just might make a difference in someone else’s life. Sure, I’d love to see Wall Street overthrown, the covert government coup disabled, the MIC put on virtual house arrest, the tax money collected directed at matters that actually improve human lives… but in the meanwhile, maybe small acts of decency can insure that a few more might not find themselves in slavery.

Posted by corvo
Sep 26 2011 – 4:20pm

Publix is a viciously conservative operation.  But then, most supermarket chains are.

Posted by Ollupsutit
Sep 26 2011 – 3:05pm


I would like to point out that it is hard to do as you say when they are harnessed to NAFTA, etc. no less than our own workers.

Can we afford to subsidize business in using the undocumented? No. Should they be allowed to come here illegally. Of course not. Now that those things are out of the way, how does anyone blame someone for trying to support their family? We cannot and must not blame these exploited workers for our faults. And the fault is ours.

One question. If you were a corn farmer and your government agreed to a trade agreement (NAFTA) that put you out of the business of farming and just across the border were business’s, a government and other’s for political reasons that enticed you to come here illegally but offered to pay you far more than you could get at home (nada) and not to enforce their laws so you could work and they could pay you slave wages there (but to you is a high wage), what would you do?

I know exactly what I would do.

Posted by shipleye
Sep 26 2011 – 12:12pm

I would suggest reading Barry Estabrook’s Tomatoland which talks about the terrible working conditions of the migrant farm worker and the poisons that are sprayed on the fields and by “accident” the workers themselves.
I believe that a shorter version was published in Gourmet under the title: The price of tomatoes.

Posted by WayneWR
Sep 26 2011 – 12:27pm

I am not positive of this, but in most cases the greatest cost of doing busiess is usually employees wages… I am going to (assume) that would be true for the tomato business.

So,,, a field worker is paid (fifty cents) to pick 32 ponds of tomatoes, the same wages as they were paid in 1980… Something is very, very wrong here.

Two years ago a can of Cambell’s tomato soup cost between 55 cents up to 65 cents…  Now the price is more than a dollar and in some supermarkets a buck and a quarter… That steep rise is for all varieties of canned soups however…The price of all canned tomatoes, spaghetti sauses, has also about doubled in just two years.

One would think, it would be fair to have doubled the field workers wages in the past two years, or at least a fair pay hike.

Someone is makeing LOTS, tons  of unfair profit… Who? __ Who really controls the price of food? __ Fuel cost is currently about the same as two years ago and a lot less than four years ago, it isn’t just the cost of fuel that has raised the price of food so high.

Is it all due because they started using a FOOD crop (corn) to make ethanol, (instead of hemp),  and the price of corn very quickly went way up and so then did all other food prices go way up? __  I’d like to know. why the cost of food has skyrocketed in two to three years time.. .

And Trader Joes?__ We love TJs,,, much lower prices for almost everything and a great selection of breads, spices, unusual food items, etc… Paper bags too.

Posted by raydelcamino
Sep 26 2011 – 3:06pm

As WayneWR pointed out, the price of food in the US (not just food containing tomatoes) has doubled during the past two years While wages for the workers producing the food have been flat or declining.

Note that many third world nations have seen food costs more than double during the same period.

Doubling the cost of food in the US is the result of several factors, including the following:

Skyrocketing medical insurance costs for the workers producing, processing, transporting and selling food.

Serial regressive Federal Reserve monetary policy combined with unregulated speculation of the commodities (including fossil fuel) needed to produce, process, and transport food.

Higher electrical power costs caused by security costs and risk-shifting from owners to ratepayers.

A weak US dollar.

Posted by Heavyrunner
Sep 26 2011 – 2:56pm

The price of oil has also doubled in that time. Without oil, our global agricultural system collapses.

Posted by WayneWR
Sep 26 2011 – 12:46pm

I just thought of something else…  When I was a teen, in the 50s, living in New Jersey,  when harvest time came, all of us school kids, college students picked tomtoes, cukes, apples and peaches, blueberries, etc…  I was paid 50 cent for every half a bushel of apples back then., never saw any pickers from Mexico or South America.

What the heck has happened to us here in America?  This isn’t the America I grew up in.

Posted by raydelcamino
Sep 26 2011 – 3:10pm

ALL of the jobs  I worked at from age 12 through 25 (newspaper delivery, picking crops, construction, factory work) are now done by immigrants.  Parents today want their kids to have jobs that lead to one of the few careers that actually pay a decent salary.

Posted by NateW
Sep 26 2011 – 12:53pm

Perhaps Chris Hedges needs to do a bit more research as to where the majority tomatoes sold in Trader Joe’s come from (Mexico).  This sort of sloppy action really muddies the waters and reeks of ‘activism for hire’ along the lines of what the American Conservative Union did at the behest of FedEx against UPS a few years ago (notice the admonition to shop at the ultra-faux progressive Wal-Mart of chain markets, Whole Foods?).  While Trader Joe’s & their owner, Aldi Nord, are no paragons of shopping virtue by any stretch of the imagination, it will be a cold day in Hell before I ever step foot into John Mackey’s ‘Whole Paycheck.’

Posted by WayneWR
Sep 26 2011 – 1:56pm

Well ~~Nate~~ where do you think the tomatoes sold at Trader Joes, other than perhaps ‘organic’ grown come from? __ Have you done any resarch on that? __ How do you know how much research ~Chris Hedges~ has done or has not done on the tomato subject?

I know one thing,,, about 40% of our food is now imported and most of our veggies now arrive from Mexico and or South America…  And Wal-Mart can kiss my rear. I hate walking a half mile to get from the auto parts to the cookie jars and seeing 90% of the stores junk comes from China…   We once found swollen cans of diced carrots in a Wal-Mart.

Got a red vested “May I Help You” fellow to see it and he immediatly cleared the shelves… He said those canned carrots came from China… Scary huh?

Posted by Sonmi451
Sep 26 2011 – 2:16pm

What a perfect microcosm of our entire corrupt and contemptible system.  Most people are still under the destructive assumption that corporations “give” us jobs.  That the market will regulate itself and pay workers what they are “worth”.  Any study of capitalism, whether historical or contemporary, will reveal how corporations always have and always will maximize profits by ANY means necessary. Of course, that is their raison d’etre.  Employers will do as little as possible, until they are forced to do more.  It is what you get when you order a system based on greed and avarice.

Posted by Galenwainwright…
Sep 26 2011 – 2:37pm

The had a civil war once over shit like this.

You had people, your own citizens, suffer incredible hardship and destitution like this in the Lesser Great Depression.

The plight of the migrant worker, whether illegal immigrant or American born poor, has been popularized by the “liberal’ intelligentsia since the 1980’s.


So either shit or get off the pot. Either these people are human beings deserving of basic dignity, or they are utterly expendable slaves who exist only to fuel the Corporations. Decide. Now.

Join the discussion


Employee Free Choice Act: Fight of a Lifetime? March 4, 2009

Posted by rogerhollander in Labor.
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Posted on by dsalaborblogmoderator

by Jane Slaughter

efcaNobody wants to say it on the record, but the buzz is we won’t get the Employee Free Choice Act in its current form.

President Obama says he’s pro-EFCA but wants unions to “accommodate” the other side—despite labor’s $450 million and countless hours of volunteer work devoted to electing him.

Employers aren’t interested in compromise, spending $50 million just on anti-EFCA ads last fall in states where Senate seats were up for grabs, and vowing to spend tens of millions more.

In October Bank of America hosted a conference call for executives led by Bernie Marcus, a co-founder of Home Depot. Marcus lectured CEOs to give money to prevent EFCA and “the demise of a civilization.”
A favorite argument against EFCA is that it would deny workers the right to vote on unionization. Union strategists point out that EFCA actually permits either “card check” or a secret ballot—workers would decide which they wanted. Under current law, only the employer can decide.

Another argument is that there’s no precedent, in the private sector, for the right to arbitration of first contracts. And employers moan, like they did in the Depression, that too much unionization would wreck the reeling economy.

What Employee Free Choice Would Do

If a majority of workers in a workplace sign union authorization cards, validated by the NLRB, the company must recognize the union. If a majority of employees call for an election instead, the NLRB will hold one.

Penalties for companies breaking the law are increased.

• Up to $20,000 per violation for willfully or repeatedly violating employees’ rights during organizing drives or bargaining the first contract.

• Triple back pay for workers fired or discriminated against for pro-union activity during a drive.

• The NLRB must seek a federal court injunction when there is reason to believe a company has violated workers’ rights during a drive, such as firing or threatening to fire union supporters. Precedent says an injunction would be issued immediately.

Companies may not drag out first-contract bargaining indefinitely. If the two sides cannot reach a contract within 90 days, either one may request mediation from federal mediators. If mediation doesn’t work, they go to binding arbitration.

Supporters counter that union-won higher wages are exactly what the economy needs. After all, the debt-driven economy has utterly failed.


But in the end, the arguments don’t matter. The bill that passes will reflect the balance of power between business and labor. If EFCA is gutted, or fails to pass at all, it will be because not enough Senators were convinced it was in their interests to vote the right way.

How have labor and other movements in the past persuaded reluctant politicians to vote our way? By creating enough turmoil in the streets that legislators know they’d better do something.

The civil rights movement, the anti-Vietnam war movement, the worker upheavals of the 1930s—all led Washington decision-makers to do things they didn’t want to do.

It’s possible to admire labor’s efforts for two million petition signatures for EFCA and still ask, if this is the fight of a lifetime, why aren’t we acting like it?

Could the energy unions channeled for Obama last fall be reawakened for creative actions in 2009? For a huge march on Washington, for civil disobedience at senators’ offices, for informational picket lines outside the corporations bankrolling the bosses’ campaign, like Home Depot?

Less than three years ago, immigrant workers—most of them not union members—pulled a one-day national strike, bringing more than a million workers, families, students, and supporters into the streets in the largest series of demonstrations our country has ever seen. They were fighting for survival. So is the union movement. This is not the time to be timid.

This piece originally appeared in Labor Notes and is part of a special March issue on issues related to the Employee Free Choice Act. Talking Union encourages our readers to subscribe to Labor Notes.

Jane Slaughter started working with Labor Notes in 1979, eventually serving as editor and director. She is the author of Concessions and How To Beat Them and co-author, with Mike Parker, of Choosing Sides: Unions and the Team Concept and Working Smart: A Union Guide to Participation Programs and Reengineering. Her work has appeared in The Nation, The Progressive, In These Times, and Monthly Review, among others.

U.S. Criminalizes Undocumented to Attack Workers’ Movement October 2, 2008

Posted by rogerhollander in Economic Crisis, Latin America.
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NEWS & LETTERS, August – September 2008


U.S. criminalizes undocumented to attack workers’ movement

by Eugene Walker

In the biggest raid on a workplace in U.S. history, hundreds upon hundreds of Federal agents mobilized by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement swooped down upon the Agriprocessors plant in Postville, Iowa, on May 12 to try to seize some 697 undocumented workers for whom arrest warrants had been prepared. The close to 400 workers caught at the plant were not rounded up for deportation. Rather, this was part of a concerted campaign to criminalize the undocumented immigrant. Thus, the workers were criminally charged with “aggravated identity theft” and “Social Security fraud” for using other peoples’ social security numbers or made up numbers.

Just as Katrina demonstrated the government’s indifference towards the poor, primarily Black population of New Orleans, the anti-immigrant raids in Postville exposed this government’s determination to run roughshod over the human rights of another significant segment of the U.S. population–the millions of undocumented who work in U.S. fields and factories, in construction, and in cleaning offices, hotels and homes. The immigrant without papers has become the new Other within our borders. The near police-state actions of the Federal government in Iowa resulted in the jailing of some 387 Guatemalan and Mexican workers, followed by rapid-fire Orwellian court proceedings and harsh sentencing. At the same time, Postville brought forth resistance to the unjust conditions of immigrant life and labor in this “land of the free.”

Immigration Rally, SF, Aug. 22, 2008

Women led off the rally at San Francisco ICE headquarters on Aug. 22 demanding rights for immigrant workers.

On Sunday July 27, 1,000-plus marched in little Postville, opposing the police-state tactics used by the government against hundreds of Agriprocessors workers who continue to be imprisoned, protesting against the working conditions at the plant, and demanding legalization of undocumented workers.

Arrested workers were transported to the National Cattle Congress, a 60-acre cattle fairground that was transformed into a detention center. The next day began with hothouse, fraudulent legal procedures that led to prison terms. Erik Camayd-Freixas, one of the many Spanish language interpreters the government brought in, described the process:

“Driven single-file in groups of 10, shackled at the wrists, waist and ankles, chains dragging as they shuffled through, the slaughterhouse workers were brought in for arraignment, sat and listened through headsets to the interpreted initial appearance, before marching out again to be bused to different county jails, only to make room for the next row of 10. They appeared to be uniformly no more than 5 ft. tall, mostly illiterate Guatemalan peasants with Mayan last names, É some in tears, others with faces of worry, fear, and embarrassment. They all spoke Spanish, a few rather laboriously. It dawned on me that, aside from their Guatemalan or Mexican nationality, which was imposed on their people after independence, they too were Native Americans, in shackles. They stood out in stark racial contrast with the rest of us as they started their slow penguin march across the makeshift court.” (For his full report, http://graphics8.nytimes.com/images/2008/07/14/opinion/14ed-camayd.pdf).

The preparations for the Postville Agriprocessors plant raid included a diabolical scheme to insure that the Guatemalan and Mexican working men and women would have no choice but to face months of jail time before deportation. The government would only agree to withdraw the trumped-up charge of “aggravated identity theft” if those arrested would agree to plead guilty to knowingly using a false social security number and serve five months in a U.S. jail, and then be immediately deported without a hearing. If any chose to not accept this plea agreement they would have had to remain in jail even longer, six to eight months awaiting trial, with no access to bail because they were undocumented. Even if found not guilty they would still be deported. And if they lost at trial, they would receive a two-year minimum sentence. No wonder they chose the plea agreement. It meant the least amount of jail time in this charade.

The whole procedure, from plea agreement to five month sentences, to being shipped off to various jails, was carried out in a rapid-fire four days. As Erik Camayd-Freixas put it, “The work had oddly resembled a judicial assembly line where the meatpackers were mass processed.”

The result was devastation for the hundreds arrested, as well as for children and family members left in limbo. A third of Postville’s population ceased to be a part of the community. Children disappeared from schools. Many families took refuge in St. Bridget’s Catholic Church fearing to come out in face of the arrests and future deportation. However at the same time, there began a movement of resistance, starting with exposing Agriprocessors.


Two groups of those arrested were released before the kangaroo-court proceedings–youth who were underage, and thus had been illegally hired to work in the plant, and women with children who needed to be cared for. The women still faced charges, and the youth and women still would come under deportation orders.

In Iowa, it is illegal for a company to employ anyone under 18 on the floor of a meatpacking plant. At least seventeen youth between 14 and 17 years of age were seized in the raid. Now in oral depositions the youth told their stories.

Elmer L., a Guatemalan young man who started working at the plant when he was 16, spoke of 17-hour days: “I worked from 6 in the morning until 11 at night. I slept from midnight until 5 in the morning–5 hours. . . .They did not pay me for all the overtime I worked. They told me if I did not work all that time, I would lose my job. My work was very hard because they didn’t give me my breaks, and I wasn’t getting very much sleep. I had to work to provide for my family. They told us they were going to call immigration if we complained about not getting our overtime pay and our breaks . . . I was very sad and I felt like I was a slave.”

A 16-year-old young woman, Gilda O., spoke of the speed-up demands: “I worked at night. I started at 7:30 and I got off at five or six in the morning. I worked on line plucking feathers off the chickens. . . . When I started I could hardly keep my eyes open. But later I got more used to it. In the plant they made us hurry up as much as we possibly could.”

Those quotes could have come right out of Marx’s description in Capital of English factories of the mid-19th century.

Long before the Postville raid–not against the dreadful conditions on the slaughterhouse floor, but against the undocumented men and women who took these dangerous, exploitative jobs–Agriprocessors was already well known as a vile, unhealthy killing floor. As the NY Times noted:

“A slaughterhouse in Postville, Iowa, develop[ed] an ugly reputation for abusing animals and workers. Reports of dirty, dangerous conditions at the Agriprocessors kosher meatpacking plant accumulate[d] for years, told by workers, union organizers, immigrant advocates and government investigators. A videotape by an animal-rights group show[ed] workers pulling the windpipes out of living cows. A woman with a deformed hand t[old] a reporter of cutting meat for 12 hours a day, six days a week, for wages that labor ex-perts call the lowest in the industry. This year, federal investigators amass[ed] evidence of rampant illegal hiring at the plant, which has been called ‘a kosher “Jungle.”‘” (“‘The Jungle Again,'” NY Times, August 1, 2008). But in our upside down world, it is the workers who are criminalized, not the company.


Terrible dangers especially await undocumented women coming to the United States. At Agriprocessors, it took the form of sexual harassment. If you wanted a shift change or a promotion, you had to grant sexual favors to this or that supervisor.

The terrible threat to the lives of undocumented women often begins far earlier. Rape has become commonplace on both sides of the Mexico-Arizona border. Rape is now considered “the price of admission” for women crossing the border illegally. According to Dr. Sylvanna Falc—n: “Anyone from coyotes to U.S. officials, they all have the upper hand here. . . . Our society takes rape seriously, but it doesn’t take this type of rape seriously. In all of our national discourse around securing our borders, rarely, if ever, do you hear about any kind of protection for people who might be crossing. Largely, that’s because the discussion has been framed around protecting us–protecting the U.S.–and once you get into that framework, what happens to the other person is not even on the radar.” (Quoted in the Tucson Weekly, June 9, 2008.)


Hundreds of new laws have been passed at the state and city levels seeking to restrict the opportunities and rights of undocumented immigrants. The draconian federal persecution and anti-immigrant state and local laws are capitalism’s response to a new mass movement among immigrant workers, the high-point of which so far was on May 1, 2006. Hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants and their allies gave a new significance to May Day, whose origin was in Chicago of the 1880s, centered on the fight for a shorter working day.

The July 27 march in Postville, Iowa, brought people from a number of Midwest cities. The demonstration included dozens of undocumented women workers from the plant who were out of jail because they had to take care of young children. Required to wear electronic monitoring ankle bracelets openly, and with a future of jail and deportation, they were in the forefront of resistance. They were joined by a coalition of forces:

  • Members of the St. Bridget’s Catholic Church in Postville who have supported the undocumented workers and their families ever since the raids, providing shelter, food, financial and moral support.
  • Rabbis and members of Jewish congregations who were outraged that Agriprocessors runs a kosher meatpacking plant in such a degrading manner. They were calling for the revision of kosher food certification to include standards of corporate ethics and treatment of workers. “I’m embarrassed and ashamed at the way Agriprocessors has treated its workers,” said one Jewish activist. “I don’t think it’s kosher meat. I think they’re pulling a farce on the Jews of this country.”
  • Latino activists expressing solidarity with the undocumented Latin American workers. Labor activists joined in as well, some from the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, who had been trying to organize the plant for a number of years.

Today’s persecution and criminalization of undocumented workers is trying to destroy the movement among immigrant workers, many of whom came north after they were forced off the land as a result of trade agreements like NAFTA. Previously businesses used undocumented workers in many areas like agriculture and construction and as strike-breakers. The new demagoguery is aimed at dividing workers in general and especially within immigrant communities between those who have documents and those who don’t. Now is the time for the firmest international solidarity with immigrant workers, fighting the chauvinism, false patriotism and political manipulation that is growing in this demagogic electoral moment.

As we go to press, the ICE has mounted another massive and brutal raid in the small town of Laurel, Mississippi, at Howard Industries, where nearly half the 800 workers are Latino/a. There are reports of parents snatched by ICE agents and given no time to make arrangements for the care of their children left alone. Those arrested face not only federal laws, but a draconian Senate Bill 2988 that makes it a felony to work without authorization in Mississippi and imposes a one to five year prison sentence and fines of up to $10,000. This outrage must end!