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Immigrant Workers 

The law that keeps them chained

Wednesday, Oct 6 1999
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Mike Cruz didn‘t play the immigration card before the union election. Maybe he thought he’d win without it.

But then employees at his RCR Classic Designs furniture factory on Avalon Boulevard voted 33-21 to join the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE) last August. After that, workers started getting called into the office.

“The secretary told me I had to show my green card, along with my ID and Social Security,” says Salvador Ruiz, a union activist at RCR. “I refused. I gave her my address and telephone number, and told her I didn‘t think what she was asking for was legal.”

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Other workers in the factory, however, weren’t so brave. “They were very afraid to organize and support the union because of this,” according to Dolores Alcala, another union supporter.

The company‘s demands, which it made of every RCR employee, couldn’t have come at a worse time. Following the union election, workers put together a proposal for the wage increases and other improvements they hoped for in a union contract. Then they began trying to use their organized strength to get Cruz to bargain.

But after the company started demanding that workers re-verify their immigration status, union support dropped dramatically. “Now people won‘t meet with us,” Ruiz says. In the meantime, negotiations have started. “I was in the first meeting, and we couldn’t agree on anything.”

It‘s a simple equation. If workers can’t pressure the company to raise wages above the $7 to $8 per hour Ruiz, Alcala and their friends are earning, Cruz‘s profits won’t suffer much, even with a union in the plant.

“Immigration law is a tool of the employers,” says UNITE regional manager Cristina Vazquez, who came up out of L.A.‘s garment shops nearly three decades ago. “They’re able to use it as a weapon to keep workers unorganized, and the INS has helped them.”

It‘s not that immigrant workers, including those without papers, have been unwilling to organize. At RCR, the union drive was preceded by a three-day work stoppage last May to get Cruz to boost wages. “He wouldn’t even come out to talk to us, or give us an across-the-board increase,” recalls Ruiz. “So we could see we needed a union.”

Once UNITE petitioned for the election, Cruz hired a lawyer and began showing anti-union videos at mandatory meetings three times a week. That didn‘t faze workers either. Their movement didn’t begin to waver until RCR began asking for papers.

“This was my first job after coming here from Colima, 17 years ago,” Ruiz says. “No one ever asked me for papers then. They didn‘t care until now.”

The experience of RCR workers isn’t unique. In fact, the history of labor organizing over the last decade in Los Angeles is largely the story of immigrant workers organizing against heavy odds. Immigrant janitors defied police beatings in Century City in 1989, recovering union contracts for Service Employees International Union Local 1877 in the city‘s office buildings as a result.

Immigrant workers in Local 11 have made the Hotel Employees & Restaurant Employees one of the strongest unions in the city. Carpenters, harbor truckers, garment workers, factory hands and tortilla drivers have all staged pivotal strikes and organizing drives. Day laborers, domestics and gardeners have built independent organizations, even in the absence of labor-law protection and support from local unions.

Nor is L.A. an isolated case. The labor upsurge among immigrant workers has become a national phenomenon. But in case after case, these efforts have come up against the same problem faced at RCR -- the use of immigration law to prevent organization.

That problem is growing even more acute, because the Clinton administration has made the workplace the focus of its efforts to enforce immigration law. According to INS Commissioner Doris Meissner, “Work is the incentive that brings illegal immigrants into our country.” Preventing workers from entering the U.S. without visas, therefore, depends on removing them from the workplace. This new INS strategy is called “interior enforcement” -- enforcing immigration law away from the border.

The policy rests on a provision of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, called “employer sanctions.” This section of the law prohibits employers from hiring undocumented workers and makes it a crime for a worker without papers to have a job. Employers are required to collect information about the immigration status of all their employees, who fill out an I-9 form verifying it.

In meetings with the union, RCR claimed that its interviews were required to re-verify the information on the forms, although workers say they’ve never seen any request from the INS. Cruz did not return phone calls for this article.

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