INS Declares War on Labor
The architects of Operation Vanguard don't wish to inhibit this drive for cheap labor. An INS handout reassures companies, "Our intention, of course, is not to harm operations but work in partnership to help you maintain a stable, legal work force." An INS backgrounder commits the agency to "a partnership with top managers in the meat packing/ processing industry." Gerard Heinauer, an INS official in Omaha, told the UFCW, which represents many of the targeted plants, that cooperating employers "will no longer be subject to unannounced operations during which large numbers of workers are abruptly removed," thereby disrupting production.
On the other hand, union attorney Anna Avendaño says, "Unionbusting employers can use this INS strategy to chill organizing campaigns. The employers become agents of the government in interrogating workers, which gives them tremendous power." According to Avendaño, the INS has never consulted the union. "The union has no responsibility here," says Reed, adding, "I would think unions would embrace this. Employers love illegal aliens--they're reliable, malleable; they work as long as the employer wants, and they never complain about anything."
Meanwhile, the UFCW has not formally demanded that Operation Vanguard cease. Although the union is cooperating with other critics of the program, like the Nebraska Appleseed Center for Law in the Public Interest, it is focusing on what it calls selective enforcement in only one industry (meatpacking) and one region (the right-to-work states of Nebraska and Iowa) and complains about the operation's impact on legal residents. (The Appleseed Center's Milo Mumgaard, however, is investigating a possible discrimination lawsuit against the INS.)
At the local level the response of union leaders reflects deep conflicts within the UFCW over how to deal not only with immigration but with the industry itself. Bill Buckholtz is secretary/treasurer of UFCW Local 1142 at Morrell in Sioux City, Iowa, the world's largest pork plant. As an active member of REAP (for Research Education Advocacy People), the rank-and-file movement in the union, he is a bitter critic of the international's concession bargaining. On illegal immigration, he blames the companies for bringing the workers as a source of cheap labor but also thinks immigrant communities are the source of new levels of crime and violence. He says things won't change until wages go up. "If we'd have some fights in the organized plants, we could get the wages here to where they should be, and put pressure on the rest of the industry. Then they'd hire fewer undocumented and create a stable work force." Yet in his plant the work force that would have to get organized to make that fight is 70 percent immigrant, documented and undocumented mixed together.
In Denison, Iowa, Mark Nemitz, not a REAP member, also believes "wages have to be tackled industrywide." He says, "Operation Vanguard wants to drive the undocumented out of meatpacking, but I think it will just drive people further underground and make it harder for them to organize. Some say they want to see all the Hispanics go, but to me that's racist. People have the right to work wherever they want and to be protected like everyone else. Maybe if people were legalized or employer sanctions ended, it would make people less vulnerable."
Both Buckholtz's and Nemitz's locals have tried to organize nonunion plants. In both cases, they say, threats of immigration raids turned the tide against the union just before people were to vote in representation elections. As is necessary in right-to-work states, both locals continually sign up workers as they come into union plants, and both have about a 95 percent membership rate. Both sign up documented and undocumented workers and translate meetings and papers into Spanish and other languages where necessary. But as Nemitz acknowledges, "If we want to organize, we need community support, and trust is a big factor. I think we have to look at what Father Damien is doing."