Ten days before Christmas, the Woodfin Suites Hotel in Emeryville, California, suspended Luz Dominguez and twenty other housekeepers and maintenance workers. Managers announced they’d received a letter from Social Security saying the numbers they’d given when the workers were originally hired didn’t match government records. The twenty-one workers have been making beds, washing toilets and vacuuming carpets there for years. Dominguez recalls, “Before, they sometimes told us they’d received a notice about our numbers not matching. We never had to do anything about it.” What had changed?
In 2005 an Oakland-based worker advocacy group, the East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy, convinced Emeryville voters to pass Measure C. The new ordinance established a $9 hourly minimum in the city’s four hotels. Housekeepers required to clean more than 5,000 square feet in an eight-hour shift now have to be paid time and a half. “Before the law was passed, we cleaned sixteen suites, sometimes seventeen,” says Marcela Melquiades, another fired housekeeper. The new law dropped that to around ten.
The four hotels–the Woodfin Suites, Sheraton Four Points, Marriott Courtyard and the Hilton Garden Inn–spent $115,610 to defeat the measure (but garnered only 1,051 no votes). When they lost, they tried to get an injunction to prevent it from taking effect and lost again. Workers began asking Woodfin to comply.
That’s when the hotel suddenly demanded new Social Security numbers. “We felt defrauded,” Dominguez says. “We’d worked really hard for them.”
No-match letters have become a form of immigration enforcement increasingly favored by the Bush Administration. But they’re often used, unions charge, to retaliate against workers when they stand up for themselves.
Such workplace enforcement cost the jobs of thousands of workers last year. In raids this past December at six Swift meatpacking plants (five of which had union contracts), the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) bureau detained 1,300 laborers. Many were deported. At other workplaces, like the Woodfin Suites, the Social Security Administration has been pressed into service.
In November about 1,000 meatpackers walked out of the huge Smithfield pork processing plant in Tar Heel, North Carolina, after the company fired sixty workers for Social Security discrepancies. Mark Lauritsen, a director at United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), says the government and the company were colluding to thwart the union’s organizing efforts at the plant. “They were worried about people organizing a union, and the government said, Here are the tools to take care of them,” he charges. In late January, ICE agents picked up twenty-one Smithfield workers for deportation.
Immigration enforcement measures have often been used to target unions. But this most recent wave of raids and firings has a political purpose as well. In a press conference, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff told reporters that the Swift raids would show Congress the need for “stronger border security, effective interior enforcement and a temporary-worker program.” The Administration, he said, wants “a program that would allow businesses that need foreign workers, because they can’t otherwise satisfy their labor needs, to be able to get those workers in a regulated program.”
The firings and raids highlight the vulnerability of immigrant workers under current law. In 1986 Congress passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act, making it a federal crime for an employer to hire a worker without valid immigration documents. While few employers have faced penalties, the law made it a crime for undocumented workers to hold a job. That has given employers like Woodfin Suites lots of power over their employees.