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Nation Topics - Labor and Immigration

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The recent decision of the Supreme Court in the case of Hoffman Plastic
Compounds, Inc. v. National Labor Relations Board
makes it plain that
the Court's majority lives in denial of the social reality millions of
working people face every day. The Court began by making worse an
already bad precedent. As a result of a previous decision in the case of
Sure-Tan Inc. v. National Labor Relations Board, millions of
undocumented immigrants lost the right to be reinstated to their jobs if
they were fired for joining a union. Now the Rehnquist Court says they
can also forget about back pay for the time they were out of work.

The decision rewards employers who want to stop union organizing efforts
among immigrant workers--the very people who've built a decade-long
track record of labor activism, often organizing themselves when unions
showed little interest in them. Their bosses can now terminate
undocumented workers who join a union, without monetary consequences.

But the Court's logic goes further, willfully ignoring social reality.
Today in 31 percent of union drives employers illegally fire workers,
immigrant and native-born alike. Federal labor law may prohibit this,
but companies already treat the cost of legal battles, reinstatement and
back pay as a cost of doing business. Many consider it cheaper than
signing a union contract. In the Court's eyes, however, retaliatory
firings are not even a violation of law.

William Gould IV, former chair of the National Labor Relations Board,
points to "a basic conflict between US labor law and US immigration
law." The Court has held that the enforcement of employer sanctions,
which makes it illegal for an undocumented immigrant to hold a job, is
more important than the right of that worker to join a union and resist
exploitation on the job.

According to Rehnquist, Jose Castro, the fired worker in the Hoffman
case, committed the cardinal sin of falsely saying he had legal status
to get a job. This lie, told by millions of workers every year, is
winked at by employers who want to take advantage of immigrants' labor.
It is only in the face of union activity that bosses suddenly wake up to
the fact that their workers have no papers (and usually then fire only
the ones involved with unions).

This decision isn't about enforcing immigration law, despite Rehnquist's
pious assertion that employers can already be fined for hiring people
like Castro. It's about money. When it becomes more risky and difficult
for workers to organize and join unions, or even to hold a job at all,
they settle for lower wages. And when the price of immigrant labor goes
down, so do the wages for everyone else. The decision has already been
misused by some employers, who have told their immigrant workers they no
longer have the right to organize at all, or have illegally refused to
pay them the minimum wage or overtime.

A recent study by the Pew Charitable Trust counts almost 8 million
undocumented people in the United States. They make up almost 4 percent
of the urban work force, and more than half of all farmworkers. The flow
of workers across the border will not stop anytime soon. The National
Population Council of Mexico reports that "migration between Mexico and
the United States is a permanent, structural phenomenon--the intense
relationship between the two countries makes it inevitable."

Sacrificing the rights of those workers will not stop people from
crossing the border, nor end the need for the work they do. If they are
to have legal status, the door to legal immigration must be opened and
sanctions repealed. But come they will, regardless. The Court's message
to them, however, is: Know your place. Do the work, stay in the shadows,
accept what you are given and never think of organizing to challenge the
structure that holds you in chains.

A Mexican migrant acquaintance once told me that he'd love the opportunity to brief Congress on immigration policy. Let us imagine him now, walking into the hallowed chamber, dressed in his typical migrant attire: a fading Oakland Raiders jersey, oversized bright orange painting pants, imitation Air Jordans. He wears a baseball cap with the epigram ¡qué viva México, cabrónes! rendered in red, green and white--the colors of the Mexican flag. He reaches into his well-worn backpack and pulls out some handwritten notes on crumpled sheets of paper, and begins:

First, I would like to tell the distinguished sirs and madams a bit about the migrant life. I'm from a luckless southwestern Mexican town whose timber-based economy is in tatters--no sign of economic development on the horizon, NAFTA or no. I made my first trip to the States at 13, a solo journey that included a few months of indentured servitude to a "coyote," a real cabrón. I paid off what I owed him by picking aluminum cans out of the garbage. When I finally broke free, I took to the road.

I never had a problem getting a job. With a cheap forgery of a green card, the bosses never looked twice. As the years went by, I cruised from state to state. I got married to a girl from home and soon we were on the road together, hopping back and forth across the border that supposedly separates our nations.

Beginning in the latter half of the 1990s, our border-crossings became increasingly difficult. Suddenly, you built walls on the US-Mexico border. Big ones, made of coppery steel. These you have referred to as "interdiction measures," which include programs with names like Gatekeeper, Safeguard and Hold the Line. Since 1995 as many as 1,400 migrants died on that line, pushed by your Border Patrol into the remote, deadly desert and lonely stretches of the Rio Grande.

You recently deployed the first of more than 1,600 National Guard troops along the frontiers with both Canada and Mexico, to provide "tactical" support to the other agencies on the line. The last time you put the military on the line, the result was the shooting of an 18-year-old who was out herding his goats; you did the sensible thing and pulled them out. Now they're back; so far, thankfully, they are unarmed.

I tell you that this is a dangerous situation, and yet, in the wake of September 11--when I grieved as much as if Mexico herself had been attacked--I am mindful of your security concerns. I submit to you that you cannot secure your borders alone. I humbly suggest consultations at the highest levels between the federal law-enforcement agencies of our two countries, a starting point for recognizing that American homeland security is Mexican homeland security and vice versa.

We must re-imagine the border between us. All the money you've poured into "holding the line"--some $4 billion a year for the total INS budget--does nothing of the sort. Yes, it makes it more difficult, and sometimes deadly, to cross. But we still do cross back and forth over that line.

Dear legislators, I watch CNN en Español and have been following your recent debates over immigration policy very carefully. Let us speak frankly here: You've been playing an age-old shell game--appeasing the rabid dogs of nativism but leaving the border open enough to supply labor to big business, which keeps getting you re-elected.

What a great buzz there was in the migrant communities before 9/11! You were speaking (well, some of you) about an amnesty--pardon me, a regularization--of the immigration status of the nearly 9 million estimated "illegals" in your midst. Then for several months you shied away from such discussions. But now your President is on his way to Latin America, and he will meet with my President. It is clear to us, the migrants, that these men want to see some movement on the issue--Bush, to bolster his standing among Latinos and his business cronies, and Fox, to please paisanos like me--but this makes many of you uncomfortable. I know why. It's Al Qaeda and the Taliban. Now, I might look a bit like Caliban (especially in these surroundings), but I'm no Taliban, no terrorist! What are my weapons? Leaf blowers and dishrags?

You must place regularization and some version of a "guestworker" program back on the fast track. Everybody wins with real reform: Your labor-hungry industries will be happy, and you might even get some of that coveted Hispanic vote. But you need to understand one thing: We migrants will not accept any kind of program modeled on the infamous, exploitative Bracero Program. Braceros, my grandfather among them, had no right to leave an abusive boss, had no recourse to better their working conditions and wages, could not join unions. The guestworker program of the new century must give us the rights that all American workers enjoy. And there must be a mechanism for affording those workers who spend, say, six years living and working in your country the opportunity for permanent legal status.

When Vicente Fox rose to power two years ago, he made a statement that caused you much anxiety: He foresaw the border between the United States and Mexico disappearing within a decade. I tell you today that this prophecy will come to pass. There are no lines in nature, dear sirs and madams. The fact that I am here before you today proves that this is so. I thank you for your kind consideration in allowing me to speak before you today. ¡Qué vivan los mojados! Long live the migrants!

Only months after a major victory on China trade, Big Business is again scavenging for cheap labor. This time, the high-tech industry is pressuring Congress to allow additional foreign technicians--particularly computer programmers and engineers--to work temporarily for US corporations. Congress, with the President's blessing, is poised to deliver a sweet deal to the industry, at the expense of US and foreign workers.

The 1990 Immigration Act set aside 65,000 H-1B visas each year to allow "the best and the brightest" from around the world to work in the United States for up to six years. In 1998, when the high-tech industry complained about an unbearable shortage of skilled US workers, Congress raised the annual H-1B ceiling to 115,000. The industry promised it was a one-time solution. But tech companies devoured the visas. Now their Washington lobbyists claim they are still starving for qualified workers.

Such evidence as exists, however, casts doubt on the alleged labor shortage. A recent study by the IT Workforce Data Project concluded that over the past fifty years, "there is no evidence that any serious shortages of technical professionals--engineers in the past, information technology specialists now--have ever occurred." If the industry faces a tight labor market, it's self-imposed. The industry has largely ignored its vast underrepresentation of women and minorities. Few tech firms recruit at African-American job fairs, and less than 1 percent of blacks with high-tech degrees have Silicon Valley jobs. The corporations also often shun older workers, who might require retraining or better pay.

The tech industry craves cheap labor, not skilled workers. H-1Bs, which are temporary and prohibit the holder from switching employers, fill the bill. H-1B workers cannot unionize, are likely to accept uncompetitive wages and do not receive the employment benefits that similarly skilled Americans would demand. Many companies reportedly force their foreign employees to work in factorylike conditions and routinely withhold wages and violate contracts. Foreign workers, dependent on their jobs for legal residence in the United States, are defenseless: If they complain, they risk being fired; if they quit, their employer can sue them. Their only legal remedy is a bureaucratic federal complaint process with few enforcement options. These foreign temps--indentured servants of the new economy--can either put up or go home.

Nonetheless, Bill Clinton, Congress, Al Gore and George W. Bush support raising the H-1B ceiling to approximately 200,000. Why? The computer industry alone has pumped more than $72 million into federal campaigns. Orrin Hatch and Spencer Abraham, sponsors of the Senate's leading H-1B bill, have received nearly $1 million in high-tech campaign contributions. David Dreier and Zoe Lofgren, authors of the industry-endorsed House legislation, each enjoy tens of thousands in Silicon Valley funding. Other powerful legislators have also profited handsomely from cooperating with Big Technology.

The industry is reminding its political welfare recipients that expanding the H-1B program is a top priority for the nation's tech firms. Their lobbyists are meeting one-on-one with politicians and are barraging Capitol Hill with daily "fact sheets." Chairmen of House and Senate campaign committees have received letters explicitly warning that tech companies will not support legislators who dawdle on H-1B. With control of Congress up for grabs, opposing the industry hardly seems worth the risk.

Representative Tom Davis, who chairs a GOP campaign committee and supports raising the H-1B ceiling, acknowledged, "This is not a popular bill with the public. It's popular with the CEOs." Once again, powerful corporations and unprincipled politicians are preparing to take advantage of vulnerable foreign labor, while many US workers are left out in the cold.

Blogs

What looks like a night of “chaos” in Baltimore was just one freeze-frame in a long arc of urban crisis.

May 1, 2015

Will the Labor Department's much-delayed new rules for the H2-B visa program strengthen protections for immigrant workers?

April 3, 2015

Workers at this New York restaurant were just awarded $2.67 million for egregious wage theft—and could motivate others to push back against labor violations.

March 25, 2015

The UAE welcomes NYU’s culture cachet—but not academics seeking to expose exploitaitve labor conditions.

March 23, 2015

According to a new lawsuit, the Filipino guest workers were subject to sixteen-hour shifts and abusive treatment at the hands of their bosses.

March 19, 2015

A climate of impunity for employers, coupled with the threat of deportation, is forcing undocumented workers to bear the costs of injury and abuse.

March 17, 2015

These guestworkers were vindicated this week when the contractor who arranged their captivity was slapped with a $14 million guilty verdict. 

February 20, 2015

Hong Kong’s domestic workers face an uphill struggle to secure their basic rights against exploitation and abuse.

February 13, 2015

Domestic workers are demanding an end to slavery-like conditions in the homes of the Hong Kong rich.

February 11, 2015

We’ve relegated Latino immigrants to the most dangerous jobs—and left them few effective ways to challenge mistreatment.

January 14, 2015