Even though she was working forty hours a week at the Valencia Street Travelodge in San Francisco, Matilda (last name withheld), who moved to the United States from Mexico a decade ago, couldn't afford to clothe her four children. "First I go to churches where they give clothes and food away," she said. "When school begins, we get pencils and books from the Salvation Army. If it wasn't for this kind of help, we couldn't live in San Francisco."
Her co-worker Patricia, meanwhile, was paying $635 a month for a studio apartment for her children and husband, and considered herself lucky. Rent for a San Francisco studio usually starts at $1,000. At the end of each month, after putting out $250 for food, nothing was left from her paycheck. The motel paid room cleaners $6.25 an hour–not enough to send any money home to families in Mexico and El Salvador.
Motel managers never said much about the workers' immigration status until the low wages inspired them to join a union, Hotel Employees (HERE) Local 2. According to organizer Chito Cuellar, supervisors began making such threats after the union signed its first contract, to derail protests over heavy workloads and harassment. Then, in May 1999, John Jake, the general manager, called nine workers into his office, including the two women. He told them Social Security had notified the motel that their numbers didn't match the government's database. Straighten it all out in a week, he warned, or you're out of a job. A week later, when they tried to punch in, security guards told them they'd been fired.
Twenty years ago, most unions would have written off such workers and their problems. As recently as 1986, the AFL-CIO supported the "employer sanctions" provision of the Immigration Reform and Control Act. Sanctions make it possible for employers like Travelodge to use Social Security "no match" letters as a pretext for firing immigrants who assert their rights. The law requires employers to keep records of workers' immigration status, and it imposes fines (low and rarely collected) on those who hire the undocumented. The real impact of the law is on the workers, making it illegal for them to hold a job.
Today unions are rethinking their attitude toward immigrants like Patricia and Matilda. Since 1986 it has become common for companies to use the employer sanctions as a weapon to resist organizing drives. Recognizing this, in February 2000 the AFL-CIO passed a historic resolution calling for the repeal of sanctions and for a legalization program that would allow undocumented immigrants to normalize their status. As a result, the political rules and alliances that limited the possibility for immigration reform have also changed. Amnesty for the country's 9-11 million undocumented immigrants, which was off the radar screen in Washington just a few years ago, is now a realistic goal.
But employers see opportunity as well. With the avid support of key Congressional Republicans and the Bush Administration, they are seeking new "bracero" contract labor programs, which would transform workers like the room cleaners into an even cheaper and more vulnerable labor force of guestworkers. Activists such as Ernesto Galarza and Cesar Chavez, and writers such as former Nation editor Carey McWilliams, documented extensive abuses of workers under the bracero program, in place from 1942 to 1964. Although they are guaranteed labor rights on paper, guestworkers depend on the continuation of a job to remain in the country. Employers therefore have the power not only to fire workers who protest bad conditions, but in effect to deport them as well.