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How Unions Indirectly Coerce Immigrant Workers Through The Federal Government 4/4/2011

By: Johan Pena

As a Hispanic professional, I have been paying close attention to the mix of labor news and immigration news recently. I have realized that unions are making immigration reform part of their platform for “a better workforce” in America. Having worked as a union organizer early in my move to the U.S., I know exactly what the unions think about immigrant workers. To the union’s, immigrant workers are a “low hanging fruit” in their organizing efforts. They use immigration status as a tool to coerce and intimidate workers into signing cards. They may not do it directly (in some cases they do it directly, but this is not their first choice), but they have become masters at using government agencies to do it for them indirectly. This tactic involves the sacrifice of many workers who are trying to support their families. This is why I am compelled to write this “Confession” of a real life incident that caused me to leave the union permanently.

It might take you by surprise to learn that many people are listening to labor union “leaders” who are speaking out in favor of immigrant workers these days, regardless of their legal status. These leaders are only trying to push through their own agendas and are in support of legislative initiatives to reform the existing immigration laws that hurt immigrant workers. Just a few years ago, it was a very different story.

In fact, some of these same immigrant workers’ “advocates,” practically didn’t (and in some cases still don’t) want to hear the word Hispanic or Latino inside a union hall or at any union meeting, much less during internal union election times. It was not a popular topic inside most unions. Why are unions publicly projecting a different image in current times? Is it real or just rhetoric? Is it an honest call or just convenience? Are they trying to praise the workforce of the future in the U.S.? Let’s examine the following and you can be the judge.

During the first years of the last decade, I was working for a labor union in the construction industry. As part of my duties, I had to organize employees and bring them in as union members. Our main targets were employees performing work for companies in the same industry with a predominantly Hispanic background. The drill was basically the same all of the time. We identified and selected the targets (companies), did the research, evaluated them and checked specific issues relative to the industry. We assessed each one and prioritized targets, analyzed the market, demographics, logistics, resources and viability. Even when everything fit the profile of the targets we were pursuing, the union “leadership” always asked the same “classic” questions in regards to the employee’s background and whether they had legal documentation, even though the unions have no jurisdiction over these areas.

Union organizers are typically trained to avoid asking employees about their immigration legal status, at least during the early stages of the organizing campaign. However, they always try to find out through third party individuals about the worker’s legal status, how they came into the country, how they got hired, how they get their documentation, who is the contact that helped them get their documentation, how much it cost, etc. When organizers become aware of irregularities with the employees’ immigration status and sensed fear in the employees, they try to deflect the issue with different techniques. First, with empathy and compassion, and then explaining to the employees that the union is not immigration or does not provide any information to immigration authorities; also, that the information collected is “confidential” or “secret”; and ultimately, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) honors the right of any individual or group of individuals who desired to organize in the union regardless of their legal status in the country. Despite saying all this, the union keeps as much of the details on each individual as possible as a profile of each employee, including information on their immediate family members and relatives not only because it could be useful in the future, but by having the information, the union knows how to approach the individual, and more importantly, his or her weaknesses.

There was a particular campaign that lasted about two years, in which there were strong allegations that a large number of employees did not have legal documents to work in the country and the union was made aware of this. We proceeded as usual, trying to concentrate on the campaign. We recruited employees from the targeted company for the Worker’s Committee, collected information and built the network. Once this was achieved, the campaign was officially launched. The “committee,” who were the eyes, ears and mouth of the union inside the target company, had to report to organizers, and the organizers had to report constantly about the status of the campaign and the support of employees to the union leaders. This was to include information on those employees who allegedly had no immigration documents.

The day of the first NLRB election arrived and the majority of the employees voted for the union. At this moment the union demanded the employer to bargain. At the moment the election occurred a construction project was in its last phase. Before the union and the employer engaged in any negotiations, the job was completed by the targeted company, which implied that, technically, we did not represent any of its employees anymore because the petition had been filed for one site only. That’s the nature of construction union organizing.

This did not stop the union. On the contrary, the pressure was increased on the target and we followed the company to the other sites in which it had contracts (both in state and out of state). This time the employees were not so willing to support the union like before. This was mainly because some of these same employees had been laid off when the project was finished and the union did not provide any support for them. So why did the union not provide any support? Well, some organizers alleged that it was because these individuals were people without papers, others because of blatant discrimination. However, there was never an official answer given. I believe it was a combination of several factors like the aforementioned reasons and a lack of work in the union environment. Most members at this time, who were not working, began to resign from their membership and running away from the union.

During this time, the employees refrained from supporting the union. At the union hall, the leadership started a cautious internal campaign (inside the union) to promote the idea of getting rid of the contractor and the employees, altogether. Some individuals in the union contacted the Department of Labor and requested an investigation for irregularities with the contractor’s labor practices. The union knew, through another union contact performing at the same site, that this contractor had been awarded a multimillion dollar contract at a large high-profile federal project. As it is known, the information for federal projects is public record, including employees’ wages, benefits, classifications, journeyman/apprentice ratios, and other regulations like affirmative action programs, bona fide training centers, etc. The union conducted its own investigation and collected evidence of multiple violations.

The only weakness that was strong enough to motivate the authorities to open an investigation, and not let it die, was the status of the employees working on a federal project linked to national security issues. (The project occurred shortly after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.)

The leadership of the union knew that they needed to make this look like it was an action against an irresponsible contractor and not the employees. It is important that we need to remember the reason for this was that the union was publicly supporting immigrant workers. That was a cover up. Technically, the union did not interfere or threaten any employees, but labor leaders knew that by impacting the employer, employees inevitably would be impacted also and be the hardest hit by these actions. In addition, the union knew that there were some individuals in the union that would strongly oppose such action. Others were convinced and brainwashed that it was necessary to send a message, not only to other companies involved in labor conflicts with the union, but to employees who would refuse to support or who opposed the union’s agenda.

The Department of Labor initiated its investigation and the investigators were provided with evidence of violations against the Davis-Bacon Act, and violations in a couple of cases with copies of documents previously obtained from the workers like driver’s license, social security, copies of paystubs, etc. for which the union had told the employees would be kept confidential.

On one particular day at around noon, I received a call from a former employee of the targeted company. He told me that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) was conducting a raid at the federal project, and that they had surrounded the whole area and was arresting everyone that did not have proper documents. We went by the site and found that over 50 employees from that contractor and few more from other contactors had been arrested. The project was shut down for a few days. The contractor continued operating without any consequence and brought in another group of employees from other states. But I can tell you this; it set an example for other illegal immigrants. They knew that they had to sign cards or that they would face the same fate. This is how the union indirectly coerces workers to sign cards by using the federal government as their executioner.

To that point, it was my understanding that my goal was to improve employees’ wages, benefits and working conditions, the safety and well-being of the community and workers, even the employer’s status; sadly, I was wrong, the real goal for the union was to increase the membership base so its financial health would improve. Another real goal was the personal advancement of few union leaders, politically and inside the union, at the expense of hard working men and women. For this reason, a few months later my relationship with the union ended.

Cases like this are not isolated. Unions like to make the community believe that they are really interested in supporting minority groups or their interests. Why? The answer is because statistically these groups continue growing, as well as their buying power and political influence. They can’t be ignored anymore. The unions want a share of that pie, and they know that new inexperienced employees are more vulnerable to their persuasive talk and misleading tactics. The unions need to increase the membership to continue its survival mode, and to maintain the money-making machine to supply high salaries for their bosses and their politically-motivated agendas. And since unions don’t produce anything tangible, the money to support them must come from workers’ paychecks.

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