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‘They Got Walter’

Photo Credit:  David Bacon  
Thousands of immigrant workers gathered in 2003 in San Francisco in preparation for the three-week Immigration Workers Freedom Ride that culminated in Washington, D.C., and New York City.  

One of our features at AFL-CIO Now blog is a diary section where grassroots union activists share what’s going on in their communities. I want to preview here with the Firedoglake community an upcoming column by Massachusetts unionist Jeff Crosby. Jeff has dedicated his life to the union movement and now is president of IUE-CWA Local 201 in Lynn, Mass., where he also heads up the AFL-CIO’s North Shore Labor Council.

My daughter told me when I dropped her off at work at Market Basket last week: “They got Walter.” The police, or the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), had come to the supermarket and picked up “Walter.” He was a young Latino who had worked his way up to full-time. Nobody on the job knew where he was taken, and nobody knew why he was taken. In the following days it was said he had a false Social Security number. The large-scale raids were supposed to be aimed at the MS-13 gang, but others, including a union organizer, were caught up, and terror spread through the “New Immigrant” communities like a thunderstorm across the Kansas plains.

White neighborhoods didn’t even know about the raids. But the Latino neighborhoods were deserted. Around the corner from my union hall in Lynn, Mass., Union Street has been transformed in the past 20 years from an abandoned district inhabited largely by drug dealers into a bustling commercial center of Latino businesses. When news of the raids was spread by the Spanish radio stations, an eerie silence spread over Union Street and other Spanish neighborhoods down into East Boston. The little store selling religious icons of Jesus and Mary was empty. White employers complained their workers disappeared. Parents kept their children home from school, behind locked doors.

Legal residents were affected, as well as those who had crossed the border illegally or overstayed their legal welcome. People knew from the workplace raids in New Bedford earlier this year that you could be arguing your case from a jail cell in Texas with little access to legal help and far from your children and even prescription medicines. Better to miss pay and risk discipline on the job and stay home with your children.

The night before I heard about Walter from my daughter, I had met with a group of Lynn Guatemalans who wanted to organize a union. Their story is important to anyone who thinks a massive crackdown on undocumented workers will improve conditions for the rest of us. I’ll call the company Avaricious Inc.

The day after word spread of the raids, 60 percent of the workers did not show up on the job. So Avaricious called a temp agency. They paid less than the regular employees received-top rate after 10 years was about $14 an hour-and of course, no benefits. Now the workers expect Avaricious to lay many of them off and use the temp agency permanently.

Avaricious thus saves money, but more importantly, is protected from ICE. They no longer are responsible for the “illegals” since they are not the employer of record. ICE would be faced with chasing ever more desperate and impoverished workers through shifting, shadowy scab temp agencies that make Avaricious look like a model employer.

So fear reigns over millions of workers and their families in the United States, making them less likely to stick their heads up and organize unions or file complaints with government agencies. Just this week a Guatemalan construction worker from Lynn fell off a roof and was killed-it turned out he was 17. The problem only gets worse-wages and benefits at the low end of the labor market are dropping and are a downward pressure on all wages. This is where we are headed.

Will this stop undocumented workers like Lynn’s Guatemalans from coming? No. We really need to correct our willful ignorance of our own history if we are going to figure out what to do about immigration.

In 1950, Guatemalans elected the mildly reformist President Jacobo Arbenz. Arbenz wanted to give plantation workers rights to the land under their company houses. This would mean the workers could organize unions without being thrown out of their homes. This angered the Boston-based United Fruit Co., which had enjoyed the unrestricted right to exploit Guatemalan workers at their whim. So in 1954, United Fruit and the CIA organized an invasion from Honduras and expelled Arbenz to Mexico, replacing him with pro-corporate military leaders.

Many Guatemalans reasonably concluded that the United States would kill them if they challenged the domination of the corporations and headed to the mountains. A 30-year civil war cost 300,000 lives. The U.S. State Department reported to then-President Ronald Reagan that U.S.-funded and -trained government soldiers committed atrocities like throwing babies down wells, in the course of defending “democracy.” More than 400,000 people fled the country, largely to the United States.

Most Guatemalans in Lynn come from San Marcos, which was hit hard by the civil war. Since the guerrillas signed a peace agreement in 1996, “free trade” has continued to devastate San Marcos. Foreign power and mining interests have driven people from their homes to make way for “mega-project” development. Since the neoliberal model mandates that development is for export, 25 percent of the homes in the countryside still have no electricity, while power is shipped North. There is no work for displaced farmers. Villages are emptied, especially of men. Indigenous protesters have been harassed, even killed, and the area is becoming increasingly militarized.

Until conditions improve, immigrants will keep coming. Duh. And it’s a desperate journey. You leave your families. You pay a smuggler $5,000-10,000 to get across the border. Thousands died during the trip. U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s Office of Border Patrol funding has multiplied by six since 1990 to $1.6 billion annually before the wall-builders got their hands in our pockets-to no avail. All so you can send a little more than $300 a month to feed hungry mouths at home. You could say that Lynn’s Guatemalans are just making informed market choices, joining the hundreds of millions of workers who search the desolate neoliberal global landscape for work. Simply to eat. Simply to live.

ICE raids will make things worse for immigrants and other workers here in the United States.

There is, of course, another, better choice. Workers at Avaricious could be granted the basic human right to organize a union. Wages and benefits would stabilize and improve. A path to citizenship would bring these workers and their families out from the shadows. Guatemalans already have the highest rate of labor market participation and work the longest hours of any group in Lynn. They could participate in civic life. Businesses on Union Street and even Avaricious would have steady customers and workers. The growing chasm between rich and poor would begin to shrink for the first time in decades as a major downward pressure on wages was eliminated.

These are our choices, at a turning point in our movement’s history. The right choice means fighting not only the haters and their apologists on the right, including the simplistic and intellectually facile harangues of Lou Dobbs. It also means insisting that brothers and sisters in our movement among U.S.-born workers think this through and act accordingly.

A couple of clichés seem appropriate as a conclusion to this column. We need to ask our members to be careful of what they wish for-because we reap what we sow.

That’s how “They got Walter.”

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