The WALL STREET JOURNAL published a worried analysis about the April 10 day of action for immigrant rights, pointing to widespread absenteeism by workers who participated, which forced many employers to shut down.
Workers at an Excel meatpacking plant in Dodge City, Kan., walked off the job after several workers were disciplined for staying away from work to demonstrate. After they marched into the company cafeteria and announced they wouldn’t return to work, management was forced to back down and withdraw the disciplinary action.
In Chicago, workers at the Cobra Metal Workers Corp. were fired after skipping work to participate in the march of 300,000 people on March 10. But they won reinstatement after activists organized by the Chicago Workers Collaborative rallied to their defense.
I talked to MARTÍN UNZUETA, the group’s organizer, about the central role of workers in the new immigrant-rights movement–and the national movement to skip work, march and protest on May 1.
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LS: HOW DOES the Chicago Workers Collaborative participate in the immigrant-rights movement?
MU: THE MISSION of the organization is to organize the community around workers’ rights, and give workers some tools to fight in the workplace.
For example, a law protecting the rights of day laborers in Illinois was just passed last year and took effect in January. So we’re fielding complaints from the different day laborers to fight for their rights with the state Department of Labor.
The first complaint against a company is a $2,000 fine. The second is $500 for each worker for each day that the company doesn’t solve the problem. Typically, the complaints are that they didn’t pay overtime. Others didn’t take care of workplace injuries. Many of them don’t give W-2 forms to the workers.
Finally, some companies are using the day laborers to undercut workers’ rights–to avoid paying benefits and preventing their right to organize.
LS: WHAT ROLE did this kind of organizing here in Chicago and around the U.S. play in the huge demonstrations for immigrant rights?
MU: IF YOU are a day laborer, you are contracted. If you don’t go today, you can go tomorrow. So you can miss work to protest.
Other workers are trying to organize unions. In the last four years, I’ve helped organize four unions–more than a lot of trade unions have done in the Chicago area. I try to make the workers understand what the benefits of being in a union are, and I help different unions to organize these places–such as the United Electrical Workers and the Steelworkers.
The workers meet here in our office with the unions, which gives workers some protection under the law.
We also function like a community organization, providing English classes and helping with different state programs, like food stamps. And we use our institution to educate workers about their rights in the workplace.
LS: DO WORKERS from Mexico bring with them their traditions of organizing?
MU: THEY BRING all their traditions. In Mexico, we had a terrible experience with the unions, with leaders like [oil workers’ union leader] Fidel Velazquez, who was a real gangster. They killed a lot of people who wanted to create independent unions. So when they come here, we try to make clear to them what the relationship should be between workers and the unions.
Many people come here and say, "My union is making me do things." We say, "Do you know your contract? No? Read the contract and then come back to me." If you don’t know your rights when you have a contract, how can I help you?
Then, there are the people who don’t have unions. Right now, we’re working around three nonunion companies. They only have about 100 workers, so they aren’t very attractive to the unions. If they had 500 workers, all the unions would say, "Let me try."
LS: WHEN LATINO workers walked off their job April 10, the employers were suddenly talking about the importance of immigrant labor, and many were fired. Why are workers willing to take this risk?
MU: YOU CAN find many workers who can be fired from one job and find work easily in two or three days. We tell them, "You have rights, you’ve worked there for five years, and you should get compensation." But the reality is that it’s not a big priority for them to keep working for one company.
Many of the people we work with are legal residents or citizens. Their problem is their understanding of the law in the U.S.–that they have rights.
If you’re a Latino, even if you’re a citizen, you’re paid $11 or $13 per hour. We can find people who earn $17 or $20 per hour, but there aren’t a lot. Because we find institutionalized discrimination.
If you come to a company, maybe they pay $20 per hour. But if they see that you’re Mexican, and you don’t speak good English, they’re going to pay you $13 per hour. This is the big discrimination against the community.
That’s why many of those who are marching now are not undocumented immigrants. There are lots of citizens, lots of green cards. They march because this isn’t just an issue of regularization, or of amnesty, or whatever it’s going to be.
The thing is that we’re discriminated against in this country each time we go to work every day. That’s our anger here right now.
LS: WHY IS the May 1 protest important?
MU: IT’S IMPORTANT because now the unions are coming with us. We have a coalition–the Service Employees International Union, UNITE HERE, the Steelworkers and the Teamsters, coming together with the community organizations to make May Day the workers’ day, like it should have been many, many years ago.
The workers who were killed here in Chicago [on the first May Day in 1886] were immigrant workers. And this day should be for them.
We had Mexican-American community organizations, but now those coming to our meetings include the Korean community, the Polish community. We’re trying to reach the Irish community, and we need to reach the Muslim community.
If the unions don’t see what’s happening and they miss this, then they are dead.
LS: ARE YOU calling for workers to strike May 1?
MU: WE’RE NOT asking people to strike–not exactly. We’re using a different strategy. If you request your employer to get this day off, then perhaps you can get an agreement–perhaps in exchange for working more hours the next week.
We’re trying to make this a day for the civil rights of immigrant workers. And who in this country wants to be opposed to civil rights? Workers can say, "I know you’re the owner, and you make a lot of money from us–are you opposed to our civil rights?" And they’ll say, "No, no."
We have a petition the workers can use to request a day off. It doesn’t say it, but basically, this gives them protection under the National Labor Relations Act.
LS: SOME IN the immigrant-rights movement say we shouldn’t call for people to skip work and school May 1, or call for amnesty for undocumented workers, because it will cause a backlash.
MU: WE NEED amnesty. I think [Congress] is going to do whatever they want. But we’re going to keep marching. Because if we don’t keep marching, they’re going to give us less–all the time, less and less.
I don’t agree about keeping quiet in this movement. In Mexico, the first of May will be a boycott against the American companies. In Mexico, we have a strong independent union movement, the UNT, and they’re supporting us.
I think everyone has the right to free speech in the U.S. You have this right whether you’re a worker or a student, and you need to use it. This is a civil rights movement.