Coming appositely on the heels of our film review of FFN, is the real-world reportage of INS raids on — guess what — huge industrial meat-packing operations in the Midwest. David Bacon reports for The American Prospect: “Tuesdayâ€™s immigration raids on meatpacking plants werenâ€™t about curbing identity theft, they were about union-busting.”
In 1947, Woody Guthrie wrote a song about the crash of a plane carrying Mexican immigrant farm workers back to the border. In haunting lyrics he describes how it caught fire as it flew low over Los Gatos Canyon, near Coalinga at the edge of California’s San Joaquin Valley. Observers below saw people and belongings flung out of the aircraft before it hit the ground, falling like leaves, he wrote.No record was kept of the workers’ identities. They were simply listed as “deportee,” and that became the name of the song. Far from being recognized as workers or even human beings, Guthrie lamented, the dead were treated as criminals. â€œThey chase us like outlaws, like rustlers, like thieves.”
Some things haven’t changed much. When agents of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) arrested over a thousand workers in six Swift and Company meatpacking plants on Tuesday, they too were called criminals. In Greeley, Colorado, agents dressed in SWAT uniforms even carried a hundred handcuffs with them into the plant.
The workers, they said, were identity thieves. Barbara Gonzalez, an ICE spokesperson, told reporters outside the slaughterhouse there that “we have been investigating a large identity theft scheme that has victimized many U.S. citizens and lawful residents.” ICE head Julie Myers told other reporters in Washington, D.C. that “those who steal identities of U.S. citizens will not escape enforcement.”
The reality is that these meatpacking laborers had done what millions of people in this country do every year. They gave a Social Security number to their employer that either didn’t belong to them, or that didn’t exist. And they did it for a simple reason: to get a job in one of the dirtiest, hardest, most dangerous workplaces in America. Mostly, these borrowed numbers probably belong to other immigrants who’ve managed to get green cards. But regardless of who they are, the real owners of the Social Security numbers will benefit, not suffer.
Swift paid thousands of extra dollars into their Social Security accounts. The undocumented immigrants using the numbers will never be able to collect a dime in retirement pay for all their years of work on the killing floor. If anyone was cheated here, they were. But when ICE agents are calling the victims criminals in order to make their immigration raid sound like an action on behalf of upright citizens.
ICE has not, of course, accused the immigrant workers of the real crime for which they were arrested. That’s the crime of working.
The real motivation for these immigration raids is more cynical. The Swift action follows months of ICE pressuring employers to fire workers whose Social Security numbers don’t match the agency’s database. These no-match actions have been concentrated in workplaces where immigrants are organizing unions or standing up for their rights.
At the Cintas laundry chain, over 400 workers were terminated in November alone, as a result of no-match letters. Cintas is the target of the national organizing drive by UNITE HERE, the hotel and garment workers union.
In November also, hundreds walked out of the huge Smithfield pork processing plant in Tarheel, North Carolina, after the company fired 60 workers for Social Security discrepancies. That non-union plant is not just the national organizing target for the United Food and Commercial Workers Union. Smithfield has also been found guilty repeatedly of firing its employees for union activity, and threatening to use their immigration status against them. When workers at Emeryville, California’s Woodfin Suites tried to enforce the city’s new living wage law, Measure C, they too were suddenly hit with a no-match check.
It’s no accident that workers belong to unions in five of the six Swift meatpacking plants where this week’s raids took place.
Meanwhile the tame media report that “Consumers and the industry itself may be feeling the repercussions in a shortage of meatpackers, higher wage costs and, ultimately, higher prices for the beef that lands on America’s tables at home and in restaurants.” — continuing the bizarre tradition of reporting every issue in terms of its impact on markets — on shopping, investing, consuming, and profit-taking.
There was a time when union membership was the exclusive province of whitefolks. What does it mean in national discourse — discourse gravitationally affected at every turn by gender and race — when the phrase “unionised workers” increasingly calls up a media image of Hispanic or Black women and men, rather than prosperous Anglo male workers on Detroit assembly lines? when increasingly the “proletariat” of any given affluent nation is composed of non-citizens, Gastarbeiter and undocumented workers, whose position w/in the nation-state is even weaker than the position of legal immigrant labour in early C20 USA? there is a long tradition of associating union activity with foreign-ness, predating the period of FDR’s New Deal and a brokered truce between US management and labour (or a sellout by union leadership, depending on whom you ask). Is that tradtion being revived now, with (so to speak) interest?