WHO DOES THE WORK?
By David Bacon
BERKELEY, CA (4/10/02) -- The recent decision of the Supreme
Court in the case of Hoffman Plastics is not only another instance of class
justice, or rather, injustice. The logic of Chief Justice Rehnquist makes
it plain that the court's majority lives in denial of the social reality
millions working people face every day.
The court began by making worse an already-bad precedent. In a
previous decision in the Sure-Tan case, millions of undocumented immigrants
already lost the right to be reinstated to their jobs if they were fired
for joining a union. Now the Rehnquist court says they can forget about
backpay too, for the time they were out of work.
The decision rewards employers who want to stop union organizing
efforts among immigrant workers -- the very people who've built a
decade-long track record of labor activism, often organizing themselves
even when unions showed little interest. Their bosses can now terminate
undocumented workers without fear of any monetary consequences.
But the court's logic goes further, willfully ignoring social
reality. Today one worker in every twenty participating in a union drive
gets fired, immigrant and native born alike. Federal labor law may
prohibit this, but companies already treat the cost of legal battles,
reinstatement and back pay as a cost of doing business. Many consider it
cheaper than signing a union contract.
So the real need is to strengthen protection for labor rights for
all workers, not weaken it. But it's clear than retaliatory firings are
not a serious violation of the law in the court's eyes.
William Gould III, former chair of the National Labor Relations
Board, points out that "there's a basic conflict between US labor law and
US immigration law." The court has held that the enforcement of employer
sanctions, which makes it illegal for an undocumented immigrant to hold a
job, is more important than the right of that worker to join a union and
resist exploitation on the same job.
Jose Castro, the fired worker in the Hoffman case, committed the
cardinal sin, according to Rehnquist. He lied to get a job, saying that he
had legal status when he didn't.
This is a lie told by millions of workers every year, one
conveniently believed by employers when they want to take advantage of
their labor. It is only in the face of union activity that bosses suddenly
awake to the reality that their workers have no papers (and usually then
firing only the union-loving ones.)
But thank God workers are willing to tell those lies. If they
weren't, who would do the work? Who would harvest the lettuce for the
justices' lunchtime sandwiches, or cut up the cow for their dinner prime
rib? Or care for the children of the lawyers who argued the case? Or
clean their offices at night after it was argued?
This decision isn't about enforcing immigration law, despite
Rehnquist's pious assertion that employers can already be fined for hiring
people like Castro. And it's certainly not about enforcing their labor
As always, it's about money. When it becomes more risky and
difficult for workers to organize and join unions, or even to hold a job at
all, then they settle for lower wages. And when the price of immigrant
labor goes down as a result, so do the wages for everyone else. The famous
A recent study by the Pew trust counts almost 8 million
undocumented people in the US -- 4 percent of the urban workforce, and over
half of all farmworkers. The flow of workers across the border into those
jobs will not stop anytime soon. Over 120 million people already live
outside their countries of origin. The National Population Council of
Mexico reports that "migration between Mexico and the United States is a
permanent, structural phenomenon ... the intense relationship between the
two countries make it inevitable."
Even the sacrifice of the rights of those workers by blind justice
will not stop people from crossing the border, nor end the need for the
work they do. If they are to have legal status, then the door to legal
immigration must be opened, and sanctions repealed. But come they will,
The court's message to them, however, is know your place. Do the
work, stay in the shadows, accept what your betters give you, and never
think of organizing to challenge the structure which holds you in chains.
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***The Labor Immigrant Organizing Network (LION) meets the 2nd Wednesday of
every month at 9:30am, at the Alameda Central Labor Council, 7992 Capwell
Drive, Oakland. For more information call 510-643-2355.***