Both of My Grandfathers Were Illegal Immigrants (and Lou Dobbs' Would Be Today)

My grandfathers, like many other illegal immigrants, helped usher in the world's greatest period of working class prosperity.
Both my grandfathers were illegal immigrants.

Morris Passoff, my mother's father, came here from what is now Belarus in 1910, when he was 14. As he was by himself, he got a woman on the ship to pretend she was his aunt so he wouldn't be turned back at Ellis Island as an unaccompanied minor.

Avram Wishnia and Hinde Greenberg Wishnia, my father's parents, came here from Paris around 1929, about five years after they had emigrated there from Poland. My grandmother was able to enter the country as an immigrant, as her father was already a U.S. citizen, but my grandfather had to come in as a tourist. In early 1932, he was expelled because his visa had expired -- even though he had an 8-month-old Brooklyn-born son, my father. My grandmother went to work in an overcoat factory while her parents took care of my father -- who was what the contemporary anti-immigrant movement calls an "anchor baby."

My family history belies the central beliefs of that anti-immigrant movement: the argument that "our ancestors all came here legally"; the racist attitudes that immigrants are alien scum; and the idea that immigrants, especially illegal ones, drive down wages. Both my grandfathers became union activists, part of the movement that ushered in the greatest period of working-class prosperity in the history of the industrialized world. "In our organizing, we talk about the work immigrants did in the 1930s to create the good jobs we have today," says Annemarie Strassel, a Chicago-based organizer for UNITE HERE. "We want to revive that for the 21st century."

Morris Passoff got a job as a copy boy for the New York World, driving a horse cart to deliver stories from reporters in the field. On March 25, 1911, when he was 15, he was at work when a fire broke out in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. He watched as screaming workers jumped from ninth-floor windows with their hair and clothing ablaze, as the World reported. He moved up to the mailroom, bundling and mailing the newspapers, and eventually worked at two Yiddish-language dailies. He served on the executive board of Mailers Local 6 of the International Typographers Union.

"He had a real sense of himself as working-class," my mother recalls. "He always said, 'I am a worker.' Not 'middle class,' like they say today."

Avram Wishnia returned to Brooklyn in 1934 and worked as a presser in a clothing factory. He also served on the executive board of his International Ladies Garment Workers Union local. He stood up to Murder Inc. goons and corrupt business agents but was purged at the beginning of the Cold War for his communist sympathies.

Union wages and security, affordable (rent-controlled) housing and cheap college tuition were the tripod that supported my parents' generation as they moved into the middle class and beyond. But there are formidable obstacles to the current generation of immigrants doing the same. Changes in our immigration laws mean that most of the Ellis Island generation would not now be able to enter the country legally. The union movement is much weaker than it was in the post-World War II period. The post-Reagan economy has redistributed wealth from America to Richistan to the point that if Manhattan were an independent nation, it would have the most unequal economy in the world. And the illegal status of many immigrant workers is another weapon employers can use to intimidate them when they try to organize.

War on Workers

"Employers violate workers' rights every time we try to organize," says Eddie Acosta, worker center coordinator for the AFL-CIO. "It's the fear of being deported that makes people afraid."

Two of the largest recent roundups of illegal immigrants -- in which the federal Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement charged hundreds of workers with identity theft for using false Social Security numbers -- took place at companies with histories of union-management conflict. The United Food and Commercial Workers were trying to organize at the Agriprocessors kosher meatpacking plant in Postville, Iowa, where 389 people were arrested and 270 jailed in an ICE raid May 12. And the United Steelworkers were beginning a drive to expand the union at the Chattanooga chicken factory that was one of five Pilgrim's Pride plants raided in April, with more than 300 people arrested.

Agriprocessors' owners "have resisted any effort" to unionize, says UFCW spokesperson Gonzalo Salvador. The UFCW had complained to state and federal officials that the company was shorting workers on their paychecks and hiring underage workers, and Pilgrim's Pride in 2004 refused to renew UFCW contracts at several plants. Both companies cooperated with ICE in the raids, and Pilgrim's Pride issued a statement saying it had set off the investigation by informing ICE that workers at its Batesville, Ark., plant were using false Social Security numbers. However, Salvador says he can't say for sure that the raids were linked to attempts to undermine the union. A more subtle tactic, says Milan Bhatt of the New York Immigration Coalition, is for companies facing a union campaign to dismiss employees because of the sudden discovery that their Social Security number doesn't match any listed in the government's E-Verify database. In 2006, the Cintas laundry chain fired more than 400 workers after it received no-match letters. UNITE HERE was trying to organize workers there.

"We see it around the country," says Acosta. "Workers are being fired for no-match, but there hasn't been a no-match letter sent in at least a year and a half."

The E-Verify database has at least 17,000 errors, he says, and the Department of Homeland Security's database is also flawed. Though E-Verify is supposed to be used only to screen newly hired employees, a General Accounting Office study found that employers are using it on current workers, he adds. The Swift meatpacking company, where ICE seized almost 1,300 workers in December 2006, was using E-Verify. "The workers are terrorized, both immigrant and non-immigrant, and the employer gets off scot-free."

Others say the practice is less common. Jo Marie Agriesti, Midwest organizing director for UNITE HERE, says she's heard rumors but hasn't seen employers using no-match letters against workers in her area.

Fear Factor

Being deported is a much harsher consequence than being fired. But organizers say fear is the primary obstacle to unionization even among native-born citizens, so workers' immigration status is not as big a roadblock as it seems. "Immigration is serious, but it's not that different from other things people are afraid of," says Brenda Carter of UNITE HERE. "People's biggest fear is of losing their jobs," explains Agriesti. "If you're a 50-year-old white woman or a 50-year-old black woman, it's really hard to get a new job." That applies equally to immigrant workers who have risen above the lowest-paying jobs, she adds.

To form a union, she continues, "people have to be willing to lose their jobs. We don't lie to people. We don't say the law is going to protect you." The laws have been too "decimated" to do much, says Acosta. And in a 2002 case involving Hoffman Plastic Compounds Inc., the Supreme Court ruled that undocumented workers were covered by the National Labor Relations Act -- but that employers who fired them illegally didn't have to pay back wages or reinstate them, because that would violate the laws against knowingly hiring illegal immigrants. Another disadvantage of filing unfair-labor-practice complaints, he adds, is that it "takes power away from the workers and gives it to the legal process, which takes forever."

Acosta outlines a three-part strategy for successful organizing: Convince employers that the union is not going away, get workers to overcome their fear, and enlist community support "so workers feel they're not alone."

Others say that simply talking to workers about the advantages of a union is the best strategy. "Better wages, better benefits, fewer injuries, more rights and respect," says the UFCW's Salvador. "Word of mouth is very helpful -- the facts speak for themselves. They see, 'This guy is making $5 an hour more than I am.'"

In Chicago, says UNITE HERE's Strassel, immigrants have helped bring "a major turnaround in the militancy of the union in the last decade." Though a strike at the Congress Hotel remains unsettled after five years, housekeepers' wages have risen from $8.83 to $13.90 an hour since 2002, and they've also won health care benefits.

"For immigrants, organizing a union is the only way to have a better life -- other than winning the lottery," says Agriesti. Being treated with respect is often a bigger issue than money, she adds.

Union organizers say they never ask workers about their immigration status. "We do not believe there should be any difference. Everyone deserves the same rights and respect at work," says Salvador. Another problem is dealing with tension within the union itself over immigration. In Chicago, according to Strassel, hotels have hired almost exclusively Latinos in the last 10 years, and many of the older Afro-American workers resent that. On the other hand, she tells the story of an event center that brought in Latino temporary workers to supplant the Afro-American staff, giving the newer workers supervisory positions and telling them the black workers were lazy. But once the temps made it into permanent jobs, they were demoted and replaced with other temps. When that happened, she says, the black workers realized that "management was trying to play them off against each other."

"Everybody gets mistreated," says Agriesti. "In organizing nonunion workers, it's easier to point that out. It doesn't matter if the Mexican workers are cleaning rooms with a toothbrush or the Chinese workers are faster. We're all in the same boat.

"There is tension among different ethnic groups, but with good organizing, it goes away. If management is winning, the work force is divided. If the union is winning, the work force is united."

Organizing the Shadow Economy

Unions are also moving into organizing day laborers, the most subterranean sector of the job market. "On the Corner," a 2006 study by urban-planning professors Abel Valenzuela and Nik Theodore, estimated a daily average of 117,600 day laborers, the overwhelming majority of them men from Mexico and Central America, with 60 percent of them in the country for less than five years and three-fourths undocumented. They wait for potential employers at more than 700 sites around the country, from urban street corners to Home Depot parking lots, and get painting, landscaping and construction work that generally pays around $10 an hour.

Day laborers are the most visible and controversial part of the illegal-immigrant work force -- and among the most vulnerable. Among the 2,600 day laborers interviewed for the study, half reported having been cheated out of their pay by at least one employer, and one-fifth reported being injured on the job.

As they are hired informally by contractors and homeowners, a formal union structure wouldn't work. "It's impossible to negotiate with one contractor," says Pablo Alvarado, head of the Los Angeles-based National Day Labor Organizing Network. So the main method of organizing day laborers is by establishing "worker centers."

There are now about 180 around the country, says Acosta. They function as hiring halls and offer legal services and English classes. They also create a venue for collective action, such as workers agreeing on minimum wages for certain jobs, easing community concerns about laborers being on the street, and organizing or litigating against local laws aimed at suppressing day laborers.

NDLON, founded in 2001, comprises 41 community organizations in the West, Southwest, Northeast, Illinois and Florida. The AFL-CIO set up a formal partnership with it in 2006.

Some centers serve all day laborers in a certain area. Others cover specific jobs such as taxi drivers or domestic workers -- job categories that have a high number of immigrants and are not covered by the National Labor Relations Act, says Acosta. In Los Angeles, the United Steelworkers are using the worker-center model in a campaign to organize the area's 10,000 car-wash workers, some of whom work only for tips.

NDLON will picket employers if they stiff more than five workers, says Alvarado; one Los Angeles construction contractor cheated 100 workers out of their pay. But he believes the most effective technique for getting day laborers fair pay is educating them about their rights, teaching them how to present a wage and hour complaint and to write down the employer's license plate number and the pay rate they've been promised.

"We're Not for Open Borders, and We're Not for Building Walls"

The AFL-CIO supports legalizing the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the United States. The current system, says Acosta, forces undocumented workers into a dungeon economy where they have no practical way to assert their rights to a minimum wage, fair labor conditions or workers' compensation.

"We're not for open borders, and we're not for building walls," he says. "We're for immigration laws that protect the rights of workers, both U.S. workers and immigrants as they come in. That's not an easy position to explain."

Highest on labor's political agenda is the Employee Free Choice Act, which would enable workers to form a union simply if a majority of them signed cards saying that they wanted to join one. The current law requires a majority vote, which gives employers time to intimidate workers, union activists say. With "card check," notes Acosta, the Communications Workers of America was able to organize 50,000 workers at AT&T's wireless division -- most of them in the South, historically the most anti-union region of the country.

Unions are also firmly against "guest worker" programs. The UFCW says that approach "inherently provides employers with the opportunity to abuse and exploit workers" and would "create an underclass." Acosta points out that the Indian shipyard workers at Signal International's Gulf Coast facilities -- who paid $20,000 each to come here, were paid far less than American workers would have been, were charged $1,050 a month to live 24 to a trailer in company labor camps, got only temporary visas instead of the green cards they were promised, and were threatened with deportation when they objected -- were legal guest workers, not undocumented immigrants.

"Enforcement is only going to make it worse," says Alvarado. "It gives employers the element of fear in their favor -- they say, 'I'm risking myself to give you a job, so you better stay quiet.'

"It is impossible to seal the border," he continues. "As long as there's extreme poverty in Latin America and other places, people will go where the jobs are." Although day laborers face increased hostility from the anti-immigration movement and the recession has reduced the amount of construction and landscaping work, "people are not packing up and going back to their home countries" -- not when they can make $60 a day here instead of $5 a day there.

The solution is complex, he says, but any immigration policy "must ensure that the human rights of people who migrate are protected.

"It's a new population of workers. Unions have to understand that their future is tied to immigrants. When you protect the most vulnerable workers, you protect everyone."

Acosta sees a conflict between two models of unionism: one opposed to immigration because it believes that having more workers on the market drives down wages, and the other organizing to "take wages and benefits out of the market." That conflict goes back to the beginning of the U.S. labor movement, with the original AFL focusing on winning higher wages for its constituency of skilled workers, and the CIO emerging in the 1930s by organizing factory workers en masse and campaigning for New Deal social benefits like Social Security and unemployment compensation.

He favors the latter model, arguing that having a strong labor movement can create a society that serves all workers' interests, not just on wages but on issues such as trade policy, the environment and health care.

With 88 percent of the U.S. work force nonunion, Acosta says, "we can't focus just on the interests of our members. It's just not sustainable anymore."

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Steven Wishnia is a New York-based journalist and musician. The author of Exit 25 Utopia and The Cannabis Companion, he has won two New York City Independent Press Association awards for his coverage of housing issues. He is looking for a job.