Guest Workers As Bellwether

Guest Workers As Bellwether

Guest workers are too often invisible in popular discussions of work; when they appear, it’s as outliers. But Saket Soni, who founded the National Guestworker Alliance amid the New Orleans’s post-Katrina guest worker influx, says they’re better understood as a bellwether.

Ana Rosa Diaz and Silvia Alfaro Walle at a Wal-Mart protest. Photo courtesy of the NGA

By the time Martha Uvalle’s boss threatened to have her children assaulted, she’d already lowered her expectations. Uvalle, a forty-year-old from Tamalipas, Mexico, has come to Louisiana as a guest worker every year since 2006. “I came to fulfill the American Dream,” Uvalle told me with a laugh in November. Her choice to become a guest worker was “difficult, because you know you’re leaving your children.” But given “the chance to make a little money…you decide the sacrifice is worth it.” Each year, Uvalle worked for two to five months for CJ’s Seafood in Louisiana, supplying shrimp to companies including the retail giant Wal-Mart. “You have the costs here, the costs there, the costs to come here, so you really can’t save any money.” She also took out high-interest loans to pay for the costs of the travel. Still, “it’s more than you can make in Mexico. But it’s not what I was expecting.” (Interviews with Uvalle and other guest workers were conducted in Spanish.)

For years, the hours at CJ’s were long, and the work was hard. Then, in 2011, Mike LeBlanc replaced his father as the head of the company. “That,” said CJ’s worker Ana Rosa Diaz, “was when it started to get out of control.” Workers say they were required to come to work earlier and stay later, sometimes working as many as sixteen to twenty-four hours straight. Management installed security cameras in the plant and also around the company-owned trailers where the workers lived. Workers say management imposed a curfew, threatened to confiscate the keys to their cars, and told them they couldn’t have visitors. Worse, one of the managers repeatedly said, “If you don’t understand that your break is over, I’ll make you understand with this shovel.” Uvalle understood: “He was saying he would beat us.”

The worst day at CJ’s, Uvalle remembered, was “the day of the threat.” It came after LeBlanc heard that a worker had attempted to report him to the police. Workers say they were called into a mandatory meeting where LeBlanc told them that if any of them got him in trouble, he wouldn’t just get them deported forever. He would send armed men to assault their families back in Mexico.

“I came here to make a better quality of life for myself and my kids, not to get threatened—and especially not to get my children threatened,” said Uvalle.

Last summer, the Worker Rights Consortium, an international labor monitoring group, investigated and affirmed the workers’ allegations of forced labor. WRC executive director Scott Nova told me that although the group generally investigates conditions outside the United States, what he found at CJ’s were among the worst he’s ever seen. But they’re not a fluke. Saket Soni, the executive director of the National Guestworker Alliance, called such abuses “the norm, rather than the exception.” Guest workers face a system designed not just to press down wages but to stifle resistance.

“I came here to make a better quality of life for myself and my kids, not to get threatened—and especially not to get my children threatened,” said Uvalle.

Guest labor has long been a linchpin for some U.S. industries, and a flashpoint in U.S. politics. Most famously, the bracero program, begun by bilateral agreement between the United States and Mexico, facilitated over 4 million total trips by Mexican temporary workers to the United States; it was abolished in 1964 amid criticism from civil rights activists. As pseudo-stateless workers, guest workers face all of the obstacles confronting any U.S. workers who try to organize, and then some.

What set the CJ’s workers apart, more than the abuses they suffered, is how some of them responded: against all odds, they went on strike.

The CJ’s workers are among hundreds of thousands of guest workers who come to the United States each year. These workers range from Mexicans shelling shrimp in a border state on guest worker visas to the group of Turkish and Chinese students, brought to the United States for a “cultural exchange,” who found themselves laboring in a Hershey’s chocolate factory in rural Pennsylvania. NGA, which helped organize strikes at both CJ’s and the Hershey Company, says such showdowns will help shape the future of work in the United States.

“Employers for a century have been trying to import workers who have something less than full citizenship,” says historian Nelson Lichtenstein, who directs the Center for the Study of Work and Democracy at the University of California Santa Barbara. From a management perspective, he said, “They’re the perfect workers.”

NGA, a project of the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice, is one of hundreds of non-union labor groups organizing workers who’ve been betrayed by New Deal labor laws. It shares a tax filing and a house-turned-office with another of the Workers’ Center’s projects, a group organizing homeless New Orleans locals and public housing tenants. Like other alternative labor groups, it depends on foundation funding for most of its budget.

As pseudo-stateless workers, guest workers face all of the obstacles confronting any U.S. workers who try to organize, and then some.

As is the case with domestic workers, guest workers are too often invisible in popular discussions of work; when they appear, it’s as outliers. But Soni, who founded the NGA amid the city’s post-Katrina guest worker influx, says they’re better understood as a bellwether. “You can see what work will look like unless there’s strong intervention by people like us.”
That’s because these workers represent what’s happening to U.S. work in three critical ways. First, precarity: Workers lack job security, formal contracts, or guaranteed hours. Second, legal exclusion: Labeled as “independent contractors,” “domestic workers” or otherwise, they’re thrust beyond the reach of this country’s creaky, craven labor laws. And third, the mystification of employment: While a no-name contracted company signs your paycheck, your conditions are set by a major corporation with far away headquarters and legal impunity. These linked trends are both causes and consequences of the ongoing de-unionization of the United States.

These trends burst into public view at that Hershey’s factory in 2011, when student workers from several countries staged a sit-in and walkout. Lured by the promise of a cultural exchange, the students alleged, they’d unwittingly been used as replacements on unionized, good-paying jobs. The striking workers marched through Hershey, a company town where lampposts are in the shape of the iconic Hershey kisses, chanting in several languages and dancing to hip-hop music from home.

Those workers won the support of local organized labor, and scrutiny from national media. They directed their demands not at their legal employer, but up the supply chain. Like the CJ’s workers, they used industrial action and a comprehensive campaign to hold their “real boss” accountable for their conditions. For the Pennsylvania workers, that was the Hershey Company, which was insulated from them by five layers of sub-contracting. For workers at CJ’s and many other unknown companies, it’s Wal-Mart.

“Wal-Mart is the one who provokes all of this,” says CJ’s striker Diaz, “because they want to get everything the cheapest, and sell it the cheapest. They’re the one really stepping on us.” NGA’s lead organizer Jacob Horwitz added that, while LeBlanc was no good guy, it may not be possible to follow the law and keep a Wal-Mart contract.

Wal-Mart initially told reporters that it had investigated the CJ’s workers’ allegations, and couldn’t find evidence to substantiate them. But the company eventually announced it had suspended CJ’s as a supplier—weeks after the workers went on strike.

“It’s become really, really clear to us,” said Soni, that “what’s at stake is not merely lower wages but the transformation of entire industries, and the disappearance of rights, respect, and a contract. In effect, guest workers are used to push the bottom even further down.”

Guest workers, he added, are “really predicting what the majority will look like if we don’t intervene in exactly the way that the CJ’s workers and so many workers have done in recent months.”

Few workers have an easy time organizing in the contemporary United States. Labor laws do little to restrain companies from union-busting or compel them to honor workers’ expressed wish for collective bargaining. Workers face a very real risk that their efforts to change their job will leave them without one. Employment-at-will and management-by-fiat provide companies with countless levers to reward or punish. These obstacles face workers throughout the United States, including the Walmart retail workers now staging their own rebellion. But each of these challenges is exacerbated for the country’s guest workers, for whom Wagner Act collective bargaining isn’t an option, worksites shut down at least once a year, and bosses control not just jobs but a worker’s ability to stay in the country—or ever come back.

Workers say management keeps control through the threat of “the black list”—the power to ensure that no employer brings them back to work in the United States again. In interviews with Louisiana guest workers, I heard the word impotencia (powerlessness) again and again.

“This is everyone’s fear,” said Diaz. “Are they going to bring us back next year, or not? . . . If I lose the chance to come back, what will happen to my children, to their education? How will I eat?”

Guest workers are “really predicting what the majority will look like if we don’t intervene in exactly the way that the CJ’s workers and so many workers have done in recent months.”

At CJ’s, Diaz and Uvalle said that LeBlanc’s threat to have their families assaulted drove some workers even further into fear. But it drove a few of them to take action. Uvalle and Diaz got Horwitz’s phone number from a guest worker at a different shrimp company, summoned the courage to call him, and began meeting in secret. Because management monitored their outside-work activities, they had to come up with excuses for where they were going. Horwitz said their meetings would frequently be interrupted by cell phone calls from the boss’s wife, checking up on their whereabouts; Diaz would say that they were shopping, and running late.

Eventually, Uvalle and Diaz decided to test the waters among a few co-workers they knew well, who they thought might be sympathetic. When they were satisfied that these co-workers were sufficiently worked up, they announced that they were driving straight to a meeting with the NGA.

The CJ’s workers settled on a plan to approach their boss as a group with a list of modest demands: providing a full lunch break, turning off some of the cameras, and firing the supervisor who kept threatening to beat them with shovels.

LeBlanc rebuffed them, and they told him they were on strike. “He didn’t believe it,” said Uvalle. “He couldn’t get it into his head. He said you have to go back to work . . . . And we said no.” They went through the plant asking co-workers to join them. None did; instead, two of the workers who’d been involved got cold feet. That left eight workers on strike. “Everyone was too afraid,” said Uvalle. “They thought we were crazy.”

Those eight workers did not shut down their workplace, as strikers used to (and sometimes still do). They didn’t win collective bargaining with their employer, as the law claims (most) workers can. But they did draw national media attention to CJ’s, and to Wal-Mart. Workers held simultaneous hunger fasts in Mexico and outside a Wal-Mart board member’s New York City mansion. They lobbied officials from both countries’ governments. They brought in the WRC to document their allegations. Through those efforts, they shamed Wal-Mart into suspending CJ’s, built political support for legal reform, and offered a cautionary tale for employers and a cause for hope for other guest workers.

In other words, they used the kinds of comprehensive campaign tactics that have increasingly come to typify successful labor struggles in the United States: a blend of workplace activism and media, consumer, legal, and political pressure. Such tactics characterize the growing array of groups organizing workers excluded from union recognition, from the Coalition of Immokalee Workers to the National Taxi Workers Alliance. But these tactics have also become a necessary component of successful union struggles, from fast food workers’ attempt to win a union to the efforts of union members at American Crystal Sugar to end the twenty-month lockout by their employer.

“Having workers on strike is the strongest leverage,” says Soni. “Given the level of abuse and the level of motivation among workers, it is absolutely going to happen that the NGA is going to force the marketing boards, the industry boards of these industries to bargain and to negotiate with the workers. And in turn, we will also be forcing them to get Wal-Mart to the table.” He added that changing the “totality of circumstances” will require negotiating with the U.S. and Mexican governments as well.

Rather than just bargaining with the person who signs their paycheck, says Soni, workers “want to bargain with the actual beneficiary of their labor, which is often Wal-Mart.” They’re making progress. At Wal-Mart’s request, Uvalle, Diaz, and NGA staff met face-to-face with the retail giant in February. In the meeting, “Wal-Mart presented a project of trying to educate suppliers,” said Uvalle, “but it’s not enough.” Soni said that while the meeting was “very powerful,” it also showed the “enormous gulf of understanding” between Wal-Mart and the workers. At one point, Soni recalled, a Wal-Mart official touted a proposed app that would allow workers to report human trafficking from their smart phones. According to Soni, Diaz “responded that it sounds great, but frankly she wasn’t even getting a cell phone signal in that labor camp she was trapped in.”

What will come of that meeting remains to be seen. In recent years, Wal-Mart has proven itself more willing to spend money in order to mollify critics than to concede power. If a concession “doesn’t create a permanent oppositional structure within the company,” said Lichtenstein, “they’ll entertain the idea of accommodating it.”

At a daunting moment for U.S. labor, NGA organizers say that the organizing victories of “deportable” workers—partial though they may be—offer hope, and a challenge to complacency. But there’s a difficult road ahead.

Addressing the deportation threat is the first and most critical step in increasing guest workers’ leverage. “What scares us the most is the black list,” said Diaz. “That’s what makes us the bosses’ subjects.”

“We’ve realized most bosses use the same tactics,” said Uvalle. “They say, ‘I brought you here. You depend on my visa. I’ll send you back to Mexico. I’ll report you to immigration. You’ll never come back.’” If workers knew that their job was secure from one year to the next, or that they could leave an abusive U.S. employer for a better one, said Diaz, that would make a tremendous difference.

Eliminating the black list would rob employers of one of their most powerful weapons for ensuring workers’ compliance. But accomplishing such a change will require significant leverage. Given the high costs of transporting workers across the border and securing visas—costs often borne in part by employers—Horwitz argues that companies are paying a heavy premium in order to secure a work force that can be compelled to work for illegally long hours and low wages.

They used the kinds of comprehensive campaign tactics that have increasingly come to typify successful labor struggles in the United States: a blend of workplace activism and media, consumer, legal, and political pressure.

Organizers say they’ve found strategies that are working. One is worker-to-worker organizing. After receiving rare “U visas” from the U.S. government as victims of serious crimes at CJ’s, Diaz, Uvalle, and their co-worker Victor Manuel Ramos spent several months as full-time organizers with the NGA, visiting guest workers at work and at their (often employer-owned) homes. The CJ’s activists say the workers they spoke with were often shocked—less by the conditions they endured at CJ’s than by the way they fought back.

NGA has also concluded that guest worker organizing won’t succeed if it remains bound within the United States. Given the shortness of the season and the obstacles to organizing, said Diaz, it would make a huge difference if workers arrived in the United States already prepared to assert their rights. That’s a difficult task, but not an impossible one. Many guest workers often come from the same towns in their home countries, where they’ve been recruited by the same company agents, and return to the same job each year. But the presence of recruiters in the community means that many workers back in Mexico, though separated by a border from the workplace, still contend with fear of surveillance by management. Workers say they hold their meetings in secret to avoid blacklisting of the participants.

NGA has teamed up with ProDESC, the Mexico-based human rights organization. ProDESC organizer Valeria Scorza says Mexican workers’ migration isn’t an accident—rather, it’s a predictable consequence of the migration of capital that was hastened by NAFTA. Lichtenstein says the trade pact “helped further destroy the peasant economy of Mexico in a rapid fashion.” As U.S. agricultural products “flooded the Mexican market,” he added, workers “rushed to migrate.”

But while employers traverse borders with relative ease, workers’ movements are heavily regulated (their wages are a different story). “If companies can erase borders,” says Soni, “then workers should be able to as well. And that’s exactly what they’re setting out to do.”

As Horwitz and I drove between guest workers’ homes in Louisiana, he told me that roughly 90 percent of the workers he meets are too scared to have anything to do with NGA. Employers’ leverage, and the short work seasons, mean that victories are often partial or ambiguous. Outside New Orleans, we met Laura Sanchez, a guest worker at Viet Foods. She lives in a small room in a small building adjacent to the plant. There’s barbed wire over the fence. By the time I visited in November, the season was winding down, and most of the workers had left. The 2012 season was Sanchez’s first as a guest worker, and it had been a “horrible disappointment.” As soon as she arrived, she had to borrow money from her new boss for basic necessities for the building where she shared a room with three other workers. The work, shelling crawfish at a fast pace, made her fingers bleed. Sanchez said her boss “would say we were lazy and we were slow.” If he saw that one of the women had gotten a ride to work, he would accuse her of sleeping around.

Overtime hours were unpaid. But most weeks, her biggest complaint was that the hours were scant. When workers asked about getting hours at another job, the boss threatened to report them to immigration. When we met, Sanchez was preparing to return to Mexico, where she’ll work for several months selling tamales. She showed me her most recent paycheck. After some (though not all) of her expenses had been deducted, she had made $5,282 in nine months. But she owed her boss more than $3,000, leaving less than $2,000 for eight months of work. “I’m barely making enough to pay for my ticket back,” she said. Still, given the limited opportunities in Mexico, she’ll be back this year.

The 2012 season had almost ended before the workers agreed to call the NGA. “Everyone would say yes we should, but then when the moment came, no one would.” When Diaz and Uvalle came to meet the Viet Foods workers, said Sanchez, “they explained to us how they’d gone through the same thing. We started to feel encouraged. . . .We really admired them. We thought if they can do it, so can we.” After some meetings, Sanchez and a few of her co-workers confronted management about grievances. She said the response was mixed: her boss quietly remedied a few, and others remained the same. The day after the confrontation, said Sanchez, “It filled my heart up to see that my boss was nervous.” But although NGA says the conditions remained bad, the workers weren’t ready to take the fight any further.

Still, Sanchez says she’ll be more ready to organize when she comes back to the United States next year, though she hopes she’ll be working somewhere else. “I don’t have fear anymore,” she told me. “I only fear God.”

The next evening, Horwitz and I met with three workers from Crabs LLC, another company where the CJ’s strikers have been trying to light a spark. Workers first got in touch with NGA in 2011 about alleged wage theft and verbal abuse. Some workers walked off the job that year when their demands weren’t met, but didn’t get the traction of the CJ’s strikers, and the season ended without a resolution. In the 2012 season, workers say they were further galvanized when Crabs’ CEO Dennis Landry tricked them into signing a notarized contract, in English, agreeing to bear financial responsibility for any accidents at the plant.

Workers have repeatedly gone as a group to confront management and say they’ve won a measure of respect. In November, they filed complaints with the U.S. Department of Labor seeking payment of back wages. They hope that will bear fruit by 2013. “I still feel nervous,” one of the workers, Maria de Jésus Rubio, told me. “But not as much as before.”

At Crabs LLC, as at Viet, progress is slow. Rubio told me she confronted Landry about the unsanitary conditions in the trailers where they live. “I said you need to fix the trailers, or stop charging us rent.” His response, she said, was, “it will be too expensive” to fix it all, but “I’ll cover up the holes where the rats come in.”

Landry declined my request to meet. But he made his case over the phone, after asking me whether I was a federal agent. He denied having broken any laws, then lit into the government for what he called suffocating regulations that made it impossible to run a profitable business. Landry also blamed government largesse for his need to hire guest workers in the first place, saying that overly generous welfare benefits have sapped American citizens’ willingness to do hard work: “Americans are getting to the point where, ‘Why work when I can get it from the government for free?’” Landry also suggested I check to find out whether NGA was operating without a license. He said he’s looking to sell the Crabs LLC business and doesn’t plan to operate it in 2013.

Horwitz said he was skeptical that Landry was actually shutting down. But he noted that sometimes the closest NGA gets to victory is to see a scofflaw employer driven out of business, sending a message to peers and strengthening the case for systemic change in the industry. Asked later how other workers respond when NGA campaigns end with an employer being shut down, Horwitz e-mailed that “when workers take action to expose and transform conditions in a workplace, they don’t do it lightly.” While NGA members first try to negotiate with their bosses, said Horwitz, “far too often employers respond with actions that are criminal, and the government can shut them down as a result.”

While fighting for de facto collective bargaining with companies like Wal-Mart, NGA is building leverage to negotiate with the governments in Mexico and the United States. With negotiations over comprehensive immigration reform underway at press time, guest labor is now on the agenda. However, it’s too soon to tell if that will spell good news for guest workers.

NGA staff predicted last fall that Republicans would demand an expanded guest worker program as a condition for support of any bipartisan immigration deal, and that some Democrats would accede. The Republican Party of Texas recently added support for an expanded guest worker program to its platform, a move that became the centerpiece of a Politico article touting the state party as a model for how Republicans can win over Latino voters and shed their anti-immigrant image. If the number of guest worker visas grows, and their lack of labor protections remains, says Uvalle, “the problems are going to continue forward. But also, if that happens, the fight will continue forward.”

Senate negotiators reportedly charged organized labor and big business with formulating a compromise on guest labor for inclusion in a comprehensive bill. In a February 21 statement, AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka and U.S. Chamber of Commerce president Thomas Donahue announced that they had reached “common ground in several important areas.” The Los Angeles Times reported that the outline agreed to by the AFL-CIO and the Chamber included a new visa system, some form of protection for guest workers, and a new federal bureau that would advise Congress on how many guest workers to allow at a time. Trumka and Donahue wrote that labor and business had reached “the middle—not the end—of this process.”

If the number of guest worker visas grows, and their lack of labor protections remains, says Uvalle, “the problems are going to continue forward. But also, if that happens, the fight will continue forward.”

When it comes to protecting guest workers’ rights as part of immigration reform, “I think labor is more united than it’s ever been,” Rutgers professor Janice Fine said in February. In contrast, said Fine, during the failed effort to pass immigration reform in 2007, major unions were divided over whether it was worth making the “devil’s bargain” of expanding abusive guest worker programs in order to win citizenship for undocumented workers. But Fine warned that it was too soon to tell, even if a deal was reached between the AFL-CIO and the Chamber, whether major businesses and business-backed Republicans would support it.

Uvalle and other guest workers traveled to Washington in February to push legislators to include labor protections in any deal. “I want them to understand what guest workers really face,” said Uvalle, “so they do their part to make it better.” Soni described the support for guest worker protections expressed by key Democrats as “a source of optimism.” However, he said, “if the Chamber of Commerce is anywhere as removed from a knowledge of the lived experience of workers, and the need for labor protections, as these Wal-Mart executives…I think there’s a lot of work to be done.”

Speaking to a labor audience in February, U.S. Solicitor of Labor Patricia Smith called guest worker labor rights “the most important part of immigration reform.” Smith expressed confidence that a path to citizenship for other undocumented workers “is going to happen,” and it will spur a new wave of activism by immigrant workers. When that happens, said Smith, “all of this organizing and rising up is going to be very threatening to employers. What are they going to do? If they could, they would turn to guest workers.”

If Democrats back legislation that facilitates guest worker abuse, it won’t be the first time. Last year, following the strikes at Hershey’s and CJ’s, the federal Department of Labor announced new H2B visa regulations, backed by NGA. But industries moved quickly to defund the rules, backing budget amendments that would bar any spending for their implementation. The amendments passed not just the Republican-controlled House, but the Democratic-controlled Senate, where the industry won the support of Maryland’s prominent liberal senator Barbara Mikulski as well as usual suspects like Louisiana’s Mary Landrieu. Sometimes, Horwitz told me, it’s one step forward, two steps back.

NGA’s Soni is seeking an entirely different conversation, one he recognizes may be years away. Anyone who comes to the United States to work, he says, should have a way to remain in the country after leaving an abusive employer. Rather than being “captive labor,” said Soni, “they should be able to come with legal status, a path to citizenship, and to voting in the country that they’re working in.” Before that happens, NGA has a lot of work to do.

Josh Eidelson covers labor as a contributing writer for the Nation, Salon, and In These Times. His work has appeared at outlets such as Slate, the American Prospect, and Jacobin. He worked as a union organizer for five years.