Raids, Reforms, and the Labor Movement

By Tim Costello, Jeremy Brecher and Brendan Smith

The December immigration raids at Swift & Co., and increased enforcement activity elsewhere, are a body blow against labor’s attempt to organize low-wage workers.

Undocumented workers comprise a significant percentage of the work force in many of the industries targeted for organizing by unions, including cleaning contractors, hotels, meatpacking, food processing, light industry, and commercial laundries. The raids will make workers feel more insecure and may make them less willing to take the chances required to organize. The raids may also make employers more willing to use immigration status as a club to thwart organizing and more willing to cooperate with immigration authorities to protect themselves from prosecution or lawsuits. If a significant percentage of the work force feels vulnerable, all workers will be hurt, since chances of successful organizing campaigns will be greatly reduced.

The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), which represents workers at five of the six plants raided has pursued an aggressive legal defense and support strategy for workers caught in the raids. But with so much at stake, the response by the labor movement as a whole has been remarkably timid. Those unions that have spoken out have mainly issued press releases to condemn the raids and to call for Congressional action on immigration reform. That is simply not enough.

In fact, the raids also provide a good opportunity for labor to reframe the immigration debate with fresh ideas and new action. The raids were an affront to common decency. They were an assault on human rights, on labor rights, and on the notion of proportionality in the conduct of law enforcement. The raids were conducted under false pretenses: Only a handful of those caught in the raids were charged with “identity theft”—ostensible reason for the raids; and they were discriminatory because company officials, who knowingly built an entire staffing system in the meatpacking industry based on undocumented workers, walked away free.

As part of reframing the immigration issue, labor leaders need to stand shoulder to shoulder with workers from the affected communities, in the affected communities. They need to make a public display of supporting those swept up in the raids, many of whom are now unemployed and facing deportation. And, very importantly, they need to stress that the raids undermine working conditions for all workers—not just undocumented immigrants. One way to do this would be to hold public hearings, in which workers in the industry—immigrants and non-immigrants—tell their stories. Properly done, reframing the immigration issue can both help build alliances between immigrant and non-immigrant workers for real immigration reform, and also cement the relationship of labor with immigrant communities in the upcoming policy debates and the 2008 elections.

Current immigration policies function badly, as they have for years. Reform is needed, but the immigration “crisis” is largely a product of the Republican right’s attempts to fan the flames of a growing, but still contained, backlash against undocumented immigrants to create a wedge issue during the 2006 elections. They miscalculated badly. The real backlash was among the millions of Hispanic voters, many of whom had voted Republican in past elections but voted Democratic this time. Nevertheless, it is undeniable that the nativists have poisoned the national debate on immigration reform. Many working-class and middle-class voters with genuine concerns about globalization and the economy are at least listening to hard-liners.

As the socially sanctioned institution representing workers’ interest in policy debates on labor and employment issues, the labor movement must step forward and assume its responsibility to help craft a worker-friendly immigration policy. As an institution representing both immigrant and non-immigrant workers; as an institution with ties to potential allies in sending countries, and as an institution with renewed political clout in this Congress, the labor movement is in a perfect position to convene a genuine debate on immigration reform.

Here are some ideas to help shape such a debate.

Labor must demand that the raids be stopped. The current immigration problem is a result of conscious action—and inaction—on the part of governments throughout the hemisphere; of businesses looking for cheap labor; of workers looking for jobs wherever they can find them, and of consumers looking for cheaper goods. To single out the most vulnerable—immigrant workers and their families—as scapegoats for an entire system violates any accepted standard of decency. A rational debate on immigration reform cannot be conducted with the immigration authorities ready to storm plant gates.

There is the basis for an alliance between established and immigrant workers. Immigrant-rights advocates and progressives should not cede the established working class to the right-wing nativists. U.S. workers—partially because many have immigrant roots—can be an ally in the fight for just reforms, as the generally progressive role of U.S. unions in the current debate shows. But fears that immigrants take jobs and decrease wages need to be taken seriously. Immigration legislation should emphasize the labor rights of immigrant workers, both to protect their human dignity and to protect the wages and working conditions of established workers.

Any comprehensive immigration program will be the result of a compromise among workers—both immigrant and established—employers, and politicians. The result will not be perfect, but it can be satisfactory. Employers need immigrant workers; workers need jobs. The interests of both are opposed to the right-wing, anti-immigrant ideologues. But it’s time to junk the existing narrow debate that revolves around a limited amnesty, a fortress America, and a guest-worker program. A comprehensive plan is needed—one that addresses the concerns of all the stakeholders in the U.S. and the sending countries.

Policies supported by the U.S. and institutionalized in treaties like NAFTA are a key factor pushing migrants north. NAFTA helped push around two million peasants off the land in Mexico. It forced many Mexican companies out of business because they were unable to compete with cheaper imports. While NAFTA was touted as a way to slow northward migration, it has done the opposite. The giant sucking sound that many thought NAFTA would produce turned out to be less from jobs going south than from workers heading north. In 1995, there were 2.5 million undocumented Mexican workers in the U.S.; ten years later, there were around 10.5 million. Any solution to the immigration problem must begin with rewriting NAFTA. With massive political change going on in Latin America, it’s time to take a fresh look at ways new hemispheric economic policies can make it possible for people to live decently at home without being dependent on migration or remittances from the U.S. or elsewhere.

In some industries and some localities, there is already a hemispheric labor market. In some occupations, undocumented immigrants make up a substantial percentage of the work force. About 24 percent of all farm workers are undocumented immigrants; 17 percent of all cleaners; 14 percent of all construction workers, and 12 percent of all food-preparation workers. Taking a closer look at jobs within these categories, 36 percent of all insulation workers; 29 percent of all roofers and drywall workers, and 27 percent of all butchers and food processors are undocumented. National laws have not kept pace with the reality of transnational labor markets. What’s needed now are laws and regulations that guarantee immigrant workers the basic human and labor rights needed to let them work and live in dignity.

Immigration reform must be hemispheric in scope. A step in the direction of recognizing the hemispheric and global nature of the immigration issue has already been taken. The governments of the nations of Latin America that send migrants to the U.S. have banded together to lobby against the most draconian immigration reform bills before the last Congress. This recognition that immigration is no longer a strictly national issue should prompt the labor and social movements in Latin America and the U.S. to convene a hemispheric meeting of unions and social movements to help draft an immigration program that is friendly to workers and immigrants. Unions and social movements should not leave immigration reform to elite decision-makers, whether in the U.S. or in the hemisphere.

Increased border security fails to keep undocumented immigrants out, but it does keep them in. Labor needs to stop pandering to the enforcement crowd and take them on in a policy debate, beginning with the myth that increasing border enforcement is part of the solution. The facts speak otherwise. The number of border patrol agents increased from around 2,500 in the 1980s to 12,000 today. Overall spending on border security since the late 1980s has increased 500 percent. One result is that the cost for an undocumented immigrant to make a crossing today is about $2,500.

According to Princeton sociologist Douglas Massey, in the 1980s about half of all undocumented Mexicans returned home within 12 months, but by 2000 the return rate was only 25 percent. That’s because, while the increased enforcement doesn’t keep people out, it does keep them in by making it more expensive and riskier to return to their homeland. Thus, the net result of increased border security is to actually increase the number of undocumented workers in the U.S.

Effectively sealing the border would require a massive attack on civil liberties and unacceptable economic and political costs in the U.S. and abroad—and its primary effect would be to keep even more undocumented immigrants from returning home.

Abruptly halting undocumented immigration would have a chaotic effect on the economies of Mexico and Central America. After oil, remittances from the U.S. provide the second-largest source of foreign capital in Mexico. About 18 percent of Mexican adults—and 29 percent of Salvadoran adults—receive remittances from someone in the U.S. Those remittances are essential to support families and build communities. Shutting off the flow would create hardship and instability in Mexico and Central America. Instead, ways need to be found to smooth the flow of remittances and make them part of a new economic development strategy that utilizes them to provide socially constructive forms of credit.

A program can be developed that represents the interests of established U.S. workers, undocumented immigrants, and Latin Americans. Their interests can be meshed with those of U.S. employers on this issue. The claims of nativist ideologues to speak for American workers can be discredited. If the groundwork for such a program is laid now, the alliance of immigrants and established workers can seize the initiative in shaping progressive immigration legislation in the next few years.


Tim Costello, Jeremy Brecher and Brendan Smith are the co-founders of Global Labor Strategies, a resource center providing research and analysis on globalization, trade, and labor issues. GLS staff members have published many previous reports on a variety of labor-related issues, including Outsource This!; American Workers, the Jobs Deficit, and the Fair Globalization Solution; Contingent Workers Fight For Fairness, and Fight Where You Stand!: Why Globalization Matters in Your Community and Workplace. They have also written and produced the Emmy-nominated PBS documentary Global Village or Global Pillage? GLS has offices in New York, Boston, and Montevideo, Uruguay. For more on GLS, visit: or email


—Truthout, January 9, 2007