Mississippi Workers Fight Racial Division

On August 25, immigration agents swooped down on Howard Industries, a Laurel, Mississippi electrical equipment factory, taking 481 workers to a privately-run detention center in Jena, Louisiana. "These people were rounded up and just dumped in a privately-run detention center," said Patricia Ice, attorney for the Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance (MIRA). "We heard reports that there weren’t even enough beds and that people were sleeping on the floor. This is an outrage."

Approximately 100 women were released the day of the raid for "humanitarian reasons," to care for children or because they are pregnant, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and 50 of them have been required to wear ankle bracelets with electronic monitoring devices. Their situation is desperate, according to MIRA organizer Victoria Cintra. 

Ankle monitors—photo by Elvis Cintra/MIRA

Many Mississippi activists and workers charge that the raid had a political agenda—undermining a growing coalition that threatens the state’s conservative Republican establishment. They also say the raid, which took place during union contract negotiations, will help the company resist demands for better wages and conditions. Jim Evans, a national AFL-CIO staff member in Mississippi and a leading member of the state legislature’s Black Caucus, said he believed "This raid is an effort to drive immigrants out of Mississippi. It is also an attempt to drive a wedge between immigrants, African Americans, whites, and unions—all those who want political change here." Patricia Ice agreed: "This is political. They want a mass exodus of immigrants out of the state, the kind we’ve seen in Arizona and Oklahoma. The political establishment is threatened by Mississippi’s changing demographics and what the electorate might look like in 20 years."

In the last two decades, the percentage of African Americans in the state’s population has increased to over 35 percent and immigrants, who were statistically insignificant until recently, are expected to reach 10 percent in the next decade. Mississippi union membership has been among the nation’s lowest, but since the early 1980s, workers have joined unions in catfish and poultry plants, casinos and shipyards, along with those at Howard Industries.

Evans, other members of the Black Caucus, many of the state’s labor organizations, and immigrant communities all see shifting demographics as the basis for changing the state’s politics. Over the last seven years their growing coalition has proposed legislation to set up a Department of Labor (Mississippi is the only state without one), guarantee access to education for children of all races and nationalities, and provide drivers’ licenses to immigrants.

Earlier this year, Governor Haley Barbour signed a law making it a felony for an undocumented worker to hold a job, punishable by 1-5 years in prison and $1,000-$10,000 in fines. Employers are given immunity for employing workers without papers, so long as they vet new hires through an ICE database called e-verify. It is still not known whether the people arrested at Howard Industries will be charged under the new state law. Evans says the law and the raid serve the same objectives: "They both just make it easier to exploit workers.

Patricia Ice at August 27 meeting for HI workers   —photo by Elvis Cintra/MIRA

In the week before the raid, MIRA organizers received reports of a growing number of ICE agents in southern Mississippi. They began leafleting immigrant communities, warning them about a possible raid and explaining their rights should people be questioned about their immigration status. When agents finally showed up at the Howard Industries plant, many workers say they tried to invoke those rights and warn others that a raid was in progress. One woman, later detained and then released to care for her child, began to call workers who had not yet come to the factory on her cell phone, warning them to stay away.

Howard Industries (HI), like most Mississippi employers, has a long record of opposing unions. Workers there chose representation by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers on June 8, 2000 by a vote of 162-108. Employment at the plant, which manufactures electrical ballasts and transformers, grew considerably after the election and the company now employs over 4,000 workers at several locations in Mississippi. In 2002 it received a $31.5 million subsidy for expansion from the state government and at one point state legislators were all given HI laptop computers. "The company is very well-connected politically," said Evans, who noted that its owners donated to the campaigns of former Democratic Governor Ronnie Musgrove and then to Mississippi’s current Republican Governor Haley Barbour.

As it grew the company hired many immigrant Mexican and Central American workers, diversifying a workforce that was originally primarily African American and white. The company has declined to comment, and released a press statement that said, "Howard Industries runs every check allowed to ascertain the immigration status of all applicants for jobs. It is company policy that it hires only U.S. citizens and legal immigrants."

During the organizing drive the union filed charges with the National Labor Relations Board, alleging intimidation and violations of workers’ rights. After the union and company agreed on a contract, more charges followed. NLRB Region 15 issued a complaint against the company for violating the union’s bargaining rights. Roger Doolittle, attorney for IBEW Local 1317, says other charges allege that the company threatened a union steward for trying to represent workers in the plant. In June the Occupational Safety and Health Administration announced it intended to fine the company $123,000 for 36 violations of health and safety regulations at the Pendorf plant, where the raid took place, and another $41,000 in fines for a second Laurel location.

Tension between the company and union increased after the collective bargaining agreement expired at the beginning of August. According to one immigrant worker, who was not detained because he worked on the swing shift and who did not want to be identified, the union was asking for a wage increase of $1.50/hour and better vacation benefits. Company medical benefits are also an issue among workers, he said, because family coverage costs over $100/ week, putting it out of reach for most employees.

Mississippi is a right-to-work state and labor contracts cannot require workers to belong a union. Instead, unions must try to sign workers up as members. In past years, according to other union sources, IBEW Local 1317 had a reputation as a union that did not offer much support to its immigrant members.

According to the swing shift worker, who did not belong to the union, there were just a few hundred members at the Pendorf plant. In negotiations the company used that low membership as a reason not to sign a new agreement.

To increase its ability to negotiate a contract, Local 1317 began making greater efforts to sign up immigrant members. It brought in a Spanish-speaking organizer, Marionzalez, to recruit immigrant workers into the union. She visited people at home so they could talk about the union without being overheard or seen by company supervisors.

According to the swing shift worker, many began to join, especially the immigrants who’d been hired most recently. IBEW’s national newspaper, Electrical Worker, reported that over 200 had signed up last April, according to Local 1317′s business manager Clarence Larkin. "It’s a constant process to keep the union alive and growing," he told the paper.

Local 1317 will now have to try to negotiate a contract after the loss of many of its members, who were among those detained. Those members, who joined the union in hopes of better wages and treatment, instead were imprisoned in Jena. The swing shift worker was so frightened by the raid that he hadn’t gone back to work after almost a week, and wasn’t sure he’d have a job waiting if he did. "Everyone is still really scared," he said. Doolittle agreed, and said that fear would affect more than just the workers taken away. "Workers get apprehensive anytime something like this happens," he said. "That’s just human nature."

Marielena Hincapie, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center, explained, "Raids drive down wages because they intimidate workers, even citizens, and legal residents. The employer brings in another batch of employees and continues business as usual, while people who protest get targeted and workers get deported. Raids really demonstrate the employer’s power."

Meanwhile, MIRA and other labor and community activists say media coverage of the raid has heightened racial tensions. Newspaper stories have painted a picture of a plant in which African American and white union members were hostile to immigrants, based mostly on an incident in which some workers "applauded" as their coworkers were taken away by ICE agents. This simplistic picture obscures the real conditions in the plant, activists say, and the role the company played in fomenting divisions among workers.

According to Larkin, "This employer pits workers against each other by design and breeds division among them that affects everyone. By favoring one worker over another, workers sometimes can’t see who their real enemy is. And that’s what helps keep wages low."

Workers at Howard Industries, however, do not simply look at each other as enemies across race lines. The day after ICE agents stormed the factory MIRA began organizing meetings to provide legal advice, food, and economic help. After the raid, Howard Industry representatives told detainees’ families and women released to care for children, that the company wouldn’t give them their paychecks.

On August 28 Cintra led a group of women to the plant to demand their pay. Managers called Laurel police. "They tried to intimidate us with ten vehicles of police and sheriffs. They tried to arrest me and make us leave." After workers began chanting, "Let her go" and news reporters appeared on the scene, the company finally agreed to distribute checks to about 70 people.

The following day, Cintra and the women returned to the plant to get paychecks for other unpaid workers. They sat on the grass across the street from the factory in a silent protest. "When the shift changed, African American workers started coming out and they went up to these Latina women and began hugging them. They said things like, ‘We’re with you. Do you need any food for your kids? How can we help? You need to assert your rights. We’re glad you’re here. We’ll support you.’ There’s a lot of support inside the factory for these workers who were caught up in the raid." Over the next week, MIRA forced Howard to give checks to hundreds of other families.

Local 1317 hasn’t been as active as other unions in nearby poultry plants, however, in bringing workers together across racial divides. In Mississippi fish plants Jaribu Hill, director of the Mississippi Workers Center, has worked with unions to help workers understand the dynamics of race. "We have to talk about racism," she said. "The union focuses on the contract, but skin color issues are still on the table. We don’t try to be the union, but we do try to keep a focus on human rights." Organizing a multi-racial workforce means recognizing the divisions between African Americans and immigrants. "We’re coming together like a marriage, working across our divides."

Hill says it’s important for workers to understand the historical price paid for racial division in the south. "Our conditions are the direct result of slavery," she explains. "Today Frito Lay wages in Mississippi are still much lower than Illinois—$8.75 compared to $13.75 an hour. This is the evolution of an historical oppression. Immigrants have come here looking for better lives—we came in chains."

Larkin makes the same point. Wages at Howard Industries, the world’s largest manufacturer of electrical transformers, are $2 lower than other companies in the industry, he says. That difference goes into the pocket of the Howard family. "The people who profit from Mississippi’s low wage system want to keep it the way it is," alleged Jim Evans, who chairs MIRA’s board in addition to his positions as AFL-CIO staff member and leader of the legislature’s Black Caucus.

Some state labor leaders, however, have contributed to racial divisions and anti-immigrant hostility. After the Howard Industries workers, many of them union members, were arrested, state AFL-CIO President Robert Shaffer told the Associated Press that he doubted that immigrants could join unions if they were not in the country legally. U.S. labor law, however, holds that all workers have union rights, regardless of immigration status. It also says unions have a duty to represent all members fairly and equally.

Divisions are likely to be deepened as well by repeated public statements by ICE spokesperson Barbara Gonzalez that the raid took place because of a tip by a "union member" two years before. She claimed ICE waited because "we took the time needed for our investigation," but declined to say how that investigation was conducted or what led ICE to believe the tip had come from a union member.

Evans called the raid "an effort to drive immigrants out of Mississippi. It is also an attempt to drive a wedge between immigrants, African Americans, white people and unions—all those who want political change here. But it will just make us more determined," he declared. "We won’t go back to the kind of racism Mississippi has known throughout its past."


David Bacon is a freelance photographer and journalist.