Unions Take On Immigration-Related Firings

Even though she was working 40 hours a week at the Valencia Street
Matilde (the women’s last names are not used in this article at their request)
still couldn’t buy clothes for her four kids and husband. “I go first to
the places where they give clothes away, like St. Anthony’s Church,” she
says, “where they also help us with food. When school begins, we go to
the Salvation Army, where we get pencils, books, and clothes there too.
If it wasn’t for this kind of help, we couldn’t live here in San Francisco.”

Her co-worker, Patricia, was paying $635 a month to live in a studio apartment,
also with four children and her husband. She considered herself lucky,
knowing that she’d have to pay $900-$1,000 if she ever had to move. After
putting out $250 a month for food, as well as paying for electricity and
a bus pass to get to work, nothing was ever left from her paycheck.

Nevertheless, although their jobs as room cleaners at the motel only paid
$6.25 an hour, those jobs kept them all off the streets. Then, a year ago,
disaster struck. John Jake, the general manager, called nine workers into
his office, including the two women. He told them that Social Security
had notified the motel that their numbers didn’t match the government’s
database. Straighten it all out in a week, he warned, or you’re out of
a job.

The workers, immigrants from Mexico and Central America, felt helpless
and scared. And a week later, when they arrived at work and tried to punch
in, they found security guards who told them they’d been fired.

Matilde’s and Patricia’s experience is not uncommon. In fact, hundreds
of workers in the Bay Area lost their jobs last year in the same scenario,
as did thousands more around the country. But recently, something new happened
to the two women and five of their fired coworkers. An arbitrator decided
that their terminations had been a violation of the union contract at the
Travelodge, and ordered them reinstated. It is the first successful legal
challenge to firings because of no-match letters.

Marielena Hincapie, a lawyer from the Employment Law Center who was called
as an expert witness in the arbitration, called the decision historic.
“We’ve been able to fight these Social Security letters in the past by
organizing our community, but this is the first legal decision which has
found the firings illegal, and given workers back their jobs. It will really
help workers understand that they have rights.”

The fight against the Travel- odge firings is also a local example of changes
sweeping through the labor movement nationally, as unions develop a much
more militant attitude towards defending immigrant workers. For years,
unions and immigrant rights advocates have criticized Social Security for
sending letters to employers, in which the agency lists the names and numbers
of workers which don’t match its records (called “no-match letters.) Often,
as was the case at the Travelodge, employers assume that the reason for
the discrepancy is that the workers have no legal immigration status, and
fire them.

At Travelodge, however, the arbitrator, Luella E. Nelson, found the motivation
of the company suspect. A number of the workers had been listed in a previous
letter from SSA, and the company had taken no action. Although managers
said this time that they feared they might be subject to legal penalties
for hiring undocumented workers, Nelson noted that they had no reason other
than the letter to question the workers’ immigration status. There can
be many reasons, Hincapie pointed out in her testimony, for a discrepancy
in the numbers. (Travelodge’s regional manager, Joe Maddux, who testified
at the arbitration, did not return phone calls asking for comment.)

The day after the firings, local immigrant rights and labor activists,
led by the Labor Immigrant Organizers Network, held a rally in front of
the Social Security office on Valencia, and marched to the Travelodge.
The women spoke out there publicly for the first time. Over the next year,
as their case wound its way through arbitration, they protested in any
forum their union could find, including the city’s Immigrant Rights Commission.

In the meantime, though, without a job Patricia had to leave San Francisco.
The two women began working occasionally as domestics. They sold tamales
and tried to earn money any way they could. But they didn’t give up.

“During the arbitration hearing, the regional manager testified that they’d
called the INS 10 days before,” recalls Kim Wirshing, lawyer for Hotel
and Restaurant Local 2. “We were outraged. The workers were sitting right
there in the hearing room, with babies in their arms. It was clearly intended
to intimidate them, and make them afraid that the INS would be waiting
for them outside the doors. But they didn’t get scared.”

Originally, Local 2 wasn’t sure the case could be won. The nine room cleaners
at the Travelodge had just organized their union in 1994, in a bitter campaign
against the American Consulting Group. The union’s lead activist, Petra
Garcia, had been fired, and only reinstated after another successful legal
challenge. The union’s first contract was signed in 1997.

But Local 2 was worried over the way employers often take advantage of
immigration status. Organizer Chito Cuellar says the motel used the threat
of no-match letters to keep workers quiet, and derail protests over high
workloads and harassment. “We weren’t just trying to win a grievance here,
but to do the right thing.”

Cuellar, who comes from El Salvador and worked seven years at the Clift
Hotel, says he knows first-hand the impact of Social Security and immigration
on Local 2’s immigrant members. “Because of the Travelodge, we decided
we needed stronger language in our master hotel agreement.”

The union held meetings with the Class A hotel workers every two weeks,
and talked about what had happened. “Our members understood that we needed
stronger protection for immigrants, and were willing to fight for it. Not
just the Latinos. The Anglos, the Filipinos, and others who weren’t directly
affected knew why it was important. And we got it. In our new contract,
if the employer is aware of any INS action, they must inform us right away
so we can represent the workers. If someone is fired because they don’t
have papers, they have up to a year to come back, and still have job rights.”

The local’s recognition of the need for stronger protection for its immigrant
members could be coming just in time. Throughout northern California and
beyond, beefed-up enforcement of immigration law is leading to a wave of
firings similar to those at the Travelodge.

In the south bay, workers at Zoria Farms faced a similar use of no-match
letters after mounting a union organizing drive two years ago, with United
Food and Commercial Workers Local 428. A year ago, two major janitorial
contractors were targeted by the INS for a workplace document check in
Alameda and Contra Costa counties. Hundreds more were fired. This year
the janitors union, Service Employees Local 1877, faces an all-out fight
for wage increases, in the wake of the recent strike in Los Angeles. The
document check cost the jobs of many worksite leaders the union was counting
on for that battle.

Last summer, after the Travelodge demonstration, LION organizers decided
to try to get the labor movement to call for changes in immigration law.
They wrote a resolution calling on the AFL-CIO to change its basic position
on immigration.

Starting in the Alameda County Central Labor Council, the resolution spread
to Oregon, Washington, and New York. International unions began debating
it. When it finally hit the convention floor on October 12, national union
leaders joined in the call. The debate it generated marked the first call
for a change in direction since 1986, when the AFL-CIO supported passage
of the Immigration Reform and Control Act. This time, instead of seeing
immigrants as a problem, as it had for decades, it was clear that unions
had begun seeing them as the solution.

“For immigrants to build a better future, they need to build a union,”
says Eliseo Medina, an immigrant from Zacatecas who went on to become a
leading organizer for the United Farm Workers, and now the Service Employees
union. “But I am also convinced that as the labor movement is the best
hope for immigrants, so are immigrants the best hope of the labor movement.”

It’s not hard to understand why he and others take that view. Unions represent
about 14 percent of U.S. workers today, down from 35 percent in the early
1950s. To maintain that percentage, given the growth of the workforce and
structural changes that eliminate many jobs, unions have to organize 400,000
workers a year. Last year, unions organized 475,000 workers recording positive
growth for the first time in decades, although not by much. To increase
union presence in the workforce by just one percent, they have to organize
800,000 people. And the AFL-CIO’s past organizing director, Kirk Adams,
says that they really need a million workers in the pipeline “partly because
we need to grow, but also because of the noise that creates.”

But as AFL-CIO leaders asked themselves in Los Angeles, who is it, in the
modern American workforce, that actively wants to be organized? Immigrant
workers are at least part of the answer. In fact, labor organizing over
the last decade in California is largely the story of immigrant workers
beating heavy odds. In the Bay Area alone, immigrants have been the backbone
of drives at manufacturing plants and garbage recyclers, building renovation
contractors, garment sweatshops, home care and convalescent care providers,
and among day laborers on the street corners.

At the AFL-CIO convention, speakers emphasized that the demographics of
the U.S. workplace have changed dramatically, with tens of millions of
immigrant workers in industries as diverse as meatpacking, manufacturing,
healthcare, and construction.

But as unions seek to develop labor/community alliances to take advantage
of this change, the AFL-CIO now confronts the reality that the immigration
law it supported in 1986 has made it harder for unions to organize and
represent immigrants, not easier. One section of the law in particular,
employer sanctions, makes it illegal for an undocumented worker to hold
a job at all. That is the section cited by employers using no-match letters,
and by the INS itself in its document checks, as the justification for
massive firings.

Finally, a rising tide of labor opinion says that support for this provision
of the law is wrong. John Wilhelm, president of the Hotel and Restaurant
Employees (the parent union of Local 2 and the Travelodge workers) noted that if
the intention of employer sanctions was to reduce undocumented immigration, it’s
clearly failed. Further, he declared, his own union’s support for sanctions in
1986 was a big mistake: “Those who came before us, who built this labor
movement in the great depression, didn’t say ‘Let me see your papers’ to
the workers [of that day]. They asked, ‘Which side are you on?’ And
immigrant workers today have the right to ask of us the same question. Which
side are we on?”

In February, the AFL-CIO executive council finally passed a resolution,
modeled on the original motion from the Bay Area, calling for the repeal
of employer sanctions, a new amnesty that would allow the undocumented
to normalize their status, and a massive program to educate immigrant workers
about their rights.

Even with the AFL-CIO’s change in direction, it still seemed as though at the
Travelodge, the odds were still very much against the workers. Given the climate
of suspicion about undocumented immigration, it would have been easy for the
arbitrator to accept the company’s suspicions as established fact, and rule
that they had no right to their jobs.

But for Wirshing, a former bartender turned union lawyer, “it was a key case,
because our union is made up of immigrant workers, and we’ve always taken a
stand for immigrant rights. Now our international union has taken the same
position too. It’s not our job to do the work of the government. Our job is to
represent workers.”

Matilde says the workers won “because of all the protests we made. When people
are united, we can win.”