No Exit: Our Obsession with Locking Up Immigrants

Locked Exits

In Jean-Paul Sarte’s play, No Exit, 3 people are locked in a room together forever. Eventually they figure out that they are in hell and this is their punishment.

If being locked in a room with 2 other people is hell, what do you call it when the room is on fire and you can’t get out?

That’s what American writer Florence Lasser explored in her play, The Story of the ILGWU (International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union). One of the episodes includes the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of 1911 when 146 mostly immigrant Jewish and Italian women workers were killed because the fire exits were locked. Some of them leaped to their deaths as the flames drew closer.

But does a French existentialist fantasy and a dusty old 1940’s radio play have any relevance today?

Well, if you are an immigrant  worker, being locked into a room could be part of your daily routine…even if it could cost you your life.

I know what you are thinking.That has be a serious OSHA violation. But maybe only semi-serious, because OSHA enforcement has become a bitter joke to activists in the labor movement. There are wonderful dedicated OSHA inspectors out there. But there are too far few of them and their bosses have read the signals from the White House all too well. Cool it on worker safety because work safety just ain’t cool anymore.

Worker safety is especially uncool if the workers in question are immigrants, especially immigrants without the proper documents. Because you see, if an undocumented worker reports such a violation, they and their families could be sent to another kind of locked room courtesy of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). It’s called a detention center.

We do like to lock up our immigrants, don’t we? These days "the huddled masses yearning to breath free" are tucked away inside Uncle Sam’s detention camps and in the workplaces of some of our most vicious employers.

Take David Sandoval for example. He cleaned floors at the Met Foods Supermarket in Brooklyn. When the steel gates came down across the front of the store, he was locked in until the next morning when the manager showed up.

Zeferino Arenas Abundez who cleaned floors at a Pioneer supermarket in Brooklyn saw  much the same thing at his store. According to him, ­when smoke set off an alarm at a Bronx store he worked in, firefighters had to saw through a huge lock to get in.

Workers at Walmart  reported similar problems.

Finally the NY attorney general’s office concluded that "the practice is not uncommon" and urged the NYC Fire Department to investigate.

WTF! This New York City…the home of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire where immigrant workers died because of being locked into their workplace. Incredibily enough, today’s "Lock In" employers are doing exactly the same thing.

Socialist and union activist Rose Schneiderman had this to say at a memorial service to the Triangle Shirtwaist victims back in 1911.

"This is not the first time girls have been burned alive in the city. Every week I must learn of the untimely death of one of my sister workers. Every year thousands of us are maimed. The life of men and women is so cheap and property is so sacred. There are so many of us for one job it matters little if 146 of us are burned to death."

OK..maybe NY employers have never heard of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire. But how could they forget that terrible day on September 11, 2001 when New Yorkers trapped in the Twin Towers leaped to their deaths to escape the flames. You’d think they would learn the importance of fire exits and basic building safety from that.

This is America after all. But which America? The America of union organizer Rose Schneiderman or the America of Triangle Shirtwaist owners Max Blank and Issac Harris?

New York City is not all of America though, so let’s head down I-95 to the Sunshine State of Florida. It was in Immokalee, Florida where José Vasquez and two other immigrant workers pried open a ventilation hatch in the trailer where they were locked up for the night and escaped. They were tomato pickers who paid $20 to sleep in the trailer.

When government investigators checked out that tomato farm, they found bruised and beaten workers including one man who been chained with his hands behind his back every night. Chief Assistant U.S. Attorney Doug Molloy called it, "Slavery, plain and simple."

While locked in the trailer of this slave labor camp, the workers were forced to defecate in the corner.

Nazi Germany built its first slave labor camp at Dachau in 1933. Being new to the slave labor business, it took them a while to work out the details. One of the things they learned is that if you force people to live in their own shit, it makes them feel, well…shitty. People who are depressed, who are losing their self respect, who are losing any sense of hope at all…are more easily controlled and directed.

I’m not suggesting that the Navarrete family who owned this Immokalee tomato farm are Nazis. I’m just suggesting that ugly minds think alike.

If employers can get away with imprisoning and enslaving immigrant workers, did you really it would stop there?

Caremark Health Resources published this report:

On September 3, 1991, a hydraulic line burst in the Imperial Food Products Plant in Hamlet, North Carolina, spraying vaporized fluid into gas flames that were heating vats of frying oil. The workers were caught completely off guard and ran towards the doors. Many were unable to escape the flames because the fire exits were deadlocked from the outside.

Rescue workers found lifeless bodies near the locked exits, in a large cooler and even outside on the lawn. All 25 victims had apparently died from smoke inhalation. The owner of the plant was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to 20 years in prison: To deter employees from stealing, he himself had given the order that all the fire exits be locked. In the investigation following the tragedy, the North Carolina state labor commissioner admitted that the plant had not been inspected for safety in the 11 years it had been in business.

Most of these workers were home-grown Americans, predominantly African American women. OSHA reports tell of many locked exits in other poultry factories.  Imperial was not simply one rogue corporation.

The common explanation for the Triangle Shirtwaist lock-in was that it was to prevent employee theft. But some people think there was another reason– to keep union organizers out. The Triangle workers had started the great garment workers strike of 1909, known as the "Rising of the 20,000." The Triangle owners were determined to crush the newly formed International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union at whatever cost.

If today’s employers can isolate immigrant workers from the rest of us, they can get away with almost anything. They don’t even have to physically lock the immigrants up. Just the fear of deportation and detention camps keeps many immigrants silent, afraid to even talk to one another for fear of informants.

But not all immigrants remain silent. Some speak out publically, like José Vasquez of Immokalee, Florida. Some join one of America’s most innovative new labor organizations, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers who has been giving MacDonald’s, Chipotle and Burger King holy hell for buying tomatoes picked by immigrant slave labor. Others join up with America’s more traditional unions like the Service Employees International Union, the United Food and Commercial Workers and others. This should surprise no one.

Immigrants have always been among the leaders of our labor movement. Think about the Germans and the Irish of the 19th century. Think about the Jews and Italians of the early 20th century. Think about the Poles and Hungarians and Czechs of the great CIO organizing drives of the 1930’s. Think about the Mexicans and Filipinos and Arabs who made up the first wave of the United Farmworkers of the 1960’s. Think about  the immigrants from way-too-many-countries-to-list who made Justice for Janitors a reality in the 1990’s.

It’s no secret that there is a lot of hostility in working class communities against immigrants. We live in a dog-eat-dog cat-eat-mouse economy where we’re expected to stab our friends in the back to survive. As for strangers? Fugit about ’em.

That hostility, plus the fear that rules immigrant communities works to keep us apart, exactly where US employers like to keep us. If we home-grown Americans allow ourselves to be imprisoned by our own anti-immigrants fears and predjudices, we have nowhere to go but down the economic ladder.

If we have any hope if reviving the U.S. economy, we need to think of immigrant workers as a national resource, not for their cheap labor, but for their courage, character and intelligence. Despite our laughable legend of the "streets paved with gold", it’s never been easy to come to this land of strangers where only the strong survive and thrive.

Many of these people have battled dictatorships, sweatshops, torture and worse in their own countries. You think organizing a labor movement is tough here? Try it in a place like Pakistan, Nigeria or El Salvador. Some of our finest labor organizers have been immigrants and that fact has not changed.

Keeping immigrants locked up behind steel doors, in Uncle Sam’s detention centers, or in furtive frightened ghettos keeps us home-grown American from making the connections we need to make.

The current slave labor conditions for many of our immigrant workers should be a national scandal splashed across the 24-7 newsmedia machine. That would go a long ways toward breaking down artificial barriers between immigrant and home-grown Americans. Think Uncle Tom’s Cabin and how that book made the abolition of slavery a national debate in the 1850’s.

What will it take to get our corporate owned mass media to pay attention? Do we hire Britney Spears to lock herself in with some immigrant workers so we can get a lead story on Fox News?

Is that the kind of country we have become? No, we’re better than that…..I hope.



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