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October 1, 2004

9 Min Read
Immigration reform a union boon?

In the U.S., the drive for some sort of reform in immigration policy might facilitate the creation of a new group of employees sympathetic to the appeals of organized labor.

Industrial relations experts believe that proposals put forth by both presidential candidates regarding immigration reform leading to eventual citizenship for millions of illegal immigrants, mainly Mexican, will spark a new wave of unionization efforts in America''s plastics industry. Union organizers agree. Led by AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, they have championed immigration reform because they think it will make it easier for them to organize Hispanic workers.

"Immigrants are the ones who are re-energizing the labor movement in Los Angeles," said Ecuadorian-born Cristina Vazquez, regional manager for the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees Union. (Franklin, Stephen, "Unions Seek Strength in Merger," Chicago Tribune, July 7, 2004.)

President Bush''s reform proposals made last January 6th produced an immediate uproar. They have already been attacked by liberals for being too conservative, and by conservatives for being too liberal. Speaking at the Phoenix, AZ National Council of La Raza meeting on June 29, Democratic candidate John Kerry weighed in, saying he would send legislation to Congress "to change the immigration system" within 100 days if elected.

In between, a panel sponsored by the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations reported on June 10 that "there is an increasing disconnect between law and reality" in U.S. immigration policy. Saying its findings were intended to help establish a consensus that the system is broken, it urged legislation to legalize most of the nine million undocumented aliens in the U.S. Co-chaired by Dorris Meissner, former commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and Illinois ex-Governor Jim Edgar, the bipartisan panel reported "the status quo is not working."

Although the plant floors of some injection molders are already peopled by nearly 100% Spanish-speaking employees, the overall plastics industry has about 16% Latino workers, a proportion that will hit nearly 20% by 2010, the Census Bureau predicts (see "Culture Clash? Managing Diversity on the Plant Floor," April 2004 MP/MPI). Living unobtrusively, large populations of undocumentados (undocumented immigrants) reside in California, Texas, New York, Florida, and Illinois, which alone counts more than 400,000.

These immigrants are highly concentrated in urban areas, with many living in the greater New York City area, and the heartland "rust belt" cities of Milwaukee, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, South Bend, and Evansville, IN, as well as numerous western and southwestern cities. Although nobody can accurately say how many immigrants are in the U.S. legally (or otherwise), the Census Bureau estimates that only 7.3% of those coming here since 1990 are citizens, whereas 73.3% of those coming to this country before 1970 have achieved that status.

And while it is a safe bet that any presidential proposals for immigration reform will be mangled in the Congressional meat grinder, many believe the eventual outcome will allow millions of law-abiding, undocumented immigrants to receive some sort of protected status..

Déja vu all over again

When immigration laws were last liberalized 17 years ago, unions targeted Hispanics in a series of organizing drives. The 1987 changes granted amnesty to illegal immigrants who had lived continuously in the United States for five years or longer. Millions applied, and many are now full American citizens.

The nation''s top demographers report the number of undocumentados now is between 7.1 and 8.5 million, of which 3.9 to 4.5 million are Hispanic. This is far higher than in 1987, when experts estimated that some 1.5 and 3 million Hispanics were in the U.S. illegally. Undocumented immigrants have long been able to easily secure the papers needed for U.S. employment (birth certificates, social security cards, drivers'' licenses, "green cards," and so on) from counterfeiters in most major American cities. This trade is probably one of America''s strongest growth industries.

"This is a big business," said Chicago''s Marquette Police District Cmdr., Dennis Prieto, who estimated that counterfeiting rings make from $15,000 to $20,000 a week. ("Four Arrested in sale of bogus IDs," Chicago Tribune, Jan. 27, 2004).

Why they come, and what they expect

The human wave flooding over America''s borders is due to U.S. prosperity, contrasted with widespread poverty and political instability in Mexico and Central America. As a result, Hispanics are America''s fastest-growing ethnic group. Most Hispanic immigrants come from hard-scrabble rural areas, with little knowledge of America, American unions, or American labor laws. They don''t know that unions and collective bargaining in the U.S. are far different than in Mexico or Central America. The average legal Mexican immigrant has less than a sixth-grade education. The undocumented immigrants no doubt have spent even less time in school.

The true employment situation

Experts aware of employment realities and U.S. labor laws know undocumentados are some of the most exploited employees in the nation.

Fearful of being deported back to the poverty they escaped, they rarely complain about supervisory abuse and must cope with conditions few Anglos would tolerate. These Hispanics know that if their papers are scrutinized, their true status would become known, and back they go south of the Rio Grande, courtesy of Uncle Sam.

The Supreme Court has even tied the hands of the National Labor Relations Board, the federal agency whose expansive eclecticism in policing our nation''s labor laws has so angered employers over the years. Under the 2002 Hoffman Plastics case, the Supreme Court ruled that even if an employer illegally fires an undocumentado for pro-union activities (a common tactic, say the unions), that worker is not entitled to re-instatement, nor is he eligible for back pay of any type. Not even the most aggressive union can help him now.

As proved true in 1987, experts predict Hispanic workers will again quickly assert their rights when offered legal protection. And, as before, union organizers will be just as quick with promises to help in return for votes in representation elections.

Ill treatment widespread

Afraid to complain, or even to be noticed, today''s undocumentados stand in the shadows of American life, primarily in urban areas of the country. A number of them are exposed to a range of employer abuses in some injection and blowmolding plants where safety standards and federal wage laws are sometimes ignored. These silenced workers are often paid less than Anglos or others having similar jobs-but far more than they could ever earn in their native lands.

In addition, undocumentados must sometimes tolerate abusive supervisors, almost invariably behind the backs of senior management. Supervisors have been known to "sell jobs"-a new worker must turn over his first week''s paycheck to his foreman; forced purchases of Amway or similar products hawked by supervisors; favoritism in overtime and job assignments; and so on. Senior plastics executives are almost invariably unaware, because they do not speak Spanish, and the Hispanic workers are reluctant to complain.

Less harmful but equally galling are the slights and insults unknowingly visited on these workers by plastic industry supervisors who understand neither the Spanish language nor Hispanic cultures. Even well-meaning supervisors often inadvertently offend their Spanish speaking employees by their manners and supervisory approach.

As hope engendered by immigration reform spreads, the most recent wave of Spanish-speaking immigrants will stand tall for their rights, just as in the 1980s. Like other minorities who suffered abuse in America''s past, Hispanics will not tolerate such treatment when the law protects them. They will remember past abuses, who inflicted them, and seek spokesmen who say they can eliminate the indignities.

Fallow ground

Given the foregoing, it is not unreasonable to expect that newly "legitimized" workers understandably may flock to Spanish-speaking organizers who promise an to end insults and abuses, offer "free" health and medical insurance, more paid holidays, and "pie-in-the-sky" raises, ostensibly in exchange for simply signing a union card.

Because competition is so fierce, and price pressures so acute, most manufacturers may also understandably pale at the thought of facing a unionization drive reaching out to their employees. More than ever, molders with a sizable Hispanic workforce will need unbiased and unfiltered knowledge of their workers'' current morale and attitudes in order to uncover and cure any beneath-the-surface problems that might make their plant floors fertile fields for union organizers. This is best done in face-to-face interviews by a knowledgeable interviewer in an employee audit. Obviously, such an audit should be conducted by an outsider who can be trusted by workers, one to whom they will speak freely.

As a result of an audit, ameliorative actions can be taken: restrooms can be cleaned, safety hazards (causing sky-high workman''s compensation claims) can be rectified; wage programs unscrambled and benefit packages explained; lunch rooms brightened; and supervisory practices improved. In other words, the prospect of increased labor costs might provoke improvements in areas where they''re overdue.

Making things better

Using employee interviews as case studies can in turn facilitate the training of foremen and supervisors in specialized programs tailored to meet the specific needs and problems of their plants, which should improve competitiveness.

Unfortunately, the efficacy of this training may not reach its potential, because most molders use canned training as it is relatively inexpensive. Rarely worth more than its price, such training is full of generalities and discounted by foremen who cannot connect the lessons with their own specific situations. Effective training will employ materials and specific examples drawn from the supervisors'' own plants, so that they understand the problems are real and are having deleterious effects on their employees and their performance.

Likely outcomes

The results of such efforts in response to the specter of a resurgent organized labor movement may be serendipitous for U.S. processors and employees alike. They will likely create an improved work environment conducive to high employee satisfaction and performance-which translates to better quality and productivity. If approached in good faith, employees can quickly point out many ways in which the environment and productivity can be improved, and product defects (flash, short shots, etc.) reduced. The threat of unionization may end up providing the incentive for some shops to address the root causes that make unions appealing to employees, and in so doing, make these shops better businesses.

Woodruff Imberman, Ph.D., president, Imberman and DeForest, Evanston, IL. Contact Imberman at [email protected].

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