Two workers detained during a police raid on a Mississippi manufacturing plant. (Photo: Matt Bush / AP)
Laurel, Mississippi - In the recent raid of the Howard Industries electrical plant in Laurel, Mississippi, 481 workers have been detained for almost two weeks in Jena, Louisiana. Neither they nor their attorneys know when they will be formally charged, deported or released, and Barbara Gonzalez, spokesperson for the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, says simply, "Their cases are being investigated."
"We don't know the fate of those people or what they may be charged with," says Patricia Ice, attorney for the Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance (MIRA). "These people were rounded up and just dumped in a privately run detention center. We've heard reports that there weren't even enough beds and that people were sleeping on the floor. Because they haven't been charged, so far as we know, there's no process for them to get bail. My gut reaction is that this is an outrage."
Ironically, Jena was the site last year of massive protests over racial discrimination in the criminal justice system, after a group of young African-American men faced felony charges in a confrontation with a group of young white men, who were not charged.
Approximately 100 women were released the day of the Laurel raid for "humanitarian reasons," to care for children or because they are pregnant, according to ICE, and 50 of them have been required to wear ankle bracelets with electronic monitoring devices. Their situation is also desperate, according to MIRA organizer Victoria Cintra. "People were living paycheck to paycheck and rent is due," she explains. "They can't work and provide for their families now, and many others are dependent on husbands and fathers and brothers who were all detained. We need to redefine what humanitarian means."
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 itself played in fomenting divisions among workers.
According to Clarence Larkin, African-American president of IBEW Local 1317, the union at the plant, "this employer pits workers against each other by design, and breeds division among them that affects everyone," he says. "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. On August 28, Cintra led a group of women fired in the raid to the plant to demand their pay, after the company denied them paychecks. Managers called Laurel police. "They tried to intimidate us with 10 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."
Meanwhile, the union has been in negotiations with the company since its contract expired at the beginning of August. In preparation for those negotiations, the IBEW brought in a Spanish-speaking organizer, Maria Gonzalez, to recruit immigrant workers into the union. She visited people at home to help explain the benefits of belonging. Larkin says many immigrant workers joined, complaining of bad treatment. "Supervisors yell at people a lot," he says, "not just immigrants, but at everyone. Howard has always been an anti-employee company, and treats workers with no respect, as though they make no contribution to its success."
When workers have volunteered to become stewards, Larkin says, or to serve on the negotiations committee, the company "institutes a very aggressive discipline against them, so people fear reprisals. It's a challenge to get people involved. Bear in mind, this is the South. It's always a tall order to talk about forming a union here."
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 says. "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," she warns, "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 a 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," alleges Jim Evans, a national AFL-CIO staff member in Mississippi, a leading member of the state legislature's Black Caucus, and MIRA's board chair.
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. US 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 two years before conducting the raid, 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.
"It's hard to believe that a two-year-old phone call to ICE led to this raid, but whether or not the call ever took place, that possibility is a product of the poisonous atmosphere fostered by politicians of both parties in Mississippi," says MIRA director Chandler. "In the last election, Barbour and Republicans campaigned against immigrants to get elected, but so did all the Democratic statewide candidates except Attorney General Jim Hood. The raid will make the climate even worse."
During the 2007 election campaign, the Ku Klux Klan organized a 500-person rally in Tupelo, and when MIRA organizer Erik Fleming urged Republican Governor Haley Barbour to veto a bill making work a felony for the undocumented, he was attacked by state anti-immigrant organizations.
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."