Roundup of Undocumented Workers Angers Union Organizers

"Operation Jobs," the roundup of undocumented workers carried out in May by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), brought anger and frustration to union members and officials in Chicago. But it has also brought a concern to find ways to de-fend undocumented workers.

Many union members were snatched up in the raids. Rudy Lozano, Midwest Organizing Director for the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU), told Labor Notes: "One of our shops was raided and 70 people were taken. It was a tremendously humiliating experience for them."

According to Lozano, many were denied their rights. "Many were forced to leave the country without due process; this was not only our members, but everybody. Mothers were separated from their children. There was not even a phone call to see how their children were."

Another local union affected by the raids was Local 15 of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU). Nick Jones, Director of the Chicago Joint Board of the RWDSU, told Labor Notes, "We had 43 of our members taken out of Bake Line Company in Desplaines, Ill. By the way, it's the second time in the last year that the INS has raided there. They took about 25 workers the last time."

Operation PUSH: ‘RAIDS WERE RACIALLY MOTIVATED’

The INS very consciously attempted to play off one racial group against another and to exacerbate ethnic hostilities with “Operation Jobs.”

No sooner had undocumented workers, mainly Hispanic, but also some Poles, been removed from their jobs, than the INS called primarily Black organizations to inform them of the job openings.
Rev. Frank E. Watkins, Press Secretary of Operation PUSH, told Labor Notes, “When they made the raids and came up with X number of jobs, they indicated publicly that they were sending these jobs to various organizations around the city, and they specifically named Operation PUSH.”

The divide and conquer tactic didn’t work this time, however. PUSH instead launched into an attack on the INS and the Reagan administration. Said Watkins, “Firstly, we saw the raids as a violation or possible violation of due process.

“Secondly, we saw the raids as diversionary, diverting people away from the fact that the country under President Reagan and under Reaganomics was faced with an economic crisis, worse than any time since the Great Depression. The point being, that if all the illegal aliens who were occupying jobs were to be replaced legally by persons needing the jobs, we would still be confronted with an economic problem.

“Therefore, thirdly, we saw the raids as racially and ethnically motivated, that is, attempting to pit the Blacks and Browns and Poles against each other, pitting racial and ethnic groups against each other when their salvation, so to speak, is in their unity.”

Watkins concluded, “There’s obviously a great need for jobs in the Black community—but that’s not the way to solve the problem.”

According to Amelia Munoz Tucker, Business Representative of the RWDSU Joint Board, "Most of the people were Hispanic, mostly Mexican, but also some Central Americans. About three were deported right away, the rest were able to post bond and get out. Some of the people who returned to work were denied their jobs. One lady was very young with two kids and nobody to help her.”
Unions protested the raids in a variety of ways, organizing press conferences to denounce the INS action, participating in demonstrations, and looking into the conditions of those arrested.

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A protest demonstration on May 1 was organized by trade unions and community organizations, and one on May 4 by the churches in the predominantly Mexican Pilsen neighborhood.

Nick Jones was one of those who investigated the conditions where the undocumented workers were being held and subsequently protested what he saw there.

"I would not have liked to have been in the shoes of those workers out there," said Jones. "It was a pretty ugly situation, as far as I'm concerned. They didn't have people being whipped--but the next thing to it.

"They had mostly white immigration officers with Southern twangs shouting orders at the people, and they didn't speak Spanish well. Many workers, maybe 50 or 75, were standing up waiting in line for hours to be interviewed.

"There was a lot of damned scared people in the building, especially people who had kids. There were a lot of women bawling, scared to death. There was a big Greyhound bus out back and by the time we left, it was loaded up and on its way to Mexico. The situation was very ugly, a very ugly scene.”

The union leaders stressed the need for contract language to protect workers from future attacks. Said Lozano, “There has to be contract language protecting and defining the rights of these workers, because once they are union members, it is the obligation of the union to defend them at the workplace and in the community.”

Jones said: “One of the things that has been suggested by some of the unions is to get clauses in our contracts so that when the INS comes, the company has to call the union before the INS is allowed to enter the plant, so that we can get involved before they take the workers.”

Lozano added that unions should also oppose legislation, such as the federal Simpson-Mazzoli “immigration reform” bill, which will hurt immigrant workers.

“That bill doesn’t provide the least of solutions to the complex problems of migration of workers to the United States. We have to promote the recognition of rights equal to those of any citizen for undocumented workers—because it’s in our interest.

“We should promote an amnesty which would meet the needs of immigrant workers now residing in the country, again with full guarantees, saying we expect for any worker the right to a job, to participate in the political process, the right to all the social programs that exist into which they pay taxes. And obviously the right to organize into a labor organization.”