Politically-Connected Businessman Profits from ‘Guest Worker’ Program Braceros in Detroit?

en español

We should never be surprised by what campaign contributions and political connections can accomplish. In Detroit, they allowed a company to fire union workers and replace them with immigrants brought into this country under false pretenses-and then subject the new workers to horrible living conditions.

Until 1999, Service Employees (SEIU) Local 79 represented the seasonal janitors who clean up downtown Detroit. Each spring and summer, union members cleaned up the sites of events such as festivals and jazz concerts. This was a longstanding relationship with any contractor that happened to be awarded the plum contracts from the City. Each year, whoever got the contract would honor the successor clauses and hire from the list of union members, by seniority.

Until a company called Torre and Bruglio got the contract. Frank Torre decided that he would use workers from Mexico, fire the previous crew, and go his merry way.

The workers he brought in were paid minimum wage with no benefits, and most spoke no English. Raids at the end of the season resulted in several deportations.

SEIU picketed some of Torre and Bruglio’s downtown sites. It was rumored that union officials were threatened by then-Speaker of the House Curtis Hertel: Hertel said he would “trash the Wage Pass-Through bill” if the union continued to picket. The Wage Pass-Through bill was a precious piece of legislation for the bulk of Local 79’s members, who work in nursing homes, because it provided for an increase in wages and staffing levels in the homes.

I worked for SEIU at that time, and spoke with several of Torre and Bruglio’s workers. They were quite isolated from the community, and were afraid to complain. They were piled up in substandard housing, for which they paid the employer rent, as well as rent on the equipment and uniforms they needed for work.

POLITICAL GREASE

Torre’s practices did not prevent him from getting more contracts from Detroit City Council. Seven out of nine councilmembers received contributions from him. In 2001 Torre threw a fundraiser for successful Wayne County Prosecutor candidate Mike Duggan at $1,000 a plate (Wayne County includes Detroit). Torre’s subcontractors were “invited” to attend.

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The father of Torre’s business partner sits on the Wayne County Commission, which votes on airport and county contracts. Torre has had contracts with Wayne County, Metro Airport, and the State Fairgrounds.

This year, Torre and Bruglio was issued 600 H2B visas for Mexican workers. The H2B program allows employers to bring in workers for jobs that supposedly cannot be filled by U.S workers. The law is not supposed to mean “jobs whose conditions are so bad that they will not be filled by anyone who is not desperate.”

Recently, UPN Channel 50 in Detroit ran an exposé of Torre and Bruglio. The program showed 18 and 20 men living in one- and two-room apartments in Pontiac, Canton, and Romulus, 25 miles from downtown Detroit. The workers were each paying $30 per week for rent; other deductions left their pay at $2 to $3 per hour.

After the news show, the City of Pontiac shut down the apartments the men were living in and Torre and Bruglio relocated them to other apartments in a different city. The workers were still paying $30 per week rent, but now only four people were housed in each unit.

DEPORTED

Michigan Migrant Legal Services is helping the workers to file suit against Torre and Bruglio. The H2B workers are completely vulnerable to deportation. After the exposé, Torre sent his human resource director to the apartment of the lead spokesperson/worker in the suit and told him he was being deported as of that day.

Torre also went to speak to the director of the news station and ask why they were attacking this upright citizen who gives opportunities to hapless Mexican workers. He was accompanied by a man from the Oakland County (suburban Detroit) Prosecutor’s office and by Mike Ilitch. Multimillionaire Ilitch owns the Detroit Tigers, the Detroit Red Wings, and Comerica Park, where Torre has a contract. Comerica Park recently celebrated “Torre and Bruglio Day” during a Tigers game.

Detroit passed a living wage ordinance in 1998, and, as city contractors, the Torre and Bruglio workers should be entitled to that amount for the years that they worked under city contracts ($10.44 without health insurance). Money for Torre’s generous campaign contributions is money stolen from Mexican families who were depending on their loved ones far away from home.

Elena Herrada is co-chair of the Committee for the Political Resurrection of Detroit and an activist in the Latino community.