In 2015, Signal’s violations sound like something out of another era: human trafficking, forced labor, discrimination and racketeering. Their practices violate the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act and Ku Klux Klan Act.
I first met the workers one Sunday in 2007, weeks after they arrived in the United States. They had stolen away from a labor camp on Signal’s property to attend a clandestine meeting with me in a small church in Mississippi.
They told me how agents of the company had promised them good jobs as welders and pipe-fitters, along with green cards and a better life for themselves and their families. The workers paid up to $20,000 each based on these false promises. Some took on crushing debt; others sold ancestral homes to buy an American Dream.
They arrived in an American nightmare, subject to brutal working conditions, living with twenty-four men in a trailer and facing constant threats of firing and deportation. Instead of green cards, they received temporary H-2B guestworker visas. Now they were asking me: How can we make the company keep its promises? I said: By taking collective action.
A year later, late one night in March 2008, hundreds of workers and I were huddled in a room in Mississippi, just hours before they launched their public campaign to expose Signal’s abuses. As the organizer, it was my job to prepare them.
They had much to fear. They’d soon face covert surveillance by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the possibility of arrest and deportation at every step, and even threats of physical violence as they marched from New Orleans to Washington, DC, to hold a thirty-one-day hunger strike.
But that’s not what they feared most. To my surprise, their greatest fear was telling their families back home that they’d failed. They’d come to America, the land of opportunity, the freest place on earth, and they had nothing to show for it. In their darkest moments, it wasn’t Signal’s abuses that haunted them. It was the fear that they’d let down the ones they loved.
At first this amazed me—then I remembered I’d had exactly the same fear.
I came to the United States from India, to attend college at the University of Chicago. For a time, I thought my foothold in America was secure. Then, in 2000, I missed an immigration deadline and became undocumented. Unable to work legally, I fell behind on rent. I was evicted from my apartment. I lived on friends’ couches, and worked minimum-wage jobs alongside undocumented immigrants from around the world.
After the 9/11 attacks, the threat of deportation increased. More than once, I faced physical violence from strangers who projected onto my brown skin their own nightmares of another terrorist attack. Even so, what I feared most—more than homelessness and physical violence—was telling my family that I had failed. Here I was, in the land of opportunity. And I’d let them down.
The fear of admitting that you’ve failed to achieve the American Dream is hardly unique to immigrant workers. The reality for tens of millions of US workers today is not the climb toward prosperity they were promised, but the sense that they’re losing ground every day. That they’re one slip away from disaster. Workers in the US are working harder every yearwith less to show for it. They struggle each day with their own fear of failure, of letting down the ones they love—and with the sense that somehow it’s their own fault.
So how did the Signal workers overcome their greatest fear? By coming together to take collective action.
All around America, there are workers coming together to imagine an economy in which they’re truly free. They’re fighting for the new generation of rights and guarantees that would let tens of millions of US workers trade anxiety and constraint for dignity and creativity.
Those who believe in the promise of the American Dream need to remember that opportunity in America has always been won through generations of collective struggle. If we can imagine freedom in the face of fear, as the Signal workers did, then we can start to build an economy that will guarantee it.
Even before they took control of Congress, Republican Party leaders were promising they would show America what their party is all about in 2015. So far, they’ve been keeping their promise.
As early as this week, a federal judge in Texas could rule on a lawsuit by 25 governors and attorneys general, overwhelmingly Republican, meant to block implementation of Obama’s executive action on immigration. Here in Louisiana, Republican Governor Bobby Jindal joined the lawsuit, and senior senator and likely future governor David Vitter (R) said stopping Obama’s immigration action was his top priority. And in the House, just hours before the lawsuit’s first hearing in January, Republicans also voted overwhelmingly to block implementation of the president’s immigration action.
Republican leaders know all eyes are on them, and the party’s reputation is at stake. Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) has sought to shake the image of his party as led by spoilers, nay-sayers, and ideologues, telling the Washington Post, “I want the American people to be comfortable with the fact that the Republican House and Senate is a responsible, right-of-center, governing majority.”
Why then is a party so concerned with proving it can be “responsible” focused on crushing Obama’s immigration action?
It’s worth recalling exactly what the president’s order would and wouldn’t do. It would provide only a temporary reprieve from the threat of deportation for about 5 million of the 11 million undocumented immigrants in America. Rather than living in daily terror of being seized in racial profiling-based raids at school bus stops, grocery stores, and Bible studies and torn apart from their families, immigrants with deep ties to their communities and no criminal records would be able to take a modest step toward normalcy in their daily lives.
This falls short of the true aspirations of America’s immigrants—good jobs and a meaningful path toward citizenship in the communities they already call home—but it would be a step in the right direction. And as the amicus brief by the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice and other national immigration groups in the Texas case argues, Obama’s action would be an economic boon not only for immigrant workers, but for U.S. workers and the economy as a whole.
So what has driven Republicans to the politics of panic? Quite simply, something progressives have forgotten, but Republicans know all too well: you can’t win the nation without winning the South.
Of the 25 states suing to stop Obama’s immigration action, 15 are in the South or the Southwest. At first glance, it may not be clear what Southern Republicans think they have to fear from the immigrants Obama’s action would cover. In absolute terms, Northern states have a significantly higher number of undocumented immigrants than the South does.
But small margins matter. As Ben Jealous pointed out in his recent report True South, as little as a 30 percent increase in voter registration among people of color in Southern states could transform the political calculus in the region.
Take Georgia, where the net average margin of victory over the past three gubernatorial elections has been 260,704 votes, according to the study. A 30 percent rise in registration by voters of color would add 200,100 likely Democratic voters. The Migration Policy Instituteestimates that Obama’s executive action would cover 170,000 undocumented immigrants in Georgia. If those immigrants stepped out of the shadows and went on to win full citizenship and voting rights, they could end up tipping the scales in Democrats’ favor.
The same is true across the South. Again, the temporary reprieve Obama’s action offers is a long way from full citizenship. But it’s a step along the way, and Republicans know it. That’s why they’re going all in on trying to stop it. They’re looking ahead and seeing a very different South—and a very different America—and they’re panicking.
It’s time for progressives to look ahead with hope—and to get to work on a new Southern strategy to match it.
On Thursday, November 20, 2014, President Barack Obama announced a plan for administrative immigration reform that will grant work authorization and temporary legal status to up to 5 million undocumented immigrants.
We applaud President Obama for getting on the right side of history. The reforms he announced tonight were possible because millions of immigrant workers raised their voices, and the president listened.
Why these reforms are needed is nowhere clearer than in New Orleans, where Immigration and Customs Enforcement has created a brutal regime of racial profiling-based community raids that have undercut basic civil and labor rights.
Still, the temporary reforms are exactly that. They are not a substitute for full citizenship in our democracy and our economy, and we will continue to fight for a path to citizenship for all 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States.
Because the 5 million people covered by the president’s reform are overwhelmingly the workers at the bottom of the U.S. economy, raising their wages and conditions will be crucial to lifting the floor for all workers in the U.S.
For years, we have exposed how employers in the South and around the U.S. use the threat of deportation as a weapon to stop workers from exposing labor abuse, and as a form of retaliation against worker organizing.
This makes it a major victory that the president’s reforms include expanded protections for victims of trafficking and other crimes who are participating in government investigations, as well as the creation of an interagency working group to “explore ways to ensure that workers can avail themselves of their labor and employment rights without fear of retaliation.” When the immigrant workers at the bottom of our economy can organize for their rights without fear of retaliation, it helps raise the floor for all workers.
At the same time, the millions of immigrants not included by the president’s reforms are at risk of becoming a permanent underclass of exploitable workers. Those workers deserve the same fundamental civil and labor rights that we all do—and we’ll keep fighting for them.
Finally, we are concerned that the U.S. will be bringing more guestworkers into the tech sector without fundamental changes to the H1-B visa program that give workers the right to organize and access basic labor rights. We will continue to be a voice for guestworkers and the U.S. workers alongside them.
Today President Obama said that he needed to take action to reform immigration because under the status quo, employers are gaming the system and driving down wages.
That’s exactly why administrative immigration reform has to protect workers. Every day, immigrant workers who speak out against illegal wages, health and safety violations, and workplace discrimination face illegal retaliation from employers: firing and deportation. This not only traps immigrant workers in exploitation, it drives down wages and conditions for tens of millions of U.S. workers alongside them.
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) can break this cycle by following the civil and labor rights recommendations that the New Orleans Workers’ Center presented to it in May. That means ensuring that DHS actions do not discourage workers from taking action to protect and enforce their own rights and the rights of their coworkers, and that immigration enforcement doesn’t undermine workers’ wages and conditions. It also means DHS must ensure protections for civil rights leaders who come forward to expose the on-the-ground realities of workplace abuse.
President Obama should also stop appeasing the far right by caving in to xenophobia and demagoguery. That strategy has failed, and his announcement today shows that he knows it — but his move to expedite the deportations of unaccompanied children threatens to continue the failure.
Instead, the President should focus on protecting the civil and labor rights of immigrant workers and families, for the sake of every worker in America.
Saket Soni doesn’t usually count meetings, but the other day he couldn’t help it: 17. “It’s not that healthy to have 17 meetings per day,” he concedes; 10 to 12 is the limit.
Some begin with a dial-in, some with the tchwap of butcher paper tearing — a fresh sheet for a group strategy session. Others are free-form, like when Soni counseled a woman struggling to organize construction workers. They walked together, did breathing exercises. The ocean sounds in Soni’s iTunes library provided backdrop for guided meditation.
“When you’re an organizer, nothing is too small,” he says.
Conference calls can be memorable, too. The labor organizer has conducted them in church stairwells, outside labor camps, inside ICE detention centers. On Easter weekend six years back, Soni joined a conference call while marching with dozens of Indian welders from Montgomery, Alabama, to Atlanta, Georgia. Like many of the people who find their way to Soni, the welders had been screwed. Recruiters had convinced them to pay $20,000 for a green card and the chance to help rebuild post-Katrina New Orleans. Forced labor and squalid trailers awaited them.
He has led guest workers to some of the ballsiest collective actions in recent history…
The organization Soni directs, the National Guestworker Alliance, focuses on immigrants with temporary work visas. Hundreds of thousands come to the United States each year. Despite their numbers, they’re difficult to organize: transient, for starters; vulnerable and risk averse, besides. Guest workers don’t come here to make trouble. Because their visas bind them to one employer, quitting means deportation, or worse.
SOURCE: MICHAEL STRAVATO/NYTIMES/REDUX
Jose Luis, an employee for Don Benoit, collects crawfish from traps at a rice field in Gueydan, La., on Nov. 24, 2012.
Soni has led guest workers to some of the ballsiest collective actions in recent history — the welders, for instance, ended up marching all the way to Washington, D.C., going on a hunger strike and catalyzing an uproar in India and the White House. A strike by Mexican crawfish-peelers — who’d been forced to work 16- to 24-hour shifts and threatened with bodily harm — changed corporate policy at Wal-Mart. Striking student guest workers at a Hershey packing plant led the State Department to rewrite certain visa policies.
More remarkable than all this, maybe, is whom Soni thinks the guest workers represent: you.
What’s happening is the rise of contingent labor — temporary, part-time, gig-to-gig…
“The guest workers and low-wage workers that I organize hold a crystal ball into the changing nature of work,” he argues. It’s part of a theory about the future of work that he’s elucidated in lectures at Harvard Law School, Soros-funded forums, on television and, soon probably, in a book. “What’s happening to low-wage workers is not just happening to low-wage workers,” he says .
What’s happening is the rise of contingent labor — temporary, part-time, gig-to-gig — and the lengthening of labor supply chains, like independent contractors and sub-subcontractors. In their wake, even American-born professionals have lost leverage. At universities, adjunct professors are paid per class, hired per semester. Lawyers who used to work at firms now contract for them. Sixty-four thousand Silicon Valley engineers just won a settlement against four tech giants who’d agreed not to solicit one another’s employees. To Soni, their plights all resemble guest workers’.
Stories about abused guest workers once elicited sympathy, Soni says. Now they elicit recognition. “There’s a real national panic about work that has not been named in our society,” he says. “It’s a United States of Anxiety.”
Of course, it’s in Soni’s strategic interest to describe a common plight. Many Americans would resist the notion that they share a boat with guest workers; they’re more likely to think about guest workers as threats to their own jobs. That’s if they think about guest workers at all. Guest workers are just slightly less invisible and marginalized than when Soni started his work.
But within the labor movement, the idea that we are all guest workers now has force.
“Saket could well be one of the architects of the next labor movement in the United States,” says George Goehl, no organizing slouch himself. Soni’s “future of work” analysis packs as much disruptive punch as Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, Goehl says, though for years the packaging wasn’t fancy. (“There was something charming about seeing him show up at meetings and take that butcher paper out of his backpack,” says Goehl.) It’s fancier now, enough to sway hundreds of skeptical organizers around the country, including those who work with Goehl.
Despite the seriousness of his work and his immersion in it — even his partner, Marielena Hincapié, is a prominent immigrant advocate — Soni seems boyish: baby face, sweep of dark hair, open demeanor, short stature. Without his goatee and glasses, he’d look younger than his 36 years.
I would not give in and self-deport … I would stay and be part of a rebuilding of democracy in this country.
He spent his childhood in Delhi, and his parents, though not particularly political, sent him to a school where Soni felt he was “in a swirl of social forces: You were writing a school play and it was about Nelson Mandela; then you were going out to protest [against] the Indian cricket team going to South Africa; and then you were meeting with Nelson Mandela because he was free.
“And we were told it happened only because of us — and because we were kids, we believed it.”
With a sense of protagonism and possibility, Soni went to the University of Chicago on a full scholarship. He studied theater and, after college, worked at a theater company whose scripts were based on the immigrant experience. Rent came from sweeping floors and washing dishes and cars. He overstayed his student visa just in time for the post-9/11 crackdown on foreigners.
That period was a crucible, he says, “being undocumented and entering into a period of low-wage work, and in the meantime trying to continue to work in the arts, and eventually defending more and more people from deportation.”
On the other end of it, Soni emerged an organizer. “Just because the political climate was really bad, I would not give in and self-deport,” Soni says he told himself. “I would stay and be part of a rebuilding of democracy in this country.” That immigrant idealism about America stayed with Soni through the horrors he said he saw in the years after Hurricane Katrina and during his work at the National Guestworkers Alliance.
He retains a sense of the dramatic, too. For Soni, strikes, demonstrations and marches are all forms of public theater — except the stakes are real and high. On the eve of a Mexican strawberry picker walkout in Louisiana, Soni met with the workers and a few others in their trailers, rehearsing and gathering courage. The boss had abused them and confiscated their passports. Everyone was frightened. The workers wrote one word, “Dignidad,” on placards.
The next day, at the appointed hour, the workers rose from the strawberry fields, pulled the placards from under their shirts, and began to march toward the boss. They’d eventually get their passports back, but what stays with Soni is the beauty of it: “To see these workers walking toward us, holding these signs — what a gorgeous image,” he says. Original post: Read more: Saket Soni + the Future of Work | Provocateurs | OZY
When it comes to talking about the way worked has changed in America, we tend to hear a lot about factors like technology, outsourcing, and workers’ “choice” to become “free agents.” Saket Soni, executive director of the National Guestworker Alliance and the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice, has a different view, and for Belabored’s one-year anniversary, he sits down with Michelle and Sarah to talk about the real issues: worker power, an incomplete social safety net, and the exclusion of entire categories of people from labor protections. As the conditions of the guestworkers packing seafood for Walmart or packing candy for Hershey’s become the norm for more and more of the workforce, Soni and other organizers are urgently working to turn the situation around.
LISTEN to the anniversary webcast with workers and activists on three continents.
Many think these tragedies could have been prevented if the companies had enforced stricter safety protocols and improved working conditions. Walmart had previously demonstrated some willingness to take responsibility for the conditions along its supply chain. The company moved $200,000 to Cambodian workers after a supplier abruptly closed down operations without paying them, signed on to the Fair Food Program with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers to boost wages for farmworkers in Florida, and cut its contract with C.J.’s Seafood, a Louisiana seafood supplier, after workers there went on strike to protest forced labor conditions.
On March 13, the United Nations Human Rights Committee will meet for a two-day review of U.S. compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights—and our nation’s representatives will have some explaining to do.
In the run-up to the review, labor and civil rights organizations in ten countries that send migrant workers to the U.S. have joined 29 U.S.-based groups in writing to the UN committee to sound the alarm about violations of fundamental human rights of migrants when they are in the U.S. These groups are asking the UN committee to press the United States over the grim reality migrant workers here have faced for decades: employers who subject migrant workers to severe labor abuse, then use immigration enforcement as a weapon to intimidate, lock away, or deport victims and witnesses to hide the abuse.
Iconic U.S. corporations are profiting from such abuse. Case in point: in late February, the Department of Labor awarded $205,977 in back wages and liquidated damages to former student guestworkers at McDonald’s restaurants in Pennsylvania, and to the U.S. workers alongside them.
This report exposes the ways in which the United States is “deporting the evidence,” by arresting, detaining, and removing individuals engaged in defending themselves and their communities against serious violations of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). In some cases, the state uses immigration enforcement to retaliate against persons who expose governmental abuses of civil and political rights. In other cases, the state cooperates with private actors who use immigration enforcement to hide their own unlawful behavior. Not only do these actions by the United States directly violate the ICCPR, they also prevent human rights abuses from being exposed or verified because victims and witnesses are intimidated, locked away, or removed from the country.
After the publication of Deporting the Evidence, 29 U.S. civil, labor, and human rights organizations and leading academics wrote to the UN Human Rights Committee, urging it to direct the United States to adopt new measures to bring its immigration enforcement policies into compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.