Category: RokStories

This week, The Guardian reported that Walmart and other major retailers are selling seafood produced by Burmese migrant workers trafficked onto slave ships in Thailand.

The below statement is by Olivia Guzman, a guestworker in the U.S. seafood industry and member of the National Guestworker Alliance (NGA), on June 13, 2014:

Olivia-statement-350Watching the report on conditions for workers on these slave ships, I’m angry and appalled. It is clear that slavery is still alive in 2014.

As a longtime migrant worker who came from Mexico to the U.S. on H-2B visas, I know what it means to leave your home to find a way to support your family. Compared to the workers from Burma and Thailand who ended up being sold onto slave ships, my fellow guestworkers and I are privileged. At the same time, we see ourselves in them. We also arrive to a system where bosses hold us in abusive conditions by using threats. For the workers in Thailand the threats are violence and death. For us in the United States the threats are deportation and blacklisting.

I joined the NGA in 2009 because I had seen too much abuse, and I wanted to change it. I worked in seafood processing on the supply chains of Walmart and other retailers for nearly 17 years. My fellow workers and I have often been paid below the minimum wage. We live in crowded labor camps on company property under constant surveillance. We fear firing, deportation, and blacklisting all the time. In one plant supervisors even hit us to make us work faster. When workers spoke up, employers would silence them with the threat of blacklisting: locking workers out of jobs permanently by removing them from the employment list and reporting them to immigration so they would no longer be able to work in the U.S.

As a member of the NGA I met many other workers like me and began to organize. I spoke up in meetings, visited worksites, and brought grievances about the labor camp to my boss.  For that I was blacklisted this season. I knew about this risk, but I knew that if I didn’t speak up, the abuse would keep getting worse. I’ve been encouraging my co-workers here to stand up and organize, and I want to tell the migrant workers enslaved in Thailand to do the same.

Walmart and other major brands should be ashamed of profiting from this abuse, and they should work to stop it. They should take responsibility for conditions we migrant workers face on their supply chains in the U.S. and in Thailand. Walmart is a very powerful company, and if they want to stop this abuse, they can do it.

Stopping buying from a known abuser isn’t enough. Brands need to make sure their suppliers enact protections to block forced labor and threats of retaliation, which keep workers from coming forward to report abuse and exploitation.

That’s why we have launched the NGA Forced Labor Prevention Accord. We urge major retailers like Walmart, Target, Whole Foods, and others to sign the accord as a step toward avoiding this extreme abuse.

Workers around the world have shown bravery to stand up against abuse and forced labor. Big retailers need to do the same.

CONTACT: Stephen Boykewich, stephen@guestworkeralliance.org, 323-594-2347

What if Your Ability to Stay in This Country Depended on Your Employer?

The Nation

By Michelle Chen

June 12, 2014

Every year, US companies invite thousands of special guests from abroad into the labor market, and they arrive clutching visas that will provide them short-term jobs in food processing, farmwork and other seasonal sectors. The guestworker’s visit is often an uneasy one: everything hinges on that temporary work permit—not just a job, but also the very right to be in the country. So they are typically careful to avoid making any trouble with the boss who sponsored them.

But Olivia Guzman is the rare guestworker who has stood up to her boss, the seafood processor Bayou Land Seafood, and so this year, she’s been disinvited. And when the company declined to bring her back to Louisiana for her usual seasonal job, she got even bolder, because she was sure that she was being shut out of the country simply for her labor activism and for organizing her coworkers.

guestworker_campaign_otu

Guzman did eventually make it back to the United States from her town in Sinaloa last week, to knock on her employer’s door—not for her usual annual work assignment, but to serve a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). The freshly filed complaint, backed by Congress of Day LaborersSTAND with Dignity and National Guestworker Alliance (NGA) alleges Bayou Land “refused to hire and blacklisted” Guzman due to her “protected concerted activity on behalf of the rights of guestworkers.”

Guzman’s activity is “protected” only on paper, however. According to labor advocates, workers in the gulf seafood processing industry have suffered massive exploitation and intimidation. Bayou Land’s alleged retaliation stems from a successful labor campaign that Guzman helped organize against Walmart supplier CJ’s Seafood. In 2012, the campaign, led by NGA and other advocacy groups, exposed patterns of epidemic labor violations, from wage theft to forced labor conditions to health hazards, along an intricate supply chain that links big retailers to the dregs of Louisiana’s seafood industry to Mexican towns that feed migrant labor into the factories. The campaign, which involved striking and public protests as well as petitioning regulators, eventuallyprompted the Labor Department to propose various reforms to the H-2B regulations. Though the regulations have been stalled by litigation and blocked by congressional conservatives, employers have apparently made some limited material improvements in working conditions.

But Guzman says that across the sector, guestworkers still lack the power in the workplace to really negotiate the terms of their employment, and hers is a case in point.

Guzman says that when she recently reapplied for Bayou Land’s sponsorship, they told her that they were refusing to hire her because she had allegedly caused “problems” with her coworkers, and repeatedly ignored her and NGA’s requests for further justification.

A Bayou Land spokesperson claimed to the Times-Picayune that the company paid the workers as much as $13 an hour and provided “clean, safe and comfortable” living quarters. Guzman counters that the modest improvements in the industry have only been won through the agitation led by workers.

That these workers managed to take any political action at all is a considerable feat. The program that brought the Walmart guestworkers to the United States, the H-2B visa, is aimed at bringing a low-wage, and legally disenfranchised supply of temporary labor into notoriously exploitative industries like cannery and hotel work. The seafood guestworkers, whose legal sponsorship depends on their continued employment with a designated employer, were regularly forced to work upwards of 16 hours a day in squalid conditions, sometimes physically locked inside—and terrified of being sent home.

Guzman, who has worked at several Walmart supplier factories, says through an interpreter that workers often felt they had no choice but keep working “to make just a little bit of money, to make it worth it that we came all this way to work.” The instability of their seasonal jobs is used by the bosses “to make us bow our heads, to keep silent…and make us always ready to do anything to keep our jobs.” Under this relentless pressure, she adds, the boss “makes us feel like his slaves, and like we are his property.”

While Guzman’s complaint wends its way through the NLRB system, activists have waged a campaign to shame Bayou’s major clients, Target, Whole Foods and Walmart, with letters demanding that the companies “refuse to purchase seafood from Bayou Land Seafood until the company agrees to rehire Olivia.” Additionally, advocates have drafted a Forced Labor Prevention Accord, which would commit employers to an explicit ban on blacklisting and establish a dispute resolution process, allowing for binding arbitration if there is an impasse.

The use of retaliation and coercion is rife in all forms of marginalized, low-wage work. But for guestworkers, employers act as global gatekeepers. According to a 2012 NGA report on labor conditions in the Walmart’s supply chain, major labor violations were found in twelve of eighteen suppliers surveyed. But the scope of the problem is unclear because workers “generally under-report workplace violations out of fear of retaliation and blacklisting.”

A separate survey of guestworkers from various countries, working in agriculture and food processing, described economic and structural deterrents to challenging employers, including “debts related to recruitment, visa, and transportation costs; visas tied to their employer; and retaliation including threats of deportation.”

The campaign behind the Forced Labor Prevention Agreement, according to NGA lead organizer Jacob Horwitz, reinforces existing law and empowers the workforce by instituting accountability across the supply chain, particularly through the support of major buyers. And by protecting workers from retaliation for initiating a formal complaint, the agreement would allow them to stay employed while pressing their legal claims at the same workplace, “without giving employers the weapon of using the border to silence complaints.”

Whatever happens at Bayou Land, Guzman says, “I’m going to keep going forward and fighting for the rights of all my coworkers, so that we can overcome this kind of coercion and oppression on the job, so that we can come forward and report abuse when it happens to us, with a guarantee that we’ll be able to keep working, without being afraid.”

The fact that Guzman journeyed all the way from Sinaloa to Lousiana to seek justice should show employers that no intimidation or blacklisting—not even an international border—can stop the most fearless workers from standing up for their rights on American soil.

http://www.thenation.com/blog/180192/what-if-your-ability-stay-country-depended-your-employer

Labor Rights Groups Want Big Retailers To Help Improve Guest Worker Conditions In Their Supply Chains

By Angelo Young

June 12, 2014

20140604_113638_350Olivia Fernanda Guzman Garfias has spent the past 17 years traveling back and forth between Mexico and the United States to work among the many seafood processing facilities scattered across the swampy delta of southern Louisiana.

Guzman, a 51-year-old married mother of three, says she’s witnessed deplorable working conditions throughout her years of picking meat from crayfish, crab and shrimp shells. Meanwhile, labor rights advocates — taking their cues from efforts to get companies to improve working conditions in Bangladesh’s perilous textile industry — are urging major seafood buyers to put pressure on suppliers to improve their treatment of workers.

“For years I’ve seen bad working conditions, low pay, decrepit labor camps and the abusive treatment at many places I’ve worked,” Guzman told International Business Times by phone on Thursday. It wasn’t until her three children were old enough help support the family back in Mexico’s northwestern Sinaloa state that she decided it was time to do something. “I began organizing my co-workers to try to improve conditions, but the employer found out about it and he didn’t like that we were becoming united.”

Guzman is one of the 66,000 annual recipients of renewable H-2B visas that let foreign nationals work for temporary periods every year. They’re forestry workers in Idaho. They operate amusement park concession stands in the summer. Or, like Guzman, they process shellfish in the Gulf Coast. Most of them are from Mexico. All of them are working legally in the United States, with fewer rights than the citizens that often work right next to them.

With the help of legal counsel provided by the New Orleans-based Workers Center for Racial Justice, Guzman filed a federal labor complaint last week against her most recent employer, Bayou Land Seafood, located 15 miles east of Lafayette near the town of Breaux Bridge. She says the company retaliated against her efforts to organize co-workers by refusing to rehire her. Retaliatory measures against workplace organizing are a federal violation of the right for employees to meet to discuss ways to improve their working conditions.

“People are terrified to even just ask for simple things, like asking to fix a flooded bathroom. They’re afraid to speak to the employer,” said Jacob Horwitz, lead organizer for the workers center, who is spearheading a campaign to get major seafood buyers like Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (NYSE:WMT) to do more to combat retaliatory tactics, wage theft and workplace safety violations among its suppliers.

Congress isn’t likely do enact immigration reform this year, much less pass a measure promoted by Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., that would extend whistleblower protections to guest workers. The measure, which is part of the stalled Senate immigration bill, would let guest workers express grievances without facing the threat of immediate deportation should their employers retaliate by firing them. At the behest of companies that rely on guest workers, Republicans last year blocked a measure the Department of Labor attempted that would have boosted protections, including adding wage guarantees similar to ones extended to agricultural guest workers.

As it is, H-2B guest workers can be held off the clock by their employers when there isn’t enough work. In some cases guest workers have received absurdly low paychecks. Guzman told IBTimes her pay has averaged in recent years about $275 a week, but during slow times the weekly pay would drop to $60. At the end of a five-month harvest, Guzman nets several hundred dollars; $1,000 in a good year. Her husband Fausto is also a guest worker at a separate company in Louisiana. Their combined guest worker income has helped the Guzmans get by back home in Mexico for the rest of the year as they planned their return to the U.S. for the next crayfish harvest. Fausto supplements their meager U.S.-earned savings back home in Mexico by taking up commerical fishing or day labor work during Louisiana’s off-season.

With political gridlock on the issue, labor rights advocates are looking to major retailers to use their purchasing clout to compel seafood suppliers to weed out labor, wage and safety abuses, including the threat of retialiation to workers like Guzman who try to recruit co-workers to demand better conditions.

Guzman asserts that Bayou Land Seafood violated wage standards by paying for meat-picking by the pound and ignoring rules that require it to pay a minimum hourly wage and overtime regardless of the amount of meat they extract. She also says she lived in communal housing with 11 other guest workers that was vermin-infested and lacking air conditioning — southern Louisiana is sweltering for much of the year.

Bayou Land Seafood did not return IBTimes’ request for comment, but a representative hired by the company to handle communications told local news provider nola.com (the New Orleans Times-Picayune) that the housing is “clean, safe and comfortable” and that “every employer has an obligation … to pick and choose the individuals who they think are best, not only for the job but for working collaboratively.”

Guzman’s complaints aren’t unique.

Last year, Harvest Time Seafood of Abbeville, Louisiana, was forced by the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division to pay $53,000 to four Mexican nationals, all of them women, for illegally garnishing their paychecks for the costs of recruiting them — and then threatening to fire them and report them to immigration authorities. The company paid the fine but says it was unaware of any wrongdoing in paying guest workers a piece-rate for each pound of meat they picked. Companies break the law if they do not ensure they’re paying a legal minimum hourly rate, including overtime, regardless of how many pounds of meat the workers extract every hour. Employers can also fall into legal problems for garnishing wages to recover expenses like visa-processing fees or the protective gear, such as goggles and aprons, required of guest workers to meet safety and hygiene standards.

Under the current U.S. immigration and labor law, employers can initiate deportation proceedings any time they decide to fire or lay off guest workers. This constant threat of deportation can be used to compel guest workers to tolerate harsh working conditions or violations of wage and safety standards.

As reported here in June 2012, guest workers from Mexico filed a federal complaint against Breaux Bridge-based CJ’s Seafood, a Wal-Mart supplier, for not paying overtime, locking workers inside workplace facilities, making physical threats for not working fast enough, and forcing some to work up to 24-hour shifts during peak operations.

In July 2012, the Labor Department slapped CJ’s with a $34,000 fine for safety violations, including blocking exits at the facility, and required it to pay $214,000 for wage and hour violations. Dozens of guest workers got nearly $77,000 in back pay.

Local labor rights advocates have taken a cue from recently implemented measures to compel large companies to proactively improve textile factory conditions in Bangladesh.

The National Guestworker Alliance, once of the most vocal non-profit organizations in the country advocating for the rights of H-2B visa holders, has called on three major buyers of U.S. farmed and processed seafood – Wal-Mart, Target Corporation (NYSE:TGT) and Whole Foods Market Inc. (NASDAQ:WFM) – to do more to purge sketchy suppliers from their supply chains.

The NGA wants these three major seafood buyers to to agree to “a binding dispute resolution process that includes employers and workers,” according to Horwitz. This would bring the three major seafood buyers into labor disputes involving their suppliers and guest workers they employ who step forward with wage, labor or safety complaints. The group is currently trying to get the three retailers to respond to requests to discuss the terms of its proposed accord. Representatives at Wal-Mart, Target and Whole Foods did not return IBTimes’ requests for comment.

The accord is similar to initiatives pushed by the International Labor Organization and other international workers’ rights groups that have led to company-funded programs like the U.S.-based Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety and Europe’s Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh aimed at increasing workplace safety through the efforts of companies that profit from Bangladesh’s unsafe textile factories.

“We definitely looked at what they were doing to try to get companies here to do more here to improve conditions for these workers,” Horwitz said.

http://www.ibtimes.com/labor-rights-groups-want-big-retailers-help-improve-guest-worker-conditions-their-supply-1599908

Guestworkers Expose Blacklisting in LA Seafood Industry

Workers confront employer, file federal complaint after blacklisting

6-4-14 action 350NEW ORLEANS, LA—On Thursday, June 5, 2014, guestworker members of the National Guestworker Alliance (NGA) launched a fight to end blacklisting by employers in the seafood industry—a weapon of coercion that silences workers and contributes to forced labor.

Workers and community allies from the Congress of Day Laborers and STAND with Dignity filed a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) complaint against Bayou Land Seafood, which blacklisted guestworker Olivia Guzman after she joined the NGA and spoke out against sub-minimum wage pay, decrepit housing, and organized her coworkers to try to improve working conditions at Bayou Land and across the industry.

“My sister and brother-in-law won’t even talk to me now because they don’t want to be cut off,” Olivia said. “That’s why we have to fight this. If we don’t, the bosses and their recruiters will see that they can just blacklist anyone who demands their rights, and more and more abuse will happen.”

Employers and recruiters use blacklisting—refusing to rehire guestworkers and/or reporting them to immigration authorities—as a weapon of coercion against guestworkers, who depend entirely on the ability to return to the U.S. each year for regular seasonal work.

Olivia defied the threats and helped form the Seafood Worker Organizing Committee, alongside former guestworkers from Walmart supplier CJ’s Seafood, which subjected guestworkers to forced labor. Olivia has also served as a guestworker on the Walmart supply chain.

“When I decided to become a leader in the NGA, I knew what I was exposing myself to, but I had seen too much abuse to stay silent,” Olivia said. “I had to fight for my rights and the rights of all workers.”

On June 4, Olivia and allies confronted her former employer at the Bayou Land Seafood plant in Cecilia, LA, but he refused to rehire her or pledge to protect future workers from blacklisting.

After filing the NLRB complaint on June 5, Olivia and her allies delivered formal requests to Walmart, Whole Foods, and Target, asking that they refuse to purchase seafood from Bayou Land Seafood until the company agrees to rehire Olivia and sign the NGA’s Forced Labor Prevention Accord, which would protect workers from blacklisting and other forms of employer coercion.

“Major retailers like Walmart and Whole Foods can end forced labor on their U.S. supply chains any time they want,” said NGA Lead Organizer Jacob Horwitz. “They set the standards for their suppliers, and they need to demand an end to blacklisting as a weapon of fear.”

In coming weeks, NGA and its members will engage with workers, allies, and consumers to encourage retailers and other seafood buyers to sign the Forced Labor Prevention Accord.

Resources:

CONTACTS:

Stephen Boykewich, 323-594-2347, stephen@guestworkeralliance.org

Jacob Horwitz, 504-452-9159, jacob@guestworkeralliance.org

Will the Next Labor Movement Come from the South?

Saturday, 17 May 2014 09:17By Amy B DeanTruthout

Corporate America – especially in the American South – doesn’t seem to know the proper way to treat a guest. Guest workers have long been one of the most easily exploited segments of the American workforce. Employers frequently take advantage of their legal vulnerabilities to ignore labor laws, pay subminimum wage and threaten them with physical abuse, all of which American citizens are better equipped to resist. Whole sectors of the American economy – especially agriculture - have long depended on this underground labor market and the ease with which employers can dominate it.

But in recent years, guest workers have been bringing attention to their plight and winning some small victories. One of the leaders of that movement is Saket Soni, executive director of the National Guestworker Alliance and the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice. From his base in the Deep South, perhaps the United States’ most worker-unfriendly region, he has helped organize workers across the Gulf Coast.

In 2012, Soni worked with a group of guest workers at a crawfish processing plan named CJ’s Seafood, where employees were locked in, forced to work nearly around the clock and threatened with violence when they protested. The Guestworkers Alliance and the CJ’s employees were able to put pressure on CJ’s Seafood’s chief customers: Walmart and the Walmart-owned Sam’s Club. The employees went on strike, fasted and protested outside the homes of Walmart board members. They raised enough attention that The New York Times endorsed their cause and many other workers from across the Walmart supply chain joined their efforts. This case is a model for the kind of organizing Soni is dedicated to: confronting the complexities of the American labor market with the power of collective action.

Amy B. Dean spoke with Soni about his ongoing campaigns with guestworkers and about the challenges of organizing the South.

Amy Dean for Truthout: I want to begin by asking you about the recent United Auto Workers union (UAW) loss at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tenn. Does it tell us anything that we didn’t already know about labor organizing in the South?

Saket Soni: Well, I think it’s a reminder of how far the opposition is willing to go to mobilize all of their resources to intervene in what should really have been a matter decided among workers: whether they wanted a union. Instead, those workers had to factor in the economic stress of jobs being taken away from them. They had to factor in all sorts of rhetoric including, ironically, how the union would turn Chattanooga into Detroit. Which is laughable because Detroit’s best years were because of unionization.

I think it also teaches us how far we need to go. It will take patience to really win in places like Chattanooga. The opposition had a community strategy, and we’re going to have to do that, too.

Describe this community strategy. What did Volkswagen management do on the ground?

They had community meetings, billboards, conversations. They created a sense that the unionization was going to be bad for life in the city overall. It started to make the union a choice of an entire community, not just something that can be won anymore within the four walls of a workspace.

And, just to be clear, the union lost because the opposition didn’t play fair. They carried out all of the tactics that we’ve seen in New Orleans and across other places in the South whenever workers of any stripe attempt to organize. There’s almost a playbook at this point: highly alarmist rhetoric followed by threats and outright retaliation.

What are you most excited about right now when you think about your own campaigns in the South?

The CJ’s Seafood campaign is the kind of journey that starts with an incident at the workplace that gets the workers to the point where conditions can no longer be tolerated. It moves through the initial coming out and then to going on strike, to eventually picking up two or three years later in an entire industry that’s central to the economy of the Gulf Coast – showing how the industry could really be transformed.

What those workers started, that’s pretty inspiring.

Talk a little about the Walmart supply chain. We’re facing a situation today where many contractors have very little control over working conditions. How does this impact organizing strategies?

Most people are used to this idea that there’s a boss who actually controls all of the conditions at a workplace. The idea is that the person you’re working for directly, the person you see every day, is the one who controls your wages, your working conditions, your environment. If that’s the case, you can get your other coworkers together and sit down with this person. You can figure out how to solve problems together at the workplace.

But this situation is true for fewer and fewer people.

They [CJ's Seafood employees] work for a man named Mike LeBlanc, who gets money by selling everything workers pack to clients such as Walmart and Sam’s Club. Walmart is the one that sets up the working conditions, how much the contractor will pay, how long the contracts are.

If Mike LeBlanc had a stable, five-year contract from Walmart and Walmart said, “Hey, these are our labor standards on the supply chain: You keep this much money for yourself and you need to use this percentage of our contract to make sure the workers are paid well, have decent housing, have a pension fund and get overtime.” If Walmart said that, Mike LeBlanc would have no choice but to do it. He would get money for himself, and he would actually invest some amount of money in the well-being of the workers.

Yet, what happened was that Mike LeBlanc was having to sell to Walmart, not knowing when his contract would be renewed or for how long. Walmart was buying at extraordinary low prices and was pushing Mike LeBlanc to cut costs, like they do with every vendor.

I went out to LeBlanc’s operation. He works from home. He had a trailer for the workers, near a small factory right across from his house. He’s not the 1%. The only costs he can cut are the costs of dignity at work for the workers. He keeps pushing them to produce more, and that’s leading them to produce more for less. While the direct employer is Mike LeBlanc, Mike LeBlanc controls so little. In effect, workplace conditions are created by Walmart and other retailers who sell the seafood produced.

Supply chains are part of a bigger picture. People are working for subcontractors who work for another tier of contractors. Or they’re sourced by temp agencies into workplaces. Or they’re working along supply chains where the end user – the Target store or the Walmart store – is actually setting the terms of the economy.

The system is set up to make sure that workers don’t have a whole lot of control.

It always strikes me that when policy decisions are being made, those folks who work on the ground are not part of the conversation. So the policies don’t often meet the needs of those most affected. From your perspective of someone who works with people in the supply chain, what would you like to see happen if government were to amend the National Labor Relations Act? What changes would be most important?

There’s actually work happening on the ground right now that offers a glimpse into the structural reforms that we would actually want to see. What often takes place in the course of organizing is that workers exercise their political imaginations and come up with ideas. If there is a next New Deal, it will be the best of what’s happening on the ground.

Just take a look at things that are already happening: A lot of the guestworkers are organizing across multiple campaigns: the seafood sector, the refineries, the shipyards. Across the South, they have demanded that the people at the top of the supply chain be responsible for wages and conditions where they’re doing the work – particularly since more and more work is subcontracted, sourced out and temped out. The people who are the ultimate beneficiaries of the work, the ones making profit, are the ones who are the real bosses. And so across many industries and many workplaces in the South, our members are attempting to push for the real bosses to come to the table.

If you take it to the level of national reform, it would mean that the people at the top of the food chain would actually bargain with the people at the bottom. This would be a little different from the National Labor Relations Act, which concentrates on the bargaining unit in one workplace at a time.

What if the bargaining unit was an entire labor market or an entire political economy or an entire industry? What if all of the workers in all the small shops across the entire seafood industry in the Gulf Coast were actually able to have a mechanism to bargain with the retailers who sold seafood?

That’s a great one: Redefining who constitutes the employer.

Yes, the first thing is to rethink who you bargain with. The second is rethinking what you bargain for. After the New Deal, most benefits were tied to a union contract. Now, we’re living in an economy where workers do not identify with one employer for their whole lives – or even for more than a few years. So we need to rework the social contract.

More and more workers are juggling three jobs, or subbing from job to job. Sometimes this is in one industry, but sometimes it’s across multiple industries. I have members who are restaurant workers on Monday and landscapers on Tuesday. They’re all in New Orleans, though. How does New Orleans guarantee a sense of security for these workers? We need new forms of bargaining and new people to bargain with. We also need to figure out a new set of guarantees that workers can count on – guarantees that will be there for them, whether they’re employed or not.

We always hear people say, “You can’t organize guestworkers; they’re excluded from the NLRA.” And yet you have been able both to identify rights that guest workers have and to organize around them. How do you overcome the sense of defeatism that is so common in this area?

I think the biggest thing we’ve learned from organizing guest workers is that no one is unorganizable. You have to start from a place that’s appealing to people’s sense of dignity. At some point, keeping your dignity becomes more important than anything else. I think that’s the first thing.

Secondly, guestworkers are part of a broader economy; they’re not there by themselves. Not only are they exploited, but these workers are used to [discipline] other people from the local community. Why would an employer hire someone for $9 an hour if a guest worker can be thrown in to do the same job for $6?

So what is the hope for guest workers? Are there goals beyond winning back stolen wages from bad employers?

I think our members want to win improvements for themselves, of course. But they also have much higher aspirations – aspirations to really spark the next iteration of the labor movement.  People like guestworkers and farmworkers and domestic workers and day laborers, they’re the next wave of the movement.

That’s not just something that exists in my head. Every single guestworker in the last nine years that has come forward or gone on strike, they always talk about doing this for future workers. Whether that’s joining a union, or whether that’s inventing the next form of what a union is, I think there’s an aspiration to figure out what organizational forms, what laws, what movement will get us to the point where workers have a voice in the economy and in democracy.

We know our country is in a crisis of democracy. Right now, democracy is under attack. From time to time in the history of this country, there is a vision of the next phase of our democracy that is fueled by the energy and the imagination of workers. That’s the role that the Mississippi Delta played in the ’50s and the ’60s. I think it’s the role that low-wage workers in the South will play in the next decade.

Original link: http://www.truth-out.org/opinion/item/23745-will-the-next-labor-movement-come-from-the-south


Sign Up for Email Updates

Email Address:

Search