In Eagan plant, workers glimpse future of Bush immigration policy

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One after another, former Best Brands employees took the podium at Holy Trinity Church in Minneapolis, speaking out about what happened on Sept. 10. On that Monday morning, management at the Eagan-based manufacturer and nationwide distributor of commercial baking products pulled between 80 and 100 Latino workers off the job and into one-on-one meetings. There, workers learned they were being fired as a result of “irregularities” in their employment documents.

“They escorted us to the door to kick us out of the plant as though we were criminals,” Ulises Duay said. “After all of these hard years of working, giving our hard labor, why are they turning their backs on us now?”

That question remains unanswered, as Best Brands has refused repeated requests for a sit-down with the fired workers – requests made by the Twin Cities-based Workers Interfaith Network (WIN), which hosted the Nov. 5 press conference, on the workers’ behalf.

Best Brands supplanted the fired workers with temps – and realized substantial costs savings as a result. Workers fired Sept. 10 earned as much as $16.50 an hour plus benefits.

Labor leaders say the layoffs demonstrate how growing uncertainty and fear surrounding the issue of immigration – both inside and outside the Latino community – are enabling unscrupulous employers to pad their bottom lines.

“We’re seeing this across the country (from) employers who want to hold their workers down,” Doug Mork, director of organizing at United Food and Commercial Workers Local 789, said. “If they can keep workers running scared of immigration law, while at the same time profiting from (immigrants’) labor, they come out ahead.”

No-match controversy

The timing of Best Brands’ decision to lay off its Latino workforce came against the backdrop of the Bush administration’s latest plan to crack down on undocumented workers: prosecuting employers for not firing workers whose Social Security numbers differ from government records.

In August, the Department of Homeland Security announced plans to send warnings – so-called no-match letters – to employers with 10 or more workers whose W-2 tax forms do not match the government’s records. The letters would give employers 90 days to resolve the discrepancy or risk criminal prosecution.

Unions and business groups united in opposition to the plan. They claimed the financial burden of independently verifying workers’ documents would cripple employers. They also pointed to statistics that estimate more than 60 percent of no-match letters identify workers in the country legally, but whose documents are out of date as a result of marriage, divorce or human error.

In a San Francisco federal court Oct. 10, the AFL-CIO won an injunction blocking the no-match rule. The union argued that 90 days was not enough time for workers to gather the paperwork necessary to prove their legitimacy, and that employers, in order to avoid federal scrutiny, may resort to not hiring – or firing – workers who appear foreign.

That, Mork suspects, is exactly what happened at Best Brands Sept. 10.

The company “used the issues of immigration and of no-match letters as an excuse for firing people,” Mork told the Best Brands workers. “No employer should respond to no-match letters by firing people. This violates every belief of the basic social contract, the social fabric of America.

“The immigration system is broken, but frankly, this has nothing to do with it. This is employer abuse of workers, plain and simple.”

Waiting to meet

The fired workers, meanwhile, vowed to continue pressuring Best Brands until management agrees to meet with them. The workers want to discuss vacation pay they claim the company owes them, as well as working conditions in the facility, according to Duay, “for the benefit of the company and the benefit of those working there now.”

Tears welled up in the eyes of Duay’s mother, Leticia, as she talked about losing the job she held for 10 years. Now she is losing her home, and her debts are accumulating.

“When we came and began working for Best Brands, this was a small company,” Leticia Duay said. “After many years, the hard work of all of the workers there made it grow.

“I always came into work. I never even called in when I was sick or when I was tired. When they asked me to work overtime, I did it without complaining because I loved my job.”

The Duays and other former workers said they came forward to put the labor movement and the immigrant community on notice that what happened at Best Brands can happen at plenty of other workplaces, too.

“What would happen if other companies did the same thing that Best Brands did?” asked Alfredo Ruiz. “It wouldn’t be 40 to 60 families anymore. It would be hundreds and hundreds of families.”

Reprinted from The Union Advocate, the official newspaper of the St. Paul Trades and Labor Assembly. Used by permission. E-mail The Advocate at: advocate@stpaulunions.org

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