THE BLOG
05/01/2006 08:08 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Meatpackers, Immigrants, Rights

Employers are winning lots of points in the media for their demonstrated understanding of immigrants' desire to participate in today's "Day Without An Immigrant" protests and boycott.

To a considerable extent, employers have little choice but to authorize a job action their workers are going to undertake anyway. But there's more going on here than that. The employers are evidencing a staggering hypocrisy and selectivity - because many of the companies that have cooperatively shut down operations today are among the most antagonistic to those same workers' rights as workers.

Consider the meatpacking industry, which is getting a lot of nice play.

"It was very apparent that the emotions and passions were building and that there would be interest in May 1," Cargill spokesperson Mark Klein told AP. "We said we were in this with many of our employees and that we have some of the same concerns about House Bill 4437."

Tyson Foods, Swift and Cargill have all closed plants today.

Smithfield Foods chose not to close, but is assisting employees in contacting members of Congress. Says the company in a statement:

On May 1, A Day Without An Immigrant, we will be encouraging and assisting our employees to write their senators and representatives in Congress to ask them to pass just legislation that includes protections for legal immigrants and their employers, provides a path to citizenship for those who are willing to work, and does not separate family members. We believe this is the most effective action our employees can take to persuade Congress to make the right choices.

The respect for immigrants' rights is almost touching.

Until you consider how these very same companies treat their workers.

In 2005, Human Rights Watch issued a detailed report, "Blood, Sweat, and Fear Workers' Rights in U.S. Meat and Poultry Plants," on the miserable conditions and violations of worker rights in the meatpacking industry.

It is part of a considerable and growing literature on the topic.

Consider just these points from the Human Rights Watch report:

* Constant fear and risk is another feature of meat and poultry labor. Meatpacking work has extraordinarily high rates of injury. Workers injured on the job may then face dismissal.

* Many workers who try to form trade unions and bargain collectively are spied on, harassed, pressured, threatened, suspended, fired, deported or otherwise victimized for their exercise of the right to freedom of association.

* Because many of the workers are undocumented or have family members who are undocumented, fear of drawing attention to their immigration status prevents workers from seeking protection for their rights as workers from government authorities. Meat and poultry industry employers take advantage of these fears to keep workers in abusive conditions that violate basic human rights and labor rights.

Smithfield, which presents itself as eager to "assist" its workers achieve a "just" outcome in the immigration debate, is perhaps the worst offender of worker rights. It has long fought to deny its workers the right to unionize. In 2004, an administrative law judge with the National Labor Relations Board issued a more than 400-page decision documenting Smithfield abuses in previous union elections.

Based on the evidence, in the case, Human Rights Watch summarizes, the judge found that Smithfield illegally:

* threatened to discharge union supporters and to close the plant if workers chose union representation;
* threatened to call the INS to report immigrant workers if workers chose union representation;
* threatened the use of violence against workers engaged in organizing activities;
* threatened to blacklist workers who supported the union;
* harassed, intimidated, and coerced workers who supported the union;
* disciplined, suspended, and fired many workers because of their support for the union;
* spied on workers engaged in lawful union activities;
* asked workers to spy on other workers' union activity;
* grilled workers about other workers' union activities;
* suppressed workers' right to freely discuss the union in non-work areas on non-work time and to demonstrate support for the union at work by wearing unobtrusive union insignia;
* confiscated lawful union literature being lawfully distributed by workers;
* applied a gag rule against union supporters while giving union opponents free rein;
* applied work rules strictly against union supporters but not against union opponents.

It's no secret that employers are generally supportive of expanding the number of immigrant workers in the United States. But they support only part of the immigrant rights agenda, as David Bacon has explained in a recent Multinational Monitor article. Their ideal scenario is for immigrants to be given guest worker status, so it is legal for employers to hire the immigrants, but they do not have sufficient security and permanence to organize.

For while employers may tolerate a job action directed at reactionary immigration legislation, they show no such compassion for workers who try to act collectively in the workplace to improve their conditions of work.