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Fired for Working

New America Media, News Report, David Bacon Posted: Jun 17, 2009

VERNON, Calif. -- On May 31, 254 people were fired in the southeast Los Angeles industrial enclave of Vernon. Their crime? According to Overhill Farms, their employer, they had bad Social Security numbers. Behind this accusation is the unspoken assumption that the workers' numbers are no good because they have no legal immigration status.

This mass termination is the largest in many years, the first of its scale under the Obama administration. Workplace enforcement is a keystone of the administration's immigration policy, as it was under George Bush. The Overhill Farms firings are a window into a future in which this kind of immigration enforcement becomes widespread in workplaces across the country.

Overhill Farms, with more than 800 employees, was audited by the Internal Revenue Service earlier this year. According to John Grant, packinghouse division director for Local 770 of the United Food and Commercial Workers, They found discrepancies in many Social Security numbers. Overhill then sent a letter on April 6 to 254 people, giving them 30 days to reconcile their numbers with Social Security. They are all members of our union.

After the workers got the letters, they organized a protest in front of the plant on May 1. On May 2 the company stopped the lines. According to worker Isela Hernandez, They told us there would be no work until they called us to come back. For 254 people, that call never came. The company then terminated their employment.

The fired employees contacted the Hermandad Mexicana Latinoamericana, a Los Angeles immigrant rights organization. Hermandad president Nativo Lopez helped them mount demonstrations that have taken place in front of the factory ever since.

Alex Auerbach, spokesperson for Overhill Farms, said, The company was required by federal law to terminate these employees because they had invalid social security numbers. Auerbach says the company did not have any role in selecting which employees were subject to IRS action. Overhill Farms had no role in initiating this action, and certainly did not benefit from it.

But Grant says the union never saw any IRS letter. We've never heard of the IRS demanding the termination of a worker. The company doesn't have to terminate these people. No document we know of says they do.

In addition, a few of the workers actually had shown the company valid Social Security cards. A year ago, Lucia Vasquez changed her name and Social Security number when she regularized her immigration status, and the company began paying her in the new name and number. Nevertheless, she got a termination letter too. When she pointed out the change to the human resources manager, she was told she was fired anyway.

Workers say the company is replacing the fired employees, some of whom have worked as many as 20 years in the plant, with lower-paid, non-union employees with no benefits. The company denies this charge, although one recently hired worker, who asked not to be identified because he still works there, said, They call me a part timer, but I have no benefits -- no vacation, medical plan or anything. I've been working 45 to 50 hours a week.

Whether or not immigration status is a pretext for terminations motivated by economic gain, however, the firings highlight a larger question of immigration policy. These workers have not only done nothing wrong, they've spent years making the company rich, Nativo Lopez emphasizes. An immigration policy that says these workers have no right to work and feed their families is wrong and should be changed.

However, the Immigration Reform and Control Act, passed in 1986, says employers may not hire people who are not authorized to work in the United States. In effect, it makes it a crime for undocumented workers to work at all.

In 2007 the Bush administration proposed a regulation that would have forced employers to fire any worker using a Social Security number that doesn't match the SSA database. Faced with the potential termination of millions of workers, including union members, the AFL-CIO, the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Immigration Law Center won a federal court injunction stopping the proposed regulation from taking effect. That injunction still stands. Former President Bush also created a database called E-Verify, to check the immigration status of any existing or prospective employee. The main source of information for E-Verify comes from Social Security numbers.

Many expected the incoming Obama administration to drop Bushs no-match rule and put E-Verify on hold. Instead, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano announced that DHS will work to maintain a legal workforce through training and employee verification tools like E-Verify. And the White House Web site says President Obama will remove incentives to enter the country illegally by preventing employers from hiring undocumented workers.

When Overhill Farms says it is firing 254 employees for bad Social Security numbers, it is acting in accordance with this policy. Unions and immigrant rights groups around the country now have to choose whether or not to defend the undocumented workers the policy targets.

Some Washington, D.C. immigration lobbying groups, however, have decided to support sanctions enforcement. Reform Immigration for America, for instance, says, Any employment verification system should determine employment authorization accurately and efficiently.

In 1999 the AFL-CIO called for the repeal of sanctions because they were being used against workers who were trying to organize and improve conditions. But a new joint statement by the AFL-CIO and the Change to Win labor federation supports a secure and effective worker authorization mechanism.

At Overhill Farms, the 254 fired workers paid union dues for many years. UFCW 770 filed a grievance against the firings. And Grant agrees that sanctions are a bad idea. The companies exploit workers, and then claim that sanctions require them to fire them when it's convenient. Firings like the ones at Overhill are a clear example of what's wrong.

But labor support in Washington for work authorization undermines this position, and raises a difficult question. How can unions fight to defend people like the women at Overhill, and at the same time agree that people without authorization shouldn't be working?

And if existing unions don't defend those workers, will they try to form or find unions who will? The Hermandad Mexicana Latinoamericana last year took the initial steps to form such a union, to begin organizing workers on a community basis. It opposes employer sanctions and advocates organizing workers to resist them.

When I look around Vernon, Lopez says, all I see are other factories like Overhill, filled with immigrant workers in the same abysmal conditions. If they start firing people and we fight to defend them, we can organize them.

Anger over the firings would certainly fuel such an effort.

The company treats us like criminals, Bohemia Agustiano charges. I worked there for 18 years. Was I a criminal when I was working all those years?

Photo by Fred Zermeno, Eastern Group Publications

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