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After ICE Raid, Mississippi Workers Labor to Overcome Racial Divisions

New America Media, News Report, David Bacon Posted: Sep 03, 2008

LAUREL, Miss. -- In the recent raid of the Howard Industries electrical plant in Laurel, Miss., 481 workers have been detained for a week in Jena, La. Neither they nor their attorneys know when they will be formally charged, deported or released, and ICE spokesperson Barbara Gonzalez says simply that "their cases are being investigated." Ironically, Jena was the site last year of massive protests over racial discrimination in the criminal justice system, after a group of young African American men faced felony charges in a confrontation with a group of young white men, who were not charged.

Racial tension in the South has spilled over into relations between African American and white workers, and immigrants from Mexico and Central America, who have arrived in Mississippi over the last few years. In the Howard Industries raid, media accounts have painted a picture of a plant in which African American and white union members were hostile to immigrants, based mostly on an incident in which some workers "applauded" as their coworkers were taken away by ICE agents.

Mississippi activists, however, say that this simplistic picture obscures the real conditions in the plant, and the role the company itself played in fomenting divisions among workers. According to Clarence Larkin, African American president of IBEW Local 1317, the union at the plant, "this employer pits workers against each other by design, and breeds division among them that affects everyone," he says. "By favoring one worker over another, workers sometimes can't see who their real enemy is. And that's what helps keep wages low."

Workers at Howard Industries do not simply look at each other as enemies across race lines, however. On Aug. 28 organizer Vicky Cintra of the Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance led a group of women fired in the raid to the Pendorf plant to demand their pay, after the company denied them paychecks. Managers called Laurel police and sheriffs, who threatened to arrest her. After workers began chanting, "Let her go!" and news reporters appeared on the scene, the company finally agreed to distribute checks to about 70 people.

The following day, when Cintra and the women sat in front of the plant for a second day, demanding paychecks for other unpaid people, African American workers came up to them as they left work. They embraced the women, and told them they supported them.

The union has been in negotiations with the company since its contract expired at the beginning of August. In preparation for those negotiations, the union brought in a Spanish-speaking organizer, Maria Gonzalez, to recruit immigrant workers into the union. She visited people at home to help explain the benefits of belonging. Larkin says many immigrant workers joined, complaining of bad treatment. "Supervisors yell at people a lot," he says. "Not just immigrants, but at everyone. Howard has always been an anti-employee company, and treats workers with no respect, as though they make no contribution to its success."

When workers have volunteered to become stewards, or to serve on the negotiations committee, Larkin says the company "institutes a very aggressive discipline against them, so people fear reprisals. It's a challenge to get people involved. Bear in mind, this is the South. It's always a tall order to talk about forming a union here."

Local 1317, however, was not as active as other unions in nearby poultry plants in bringing workers together across racial divides. In Mississippi fish plants, Jaribu Hill, director of the Mississippi Workers Center, has worked with unions to help workers understand the dynamics of race. "We have to talk about racism," she says. "The union focuses on the contract, but skin color issues are still on the table. We don't try to be the union, but we do try to keep a focus on human rights." Organizing a multi-racial workforce means recognizing the divisions between African Americans and immigrants -- "we're coming together like a marriage," she warns, "working across our divides."

Hill says it's important for workers to understand the historical price paid for racial division in the South. "Our conditions are the direct result of slavery," she explains. "Today, Frito Lay wages in Mississippi are still much lower than Illinois -- $8.75 compared to $13.75 an hour. This is the evolution of a historical oppression. Immigrants have come here looking for better lives -- we came in chains." Larkin makes the same comparison -- wages at Howard Industries, the world's largest manufacturer of electrical transformers, are $2 lower than other companies in the industry, he says.

That difference is a source of profit for Mississippi employers. "The people who profit from Mississippi's low wage system want to keep it the way it is," alleges Jim Evans, a national AFL-CIO staff member in Mississippi, a leading member of the state legislature's Black Caucus, and MIRA's board chair.

Some state labor leaders, however, have contributed to racial divisions and anti-immigrant hostility. After the Howard Industries workers, many of them union members, were arrested, state AFL-CIO President Robert Shaffer told the Associated Press that he doubted that immigrants could join unions if they were not in the country legally. U.S. labor law, however, holds that all workers have union rights, regardless of immigration status. It also says unions have a duty to represent all members fairly and equally.

Divisions are likely to be deepened as well by repeated public statements by ICE spokesperson Barbara Gonzalez that the raid took place because of a tip by a "union member" two years before. She claimed ICE waited two years before conducting the raid, because "we took the time needed for our investigation," but declined to say how that investigation was conducted, or what led ICE to believe the tip had come from a union member.

"It's hard to believe that a two-year old phone call to ICE led to this raid, but whether or not the call ever took place, that possibility is a product of the poisonous atmosphere fostered by politicians of both parties in Mississippi," says MIRA director Chandler. "In the last election Barbour and Republicans campaigned against immigrants to get elected, but so did all the Democratic statewide candidates, except Attorney General Jim Hood. The raid will make the climate even worse."

During the 2007 election campaign, the Ku Klux Klan organized a 500-person rally in Tupelo , and when MIRA organizer Erik Fleming urged Republican Governor Haley Barbour to veto a bill making work a felony for the undocumented, he was attacked by state anti-immigrant organizations.

Evans called the raid "an effort to drive immigrants out of Mississippi. It is also an attempt to drive a wedge between immigrants, African Americans, white people and unions -- all those who want political change here. But it will just make us more determined," he declared. "We won't go back to the kind of racism Mississippi has known throughout its past."

NAM associate editor David Bacon is the author of "Illegal People -- How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants."

Related Articles:

The Politics Driving Mississippis ICE Raid

Mississippi Raid a Repeat of Iowa

What About the Companies?

A Conservative Argues for Immigration Reform

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