Viva la Union

How immigrants are renewing the fight for workers' rights

| Utne Reader March / April 2007

In an aging strip mall in Worthington, Minnesota, just down the way from a gravestone shop and the local Wal-Mart, the withering U.S. labor movement is showing signs of life.

The Local 1161 office of the United Food and Commercial Workers' union is frenetic with the energy of people under siege. It's been three days since U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) rounded up 230 people at the Swift & Company meatpacking plant -- the lifeblood of this community of 11,000 -- in a six-state raid billed as ICE's largest workplace action. The agency nabbed nearly 1,300 workers nationwide on December 12, suspecting most of immigration violations but loudly trumpeting the 'large scale identity theft scheme' of a few dozen who may have used false or stolen documents to get a spot on the line.

Here in Worthington, the union, churches, and the community are dealing with the raid's human fallout. Children have been left without parents, families are scared to leave their homes for fear of arrest, family members are unsure of how to pick up the much-needed paychecks of detained loved ones.

At the Local 1161 office, activists pace the floor, hands clutching cell phones and fliers. A young man who runs the kitchen at a nearby diner unloads groceries bought with the money his manager told him to take from the register. The local's president roots through a makeshift food bank in search of baby formula and diapers. Dazed workers stream in the door.

They represent the needs of the most vulnerable segment of the U.S. workforce -- the undocumented immigrants who, we are now told, are stealing not only our jobs, but our identities, too. One man wants to know if it's safe for his sister to go back to work. Another waits to meet with a volunteer attorney in the back room. Another sits quietly, his 3-year-old daughter squirming in his lap, and asks about a leave of absence to look after his girls now that their mother has been deported to Mexico. His union agent, Darin Rehnelt, dials the plant's human resources department for perhaps the hundredth time this week.

Mariano Espinoza, who heads the Minnesota Immigrant Freedom Network, a St. Paul-based advocacy group coordinating many of the efforts here, leans in a doorway and observes the scene. A browned newspaper clipping hangs on the wall, declaring, in Spanish, 'The union has changed with the times.' This place is unique, Espinoza says: It's an example of a union embracing an immigrant community and defending it with fervor. Rehnelt puts it a different way. 'We just represent workers,' he says. 'If they work there, we represent them.'

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