Immigration Reform and Unionization; Dining Hall Workers Seek Justice For All Workers (Op Ed)
By Fernando Romero
No one would’ve thought that the immigration debate would make a stop in the cookie-cutter community of Claremont, California. But the recent firing of 16 kitchen staff workers at Pomona College has caught national attention and caused immigrant rights groups and community activist in the Inland Empire to erupt in anger.
In it’s effort to prevent the kitchen staff’s unionization, the Pomona College Board of Trustees and school administration continued its history of union-busting tactics, manifested into unmistakable anti-immigrant and xenophobic sentiments against the 16 dining hall workers who were fired last December. These acts committed by the trustees go against the very ideals the institution is supposed to uphold, and had done so since its founding in 1887. Taking center stage is the complex immigration issue.
The debate over whether or not undocumented workers even have the right to unionize still needs much discussion, as the workers’ indirect advocacy for the need for legalization of undocumented workers via immigration reform.
For years, Pomona College dining hall workers have been trying to form a union. The kitchen staff wanted to call attention to on-site work alleged abuses they had suffered, and their efforts to unionize were based on these.
Since Spring 2010 and with the support of students and faculty at the college, they organized on-campus rallies and letter writing campaigns. The college fought back against the unionization effort via an array of tactics including prohibiting any form of communication between dining hall workers and students while on a shift. And as mentioned in Nathan Robinson’s article in the Huffington Post, the college contracted Sidley Austin, a law firm that specializes in union-busting, to verify employee’s work documents. It’s all Union Busting 101.
The dining hall workers were let go, but they didn’t have to be. Pomona College President David Oxtoby said in a statement that, “The law is very unforgiving, and unfortunately we have to obey the law even though it really hurt the community.”
But contrary to popular belief, the college did not have to conduct the firings of these workers even when it was determined that their documents were not valid for work. Since there was no federal investigation by Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE), the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) or the Social Security Administration (SSA), the college administration took it upon themselves to fire these employees. It is a misconception that employers are forced to lay off their workers upon discovering discrepancies in work documents or receiving for example, a no-match letter from SSA. There is no law or mandate asking for employers to let their workers go upon the discovery of invalid work documents. Thus, the firings are clearly linked with a push to unionize.
And the plot thickens. The Board of Trustees is scheduled to hold a meeting on campus this Saturday, February 25th. But rumor has it that Board Chairman Paul Efron, an executive at Goldman Sachs, has reserved the entirety of Terranea, a beach resort in Rancho Palos Verdes in the South Bay (which is by far the most 1 percent thing they can do). So there we have it, the trustees will conduct their meeting at this fancy resort without disturbances seeing as RPV is essentially an impenetrable fortress of wealthy suburbia.
The struggles of the dining hall workers at Pomona College speak to something bigger than unionization: immigration and unionizing inhabit the same realm, both in terms of class struggles and the recognition by employers of worker’s rights. And undocumented people and workers do have rights. They have work rights, civil rights and inalienable human rights which have been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court and other governmental and international bodies. Work and the right to be self-sufficient is a universal human right, one that is devoid of any legal residency to the country the undocumented worker is living or working in. Freedom of association and to unionize is also a universal human right which provides an outlet for workers suffering abuses on the job to obtain better working conditions. Free transfer and movement of people is also a basic human right as stipulated by Article 13 the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations.
Article 22 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights ( ICCPR) and Article 8 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) stipulate that all human beings have the right and the freedom of association with others, including, the right to form and join trade and labor unions. The article states that these rights will be subject to scrutiny or be nullified only if actions of unionizing present a danger to national security or puts in jeopardy the public safety, the public order, the protection of public health or the rights and freedoms of others. The Pomona dining hall workers did no such things.
The Pomona College trustees and administration did not acknowledge these universal covenants meant to protect migrant workers all around the world. These articles establish the foundation for undocumented immigrant workers to organize. Making sure that undocumented workers have the right to organize a union can alleviate many of the problems related to exploitation, and can also function as a way under which workers can protect their basic human rights. Such basic human rights in the workplace can range from having safe working conditions, reasonable hours, and the right to not be discriminated against.
At the same time, the immigration reform issue should be taken-up by labor unions all across the United States. The effort by the dining hall workers to unionize is not different than any other push by labor unions in U.S. history. For more than a century, since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, a pattern has followed: on the-job-abuse, unsafe working conditions, unfair wages, little to no medical care or attention, all of which have compelled workers in America to form unions.
That is what we have here in Pomona College. Immigration reform would provide undocumented workers to come out of the shadows and to be empowered. The fact of the matter is that labor unions and union workers should endorse and support these types of initiatives which advocate for the respect of the worker and the bringing out of the shadows of the millions upon millions of undocumented workers. Undocumented workers accept lower wages and improper working conditions because of the fear of deportation if they report abuses by their employers.
Immigration reform would cease all that. It would be in labor unions’ vested interest to advocate for immigration reform in this country. Only then, would the playing field be leveled for legal and undocumented workers. After all, it isn’t undocumented workers who suppress wages; it is unscrupulous employers who hire them with the intention of exploiting them. If the undocumented worker comes out of the shadows, it will improve the working condition and wages of all workers, documented or otherwise.