Monday, December 3, 2007

Dems sin cojones – how about you just take baby steps

For the first six years of the Bush presidency the Democratic leadership continually stepped away from the hard fights. At each impasse, whether it was war funding, judicial appointments, or oversight, they acquiesced to the ruling majority out of fear that they would be even further marginalized. Yet, even after regaining control of the Congress, they still behave as if they are the minority party. With a President whose approval ratings are in the toilet, and a Congress where Republicans would rather "retire" than face the electorate, one would think that Democrats would be emboldened. But to the contrary, the mere thought of being called "weak" on any given issue by the Republican noise machine drives them to abandon all principle, and grab hold of the right-wing bandwagon for dear life.

Nowhere is this truer than with the Republican formulated wedge issue of immigration reform.

Despite consistent polling that shows the vast majority of the American people prefer a comprehensive policy that is firm but fair, an accusation of supporting "amnesty" or being "weak" on border enforcement, leaves the Democratic leadership quivering and looking for "middle ground" that's been defined more by the fringes of the Republican Right than the American people.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in the advice doled out by Democratic strategists like Rahm Emanuel and the beltway boys at Democracy Corps and Greenberg Quinlan Rosner. Emanuel has advised Democratic candidates to avoid the "third rail of American politics" and shift to the right on immigration issues, while James Carville and other DLC/centrists are advising that despite the fact that much of the current anti-immigrant sentiment is based on "improbable" beliefs, and "impressions (that) conflict with the facts", Democrats would be wise to pander to the misinformed and ignorant and play it safe with a triangulated "Republican lite" strategy.

Of course for a nation that has been fed on a daily diet of right-wing coolaid about this issue for over two years, no "third way" is to be found on this issue. If the last Republican debate taught us nothing else, it is quite evident that the immigration wedge will be played to its fullest extent in the coming election. Additionally evident is the fact that for those who have formulated the wedge, no "middle ground" is acceptable. With Republican front runners falling over each other to "out Tancredo, Tancredo", ironically leaving ultra conservative, John McCain and evolution denier, Mike Huckabee as the apparent voices of reason, "triangulation" appears to be a losing strategy at present.

The only way to start to shift this debate from its increasingly right-wing bent is for the Democratic leadership to move away from a defensive position to an offensive one and present a reasonable and rational alternative to mass deportation and "elimination through attrition". Unlike other issues from the war to judicial nominees, where they have consistently played a reactive role trying to insulate themselves from right-wing attack, rather than a proactive role of formulating policy and strategies to institute needed change, on this issue they must start to take the lead.

But how can a party that has spent 25 years cowering in the shadow of the Gipper, willingly proclaiming that the "era of big government is over", while searching out a "third way" to undo the ravages of the a Southern Strategy that realigned the political base, suddenly rediscover it's moral compass and to take a leadership role in what is quickly becoming a defining social issue of the 21st century? How can they regain the mantel of social consciousness that defined the party for nearly 50 years starting with FDR?

Simple – grow a spine.

Ok. I realize that's a tall order… One that has little chance of actually happening.

How about they just take baby steps and start to diffuse the right-wing talking points one by one.

Now I realize that figuring out a way to counter the well thought-out policies of the right, like expulsion through attrition, mass incarceration in detention camps, elimination of judicial review, warrant-less arrests and revoking the 14th amendment, might seem difficult. After all, they might be tarred as "pro-amnesty", or worse yet, asked about their position on allowing unauthorized immigrants to drive legally with insurance. …So let's not go to those "sticky issues" right away, and deal with one that most people can agree on: enforcing labor laws and regulations.

Whether one has drunk hardily of the Lou Dobbs cool-aid and totally accepts the premise that unauthorized immigrants "destroy good-paying American jobs" by willingly working for sub-standard wages in conditions better suited animals than humans, or is more enlightened and sees the larger picture of both the global economic realities of unregulated capitalism, and the systematic destruction of the working and middle-classes to the benefit of the elite classes both here and abroad, most can agree that the exploitation of immigrant workers has not been beneficial for anyone.

So why not build on that simple idea as a starting point.

The problem with the exploitation of workers is at its core not a problem of lack of enforcement of immigration laws in the workplace, but rather the lack of enforcement of labor laws in the workplace. Unfair labor practices, failures to adhere to wage and hour regulations, unsafe working conditions, lack of employee protections, harassment or obstruction of efforts to organize ...these are not IMMIGRATION problems, but rather LABOR problems.


A simple and illustrative example of this can be seen in the case of Michael Bianco Inc, the New Bedford Mass. textile manufacturing company raided by immigration enforcement officers last March resulting in the arrest and deportation of over 350 immigrant workers.

The raid followed an 11-month undercover criminal investigation, according to statements from the U.S. Attorney’s office in Boston.

The plant’s owner, Francesco Insolia, and managers “knowingly and actively” recruited increasing numbers of illegal workers to meet demands of multiple Department of Defense contracts since 2001. In 2004, the company received an $82-million defense contract, according to allegations in the affidavits filed in support of search warrants executed yesterday. More than 500 people work at the Bianco plant.

Workers who waited outside after proving their legal status said Bianco textiles manufactures backpacks, ammunition pouches and other gear for U.S. soldiers in Iraq, and that government inspectors often visit the plant. Bianco textiles also specializes in the manufacture of handbags and other fine leather goods.

The affidavits allege that Insolia, 50, of Pembroke, Mass., “intentionally seeks out illegal aliens because they are more desperate to find employment and are thus more likely to endure severe workplace conditions he has imposed.”

Those conditions allegedly include “docking of pay by 15 minutes for every minute an employee is late; fining employees $20 for spending more than 2 minutes in the restroom and firing for a subsequent infraction; providing one roll of toilet paper per restroom stall per day, typically resulting in the absence of toilet paper after only 40 minutes per day; fining employees $20 for leaving (the) work area before break bell sounds; and fining employees $20 for talking while working and firing for a subsequent infraction.”


But Insolia's violations of the most basic labor protections and laws went far beyond illegally fining employees.

Five former employees and one current employee of Michael Bianco Inc., filed a lawsuit in federal district court in Boston, charging the company with setting up a fake corporation, Front Line Defense Inc., to avoid paying time-and-a-half wages for overtime shifts.

The workers said that they were routinely ordered to clock out after working a full day shift and then to clock back in for evening shifts. Then they were paid with two separate checks, one from Michael Bianco for day shifts and another from Front Line Defense for evening shifts, to make it appear they had not exceeded the 40 hours a week that would trigger overtime pay, the workers said.

Lawyers for the workers described Front Line Defense as a phantom company, whose principal officers were relatives of Michael Bianco's owner, Francesco Insolia. … Front Line Defense's business address was in the same brick building that housed the Michael Bianco factory, according to the lawsuit. …

The lawsuit seeks back wages for all 500 current and former employees, including 360 immigrants, mostly Central American women, who were detained in a March 6 raid, which was the largest local sweep of allegedly illegal immigrants. Even those who have been deported are due back wages because fair wage laws do not distinguish between legal and illegal workers….


And all this went on under the watchful eyes of Pentagon inspectors who regularly scrutinized the plant.

Pentagon inspectors didn't report on alleged illegal hiring practices and wretched working conditions at a New Bedford sweatshop because it wasn't their job, a spokesman said yesterday.

"It's not our responsibility," said Dick Cole, a spokesman for the Defense Contractors Management Agency, which monitors federal contractors as they perform work for the Pentagon.

Cole acknowledged that Pentagon inspectors regularly visited New Bedford's Michael Bianco Inc. before last week's massive raid by Homeland Security agents, who found hundreds of illegal immigrants toiling in "deplorable" conditions as they made backpacks for U.S. troops.

But he said inspectors, who visited Bianco two to four times a week, were focused on ensuring that the firm was making quality products and meeting Pentagon deadlines for deliveries, not on making sure Bianco was complying with federal wage, safety and hiring laws.

Boston Herald, March, 14, 2007, pg.7

Additionally, the Department of Defense maintained an office inside the plant, staffed by full-time inspectors charged with overseeing the operation.

A spokesman for the U.S. Army Soldiers System Center in Natick, Mass., which oversees the work, said that a Department of Defense inspector maintains an office at the plant, but was unaware that any of the workers were undocumented.


According to a spokesman for the U.S. Army Soldiers System Center in Natick, Mass., a representative from the Department of Defense has an “on-site” office at the plant, where he is charged with inspecting all of the gear that is shipped to the military.

While the owners and managers of Michael Bianco Inc faced charges for "conspiring to encourage or induce illegal aliens to reside in the United States", their only punishment for all the labor infractions so far has been limited to an Occupational Safety and Health Administration fine of $45,000 after identifying 15 violations, including chemical, mechanical, and electrical hazards.

Bianco is not alone in this lenient treatment for gross violations of labor standards and laws. Smithfield Foods, and Con-Agra subsidiary, Swift & Co., both targets of previous large-scale immigration raids, and serial labor abusers, have seen no ramifications for their exploitive practices.

It should be clear to the Democratic leadership that this situation leaves them with the perfect opportunity to shift the immigration debate in their favor while allowing them to regain their position as the party of workers rights.

In order to raise the standards for all workers, both US-born and immigrant, the labor and employment laws of this country need to be more strictly enforced.

Currently "workplace enforcement" revolves around the government rooting out unauthorized workers and deporting them. The businesses rarely receive any punishments and when they do they quickly pass those costs on to consumers through higher prices as part of the cost of doing business. But the terrible working conditions that have relegated those jobs to ones that only undocumented immigrants will accept remain the same.

This paradigm needs to shift. The government needs to shift its focus from attacking the symptom of unfair labor practices, to attacking those practices themselves.

Instead of swat teams of ICE agents storming factories and meatpacking plants looking for undocumented immigrants, we need armies of inspectors from the Department of Labor, OSHA, and other agencies, looking for labor violations and evidence unfair labor practices. This is how you raise the standards for all US workers.


This seems to be a no-brainer.

While the right-wing can try to obfuscate and twist reality to suit their reactionary agenda, refocusing the debate to worker protections and raising the standards for all workers, whether they are US-born, naturalized, legal residents, or unauthorized immigrants, is not only a progressive idea that has been a basis of Democratic principles, but a position that no right-thinking American would oppose.

Perhaps once the Democrats learn to take these simple baby-steps back towards their roots as a party, we can discuss some of those other "scarier" aspects of the debate like reforming the quota system, normalizing the status of the current unauthorized population, addressing the free-trade policies that drive migration, and maybe even sometime in the future …..those troublesome drivers licenses. ….who knows, somewhere along the line they my actually grow a backbone.

No comments: