Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The common thread

What follows are seven news stories, all from different places and times. Some happened only weeks ago … some years. Some are well known … others obscure. But a common thread runs through them all.

Ten days before Christmas, the Woodfin Suites Hotel in Emeryville, California, fired Luz Dominguez and 20 other housekeepers. Managers announced they'd received a letter from Social Security, saying the numbers they'd given when they were originally hired didn't match government records. The 21 housekeepers have been making beds, washing toilets, and vacuuming carpets there for years.

…an Oakland-based worker advocacy group, the East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy, convinced Emeryville voters to pass Measure C. The new ordinance established a $9 hourly minimum in the town's four hotels. Housekeepers required to clean more than 5000 square feet in an eight-hour shift now had to be paid time and a half. "Before the law was passed, we cleaned 16 suites, sometimes 17," says Marcela Melquiades, another fired housekeeper. The new law dropped that to 10. The four hotels - the Woodfin Suites, Sheraton Four Points, Marriott and the Holiday Inn - spent $115,000 to defeat the measure (garnering only 1100 "no" votes). When they lost, they tried to get an injunction to prevent it from taking effect, and lost again. Workers began asking Woodfin to comply. … That's when the hotel suddenly demanded new Social Security numbers.


Adriana Torres-Flores, 38, was left in a secure holding cell Thursday after a court bailiff apparently forgot to have her transported to the Washington County Detention Center. She was found Monday morning.

Torres-Flores appeared in court Thursday morning for a scheduled plea on charges of illegal copying of recordings. She decided not to enter a guilty plea in the case and her bail was revoked, which landed her in the holding cell near the courtroom.

She has been treated and released from Washington Regional Medical Center and is at home trying to recuperate physically and mentally.

"She feels the impact of what happened," said Cruz Torres, her husband.

At the beginning of her confinement, she was very hungry. Then, after a couple of days, the hunger passed and she became very thirsty, he said.

She told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette on Monday that she was forced to drink her own urine to survive.

NW Arkansas Times

Fresh Direct, the online grocery delivery operation that caters to affluent and overworked New Yorkers, lost dozens of employees this week after federal immigration officials notified the company that its employee records were under investigation.

The company sent its workers a memo on Sunday and Monday saying that Immigration and Customs Enforcement planned to inspect the records of every employee and asked them to update their information and provide documents, like Social Security cards, to prove employment eligibility. At least 40 warehouse workers who could not produce proof that they were authorized to work in the United States quit or were suspended.

… The federal investigation, part of a national campaign aimed at employers who hire illegal immigrants, comes in the midst the company’s busiest season and in the middle of a conflict over efforts to unionize some 900 Fresh Direct warehouse workers.

… Ms. Pope, the Teamsters’ president, said on Wednesday that the suspensions seemed to be an effort to thwart the union and that the company’s lawyers might have invited Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials to scrutinize workers to weaken the union drive.

…Union officials said that many Fresh Direct employees, who earn between $7.50 and $9.75 an hour, were so frightened of being detained and separated from their children that they stayed home on Wednesday. Others said they were told not to come back.

Ms. Pope said that some employees were warned by company officials not to show up for their paychecks. She said the union was scrambling to find clergy members or other volunteers to collect paychecks for workers who feared going back to the warehouse.


Until her death on May 16, Maria Isabel Vasquez Jimenez was another undocumented farmworker at the bottom rung of California's farm production chain.

…..When Vasquez Jimenez collapsed, she had been on the job three days, pruning vines for $8 an hour in a vineyard owned by West Coast Grape Farming.

During eight hours of work beginning at 6 a.m. in heat that topped 95 degrees, Bautista said that workers were given only one water break, at 10:30 a.m. And the water was a 10-minute walk away – too far, he said, to keep up with the crew and avoid being scolded.

Vasquez Jimenez collapsed at 3:30 p.m., Bautista said, and for at least five minutes, the foreman did nothing but stare at the couple while Bautista cradled her.

Bautista said the foreman told him to place the teenager in the back seat of a van, which was hot inside, and put a wet cloth on her.

Later, Bautista said, the foreman told a driver to take the pair to a store to buy rubbing alcohol and apply it to see if it would revive Vasquez Jimenez. When that failed, the driver took the couple to a clinic in Lodi, Bautista said, where her body temperature had reached more than 108 degrees.

"The foreman told me to say that she wasn't working for a contractor, that she got sick while exercising," Bautista said in Spanish. "He said she was underage, and it would cause a lot of problems."

Bautista and family members said that clinic staff rushed the girl to a hospital, where she was revived several times before finally succumbing two days later without ever regaining consciousness. Doctors later discovered she was two months pregnant.

Sacramento Bee

Twice in the last dozen years, the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) mounted union-organizing drives at Tar Heel. Twice, when the workers voted, the union lost. The second election, held in 1997, was a whopping 2-to-1 loss for the UFCW.

But seven years later, when it finally addressed the union's appeal, the NLRB found that Smithfield had systematically harassed pro-union employees while openly favoring anti-union workers; it also threatened in forced-attendance meetings to cut wages or even close the plant if the union won. All of which is illegal.

Raleigh.Durham Independent

Gene Bruskin, an organizer for the union, said the company had started to cooperate closely with immigration authorities after a walkout by immigrant workers last summer. “My concern is the company is using the immigration issue to manipulate this long fight over workers’ rights,” Mr. Bruskin said.

Tension over the workers’ immigration status has been running high at the plant since November, when more than 500 employees stayed away for two days after the company fired about 50 workers it said had used false Social Security numbers when they were hired. The walkout was unusual for a nonunion plant.


The statement from the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW) says, in part: The arrests of the 21 Smithfield workers by the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) comes on the heels of the company announcement that it will fire up to 600 people next month, primarily those who walked out in protest last November over the firings of fellow employees allegedly for receiving social security no match letters.”

The union says the arrests “may also be in violation of ICE's own instructions which preclude the agency from facilitating the use of immigration laws of enforcement to intervene in the course of a labor dispute.”


At his home in East Los Angeles, Francisco Castaneda of El Salvador faces a grim truth: His cancer is spreading, from his groin to his lymph nodes and toward his stomach, a progression that could soon end his life.

Castaneda was taken into ICE custody in March of last year. He was scheduled to be deported for violating parole after serving time for a robbery conviction. Records show that he suffered from genital warts.

The physician who examined him requested that he see a urologist so that he could undergo a biopsy to test for cancer. Two months went by before the request was approved.

…But Immigration Health Services officials denied an offer from the urologist to admit Castaneda for a biopsy as "not cost effective," according to the tort claim, a procedural step that probably will lead to a lawsuit. After the lesion started to bleed, fester and grow between June and August, the officials continued to deny doctors' requests for a circumcision and a biopsy, saying the procedures were "elective," not an emergency.

But the problem worsened. "I was surprised, because I was bleeding and it was hurting a lot," Castaneda said. "The only thing they gave me was Motrin. I couldn't sleep at night because it was hurting a lot. I was afraid for my life at that time."

After a fourth specialist ordered a biopsy in January for what he said was "most likely penile cancer," doctors scheduled the procedure. But Castaneda was released from the custody of ICE a few days before the examination, "presumably so it would not have to pay for the procedure," according to the claim.

Castaneda later went to the emergency room at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center in Torrance, Calif., where a biopsy determined he had cancer. His penis was amputated on Feb. 14, but the cancer had spread.


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.

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.”

…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.

Boston Globe

From Maria Isabel Vasquez Jimenez dying from a lack of water, to Francisco Castaneda of neglect and cancer, to Luz Dominguez losing a job for having the audacity to ask for fair wages and treatment, to Adriana Torres-Flores left in a holding cell for days without food and water… they share a common thread that binds them.

They are part of the silent and forgotten, living in the shadows, unprotected by laws and regulations most take for granted. It matters not if they toiled in fields to put food on our tables, supplied the weapons of war, or cleaned the rooms we sleep in. Nor does it matter if they ran afoul of the law … they share a common thread that binds them.

They are the other.

They are those who go unseen even in the light of day.

We don't want to know their names or their stories. We don't want to hear of their suffering, or know about their dreams and aspirations. We don't want to have to look them in the eye and see their humanity.

Because if we did for only just one moment, then we might be forced to see not only them …but us …for what we really are.

So hide your eyes, walk quickly as you pass. Don't acknowledge their presence.

Don't look at the mother holding her child and see the love between them. Don't admire the workers, laboring to supply the goods and services on which you rely, for their industriousness. Don't stop for a moment to smile or even nod a quick hello.

Because if you did, for only just one a moment, you might be forced to see …. the common thread that binds us.


Symsess said...

This is an excellent and much needed look at this subject. It falls right in line with a Randall Jarrell quote I posted yesterday:

"After driving for four or five minutes along the road outside my door, I come to a long row of one-room shacks about the size of kitchens, made out of used boards, metal signs, old tin roofs. To the people who live in them an electric dishwasher of one’s own is as much a fantasy as an ocean liner of one’s own. But since the Medium (and those whose thought is molded by it) does not perceive them, these people are themselves a fantasy: no matter how many millions of such exceptions to the general rule there are, they do not really exist, but have a kind of anomalous statistical subsistence: our moral and imaginative view of the world is no more affected by them than by the occupants of some home for the mentally deficient a little further along the road."

When a person is not themselves a part of it (any struggle) they often cannot connect. The people that serve us daily and keep this country moving might as well be machines. We actually have scientists working on robot farmers and we already have 'do it yourself' checkouts in some stores. Instead of finding ways to pay better wages and make things more fair we simply find ways to replace them.

I don't see how this equals progress.

Richard said...

Very nice post.

I like this: “We don't want to know their names or their stories. We don't want to hear of their suffering, or know about their dreams and aspirations. We don't want to have to look them in the eye and see their humanity.”

You are exploring a very important dimension of the immigration dialogue.

You can’t scapegoat and dismiss a fellow human. That is why, I believe, the anti-reform/enforcement-only advocates take such pains to depict the immigration situation as simple, requiring simple one-dimensional policies. In a simple world, there are no names, stories, dreams.

I am continually shocked by the intensity of the anger that erupts form anti-reform advocates when I talk about the grey in their black and white world – like my Dreamer friend from Myanmar who has spent almost his entire life in the US, yet risks deportation a county he does no know because of the decisions of a father that is now deceased.

I believe the anger and the almost irrational fixation on the simplicity of the immigration situation by anti-reform/enforcement-only advocates, reflects the intense discomfort that comes when you, as you put it, “look into the into the eye and see the humanity” of the human you are trying so desperately to dismiss.

The argument that the immigration situation is simple, is a form of dehumanization.

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