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‘Work without Justice’

NCR Staff

For most Americans, Labor Day is little more than a punctuation mark at the tail end of the summer. For “the serfs of the service economy,” however, those who support most American’s affluent lifestyle by contributing their low-cost labor to low-cost foods, hotel bills and less-than-minimum-wage restaurant jobs, Labor Day represents an ideal, a star they can see but not touch.

In its recent study, “Work Without Justice: Low Wage Immigrant Laborers,” the Catholic Legal Immigrant Network, which goes by the acronym CLINIC, describes once again reality for those in the white coats busing the holiday tables, in the grease-stained coats serving up food 12 hours a day seven days a week, in the green overalls keeping the resort gardens manicured, in the crisp uniforms working the toilet bowl brush in the vacated hotel room and in the sweat-stained shirts and blouses plucking the greens for the all-you-can-eat salad bar. And those in the hardhats building the next resort a mile further along the beach.

The foreign-born, states CLINIC, constitute 10 percent of the U.S. population. They make up 34 percent of those working in private households; 21.4 percent in personal services (hair styling, etc.); 18.5 percent in eating and drinking places; 12.8 percent in construction.

Eighty-one percent of farm workers are foreign-born.

“They endure,” states the report, “sub-minimum wages and non-payment of wages, or receive pay checks and do not earn enough to escape poverty. From 1968 to 1994 the incomes of the bottom fifth of wage earners increased only 8 percent, a decrease in real dollars. By contrast, the incomes of the top fifth increased by 44 percent.” At the same time, these sacrificing, impoverished laborers manage to send home $30 billion annually to families poorer than themselves.

“Work Without Justice” reports that despite recent successes at organizing immigrant laborers, membership in unions has declined from 39 percent of workers in 1954 to 13.9 percent today, “with lower rates in service industries.”

In the absence of unionization, low-wage laborers depend heavily on federal and state enforcement of workplace safety and anti-discrimination regulations, but the Department of Labor has only 942 “wage and hour” investigators for the entire country.

When workers try to organize, other laws -- those of the Immigration and Naturalization Service -- can be suddenly used against them.

CLINIC reports on a 1999 roundup at the Holiday Inn Express in St. Paul, Minn., when an organizing drive took place.

The Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union Local 17 helped organize the housekeeping staff. On Aug. 26, the employees voted in favor of the union, 11 to 7. “Before the bargaining meeting,” CLINIC reports, “hotel management scheduled a housekeeping meeting. The general manager ushered housekeepers into a conference room where they were greeted by an INS agent who asked for their papers. When none of the workers produced their papers, they were handcuffed and told they would be deported to Mexico.”

“They made us feel like criminals, when all we were doing was working,” said one housekeeper who, with the others, was taken to an INS detention center. Most were transferred to county jails to await removal hearings. The housekeeper’s manager told two workers that management had called INS because they had voted yes for the union.

The union filed an unfair labor practices complaint, the National Labor Relations Board ruled against Holiday Inn; the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found the Latino workers’ civil rights had been violated, and the hotel settled the case earlier this year.

Things are no better elsewhere. In 1999, as a community boycott of its green grocery stores began, the New York store chain Adinah’s Farm threatened or tried to bribe employees who signed union organizing cards. “The owner tried to force workers to sign a document that said they were only working eight hours a day and had all legal holidays off.” Eight refused to do so. In fact, a typical employee was working 72 hours a week, earning a weekly $250 non-minimum wage, without overtime, vacation or sick pay.

The local union doing the organizing, the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textiles Employees -- UNITE -- Local 169, filed an NLRB complaint for unfair labor practices and a complaint with the Department of Labor for overtime back pay. This year, as the NLRB ruled against him, the owner agreed to let the workers join unions.

Meanwhile, the average U.S. garment worker is earning less than $8,000 a year, the average farm worker $5.94 an hour, and the poultry production worker $7.82 an hour in an industry where real wages have been falling steadily since 1980.

For 20 percent of all American workers, those at the bottom, this Labor Day weekend signals only that every day is an arduous labor day.

Arthur Jones’ e-mail address is ajones96@aol.com

National Catholic Reporter, September 1, 2000