INS raid in Omaha targets|
meat packers' union drive
Union protests assault, workers
organize against speedup
Workers being loaded on chartered buses after December 5 raid by
INS agents, aided by Omaha cops and state troopers.
BY EDWIN FRUIT
DES MOINES, Iowa--Agents of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) and the U.S. Marshal's Service on December 5 raided Nebraska Beef Inc., a meatpacking plant where a union organizing drive is underway in Omaha, Nebraska. The agents surrounded the plant, shutting down operations, and herded workers into the cafeteria for an identification check. Two hundred immigrant workers suspected of being in the country without legal documentation were arrested and bused to a facility in Council Bluffs, Iowa, where they were to be processed and then sent to INS holding jails in Texas for further deportation proceedings.
Nebraska Beef meat packers are among workers at several plants in the area attempting to organize into the United Food and Commercial Workers union (UFCW). The union has been working together with Omaha Together/ One Community (OTOC) in this effort. Two days after the raid workers remaining at the plant walked off the line, protesting line speed and understaffing.
The INS also arrested three managers and a recruiter for Nebraska Beef on charges of smuggling undocumented workers into the state and providing them with fake work documents.
This was apparently the first major raid in the Omaha area since 1997. Over the past several years, the INS, temporarily changed its tactics with "Operation Vanguard." Rather than arresting large groups of workers, the INS subpoenaed work records and then proceeded to interview workers individually. But it was not uncommon for workers to quit rather than be interviewed by the INS.
Bill Schmitz, the UFCW vice president and director of the union's Food Processing, Packing and Manufacturing Division, was quoted in a union news release as saying, "There workers are twice victimized. Once by the greed of the packing companies and then by immigration laws that terrorizes workers in the exercise of their legitimate rights under the law."
When the organizing drive began last June, Greg Denier, a UFCW official, said his organization had put the INS on notice that labor disputes exist at a number of Omaha packing plants. That meant, he said, that under the INS operating procedures the agency was prohibited from engaging in any enforcement action against employees.
The Nebraska Appleseed Center for Law in the Public Interest was quoted as saying, "Right now, in the INS custody, are workers who have been involved in union-organizing activities. It is certain other workers will remember what happened at Nebraska Beef."
Rev. Damian Zuerlein of the Our Lady of the Guadalupe church in Omaha was outraged at the pre-Christmas raid. "Imagine living in another country and being promised a better-paying job, housing, and transportation. You get here and you're a hard-working person--working 10 hours a day, five or six days a week. And then you get rounded up."
At a news conference held December 7, attended by community members, social-service agency leaders, and others, the INS raid was condemned. Ben Salazar, publisher of Nuestro Mundo newspaper, said that it was an "outrageous display" of government power.
Reverend Zuerlein explained how he had spent that day talking to a single mother who was afraid to go to work for the last three days for fear that the INS would pick her up.
The same day workers walked off the line to demand the company reduce the line speed given the reduced number of workers to do the job. Carl Ariston, assistant to the UFCW regional director, said, "The company was having three people do the job of six." According to one worker, employees went to the cafeteria to negotiate a $1 an hour raise and better health and insurance benefits. She and six others were fired for "inciting a riot." According to Ariston, the seven were fired by three of the managers who had been arrested on smuggling charges earlier by the INS. He said that the UFCW would file unfair labor practice charges the next day with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), defending the fired workers as engaging in a protected activity.
Ariston was also quoted as saying that the union met with 50 workers on Thursday night and that they would try to sign up all the rest of their co-workers to call for a union election.
In an election held several weeks ago, production workers rejected representation by the union at the ConAgra plant here. Maintenance workers voted in the union as their bargaining agent.
On December 15, 200 workers at the ConAgra Armour Swift-Eckrich plant will decide whether to be represented by the union.
Edwin Fruit is a member of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1149 and works in Perry, Iowa.