Brooklyn, NY - Agriprocessors Asking U.S. Supreme Court to Rule That illegal Immigrants Can't Join Labor Unions
Brooklyn, NY - Agriprocessors, the Brooklyn-based company that is the nation’s largest kosher meat producer, is well known for the labor troubles at its meatpacking plant in Iowa — federal agents detained 389 of its workers as illegal immigrants in May, and labor officials in Iowa have accused it of employing 57 under-age workers.
But Agriprocessors is also having labor troubles closer to home, with the company asking the United States Supreme Court to overturn a vote to unionize at its distribution center along the Brooklyn waterfront.
If successful, the company’s appeal could have repercussions at companies across the country: it is trying to persuade the Supreme Court to rule that illegal immigrants do not have the right to join labor unions.
In September 2005, the company’s Brooklyn employees voted 15 to 5 to unionize, with one ballot challenged. The workers, most of them immigrants from Mexico, complained of low pay, not receiving time-and-a-half for overtime and not having health insurance or paid holidays.
“It was a dirty place to work, and they treated some of the workers real bad,” said Lucilo Brito, a former Agriprocessors truck driver.
Days after the vote, Agriprocessors stunned its employees by announcing that it would not recognize the union because, it said, it had just discovered that 17 of the workers were illegal immigrants.
The National Labor Relations Board nonetheless ordered Agriprocessors to recognize the union, Local 342 of the United Food and Commercial Workers, citing a 1984 Supreme Court ruling that affirmed the right of illegal immigrants to join unions.
Agriprocessors appealed the labor board’s order, with one of its lawyers, Richard Howard, telling the board, “This should not be a valid vote for representation” because “they’re not documented workers and not allowed to work.”
After Agriprocessors refused to deal with the union, 14 of the workers went on strike for seven weeks. The company responded by firing the strikers. (During the strike, union officials said, management hired day laborers from a nearby street corner, many of them illegal immigrants.)
The labor board continues to insist that Agriprocessors recognize the union. Lawyers for the board and union argue that it is foolish for the company to appeal the 1984 decision, in which the Supreme Court ruled that illegal immigrant workers fall within the definition of “employee” in the National Labor Relations Act and thus have the right to join unions.
“Whether people are undocumented or not, they deserve to have some union represent them,” said Lisa O’Leary, executive vice president of Local 342, which represents 10,000 meat, poultry and seafood workers in the New York area. “That will help reduce the abuses that undocumented workers face.”
The Agriprocessors distribution center is one of 20 or so meat wholesalers at the Brooklyn Terminal Market at First Avenue near 56th Street in Sunset Park, where there are two long rows of low-lying buildings with meat hooks hanging above the loading docks. All but a handful of the meat companies are unionized.
Connected to the Agriprocessors center are two refrigeration trailers that hum 24 hours a day, and parked outside are trucks painted with the company’s main retail logo, Aaron’s Best.
Ante Vulin, a butcher at International Glatt Kosher Meats, a unionized wholesaler directly across from Agriprocessors, said belonging to the union meant higher pay and better benefits.
“What’s the purpose of leaving here when you don’t get more at another place?” said Mr. Vulin, who earns $20.25 an hour after 20 years on the job.
David Young, an organizer with Local 342, said it was easy to get Agriprocessors’ workers to vote to unionize because they had talked with workers at other distribution centers and seen the fruits of unionizing.
The manager of the Agriprocessors distribution center refused to comment about workplace conditions or the litigation. A company lawyer, Arnold Kaufman, said it would be inappropriate to comment during litigation — the company is hoping the Supreme Court will hear its appeal.
During the organizing drive in 2005, Agriprocessors fought hard to defeat the union. One worker said managers told him: “The union is not good. Everything they say is a lie.”
The company, the labor board asserted, improperly fired two workers for supporting the union. Moreover, the board said, management sought to block the workers from voting for the United Food and Commercial Workers, by announcing one day that a majority of its drivers had signed up with a union known for working closely with employers, Local 17-18 of the United Production Workers.
Several workers said management representatives had pressured them to sign cards supporting Local 17-18, and had done so after management told the labor relations board that a majority of workers had already signed cards backing that union.
Labor board officials dismissed the company’s efforts to steer its employees into Local 17-18 as a charade. It ordered the secret-ballot vote to proceed, and the workers voted to join the United Food and Commercial Workers.
When Agriprocessors said it would ignore the vote because it had discovered that most employees were in the country illegally, the union insisted the company was acting in bad faith.
“They knew all along they were hiring undocumented workers,” said Mr. Young, the organizer. (He wondered why, if the company was suddenly so concerned about employing illegal immigrants, it did not conduct similar checks at its Iowa plant.)
Agriprocessors officials said they had no idea their Brooklyn employees were illegal immigrants, insisting that they had been fooled because the workers presented fraudulent documents. Agriprocessors officials said the same thing after the immigration raid at its Iowa plant in May.
Mr. Howard, the company’s lawyer, said it should not be possible to join a union “if you are not legally allowed to work, if your working for this employer results from the perpetration of a fraud upon this employer and results from a crime against the country.”
The National Labor Relations Board in Washington and the United States Court of Appeals in Washington rejected Agriprocessors’ argument that illegal immigrants should not have the right to join unions. In a decision last January, the appeals court, echoing the 1984 Supreme Court decision, wrote that allowing illegal immigrants to join a union “helps to assure that the wages and employment conditions of lawful residents are not adversely affected by the competition of illegal alien employees.”
Nathan Lewin, the lead lawyer in Agriprocessors’ appeal to the Supreme Court, said the issue should be reconsidered because there are so many more illegal immigrant workers now than in 1984 and because a federal law passed two years after that ruling made it a crime for companies to hire illegal immigrants.
“The attitude of federal and local laws towards illegal immigrant workers has undergone a sea change,” the company’s appeal says. “Federal policy regarding the employment of undocumented aliens is far more prohibitive today.”
Alvin Blyer, regional director of the labor board’s office in Brooklyn, said he was not surprised by the company’s appeals.
“Many times employers are anxious to put off the day that they have to deal with a labor union and bargain collectively,” Mr. Blyer said. “Even in cases where their legal position is unlikely to succeed, they find it economically worthwhile to delay that day.”
Last Thursday, a butcher who had just finished the midnight-to-9 a.m. shift at the Agriprocessors distribution center said that the company had improved wages and conditions somewhat since the unionization vote three years ago. The worker said he was paid $8.50 an hour, got one week vacation a year and received time-and-a-half pay for overtime.
“We don’t get health insurance,” said the worker, who insisted on anonymity for fear of retaliation. And in a candid moment, he acknowledged that he was an illegal immigrant.
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