Power Lunch: Immigration reform will boost unionization

An employee audit and supervisory training will reduce the appeal of the union.

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By Woodruff Imberman, Imberman and DeForest, Inc.

Industrial relations experts believe proposals put forth by both presidential candidates for immigration reform leading to eventual citizenship for millions of illegal immigrants, mainly Mexican, will spark a new wave of unionization efforts in the food processing industry.

Hungry union organizers agree. Led by AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, they have championed immigration reform because they think it will make it easier for them to organize Hispanics.

“Immigrants are the ones who are re-energizing the labor movement in Los Angeles,” Ecuadorian-born Cristina Vazquez, regional manager for the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees Union, was quoted in this summer’s Chicago Tribune.

President Bush’s reform proposals made last January produced an immediate uproar. They were attacked by liberals for being too conservative and by conservatives for being too liberal. On June 29, Democratic candidate John Kerry chimed in at the National Council of La Raza meeting, saying he would send legislation to Congress to reform immigration within 100 days if elected.

In between, a blue ribbon panel sponsored by the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations reported on June 10, “There is an increasing disconnect between law and reality” in U.S. immigration policy. Saying its findings were intended to help establish a consensus that the system is broken, it urged legislation to legalize most of the nine million undocumented aliens in the U.S. The bi-partisan panel reported “the status quo is not working.”

Although some food processors already have nearly 100 percent Spanish-speaking employees in their plants, the overall industry had about 26 percent Latino workers in 2000, a number that will grow to just over 31 percent by 2010, the Census Bureau predicts. (See “Dealing With Diversity,” Food Processing, October 2003.) Although nobody can accurately say how many immigrants are now here legally (or even here!), the Census Bureau estimates that only 7.3 percent of those coming here since 1990 are citizens, whereas 73.3 percent of those coming to this country before 1970 have achieved that status.

Although it is a safe bet that any presidential proposals for immigration reform will be well mangled in the Congressional meat grinder, many believe the eventual outcome will allow millions of law-abiding, undocumented immigrants to receive some sort of protected status.

The human wave flooding over America’s borders is due to U.S. prosperity contrasted against widespread poverty and political instability in Mexico and Central America. Most Hispanic immigrants are from hard scrabble rural areas, with little knowledge of America, American unions, or American labor laws. They don’t know that unions and collective bargaining in the U.S. are far different than in Mexico or Central America.

Experts aware of employment realities and U.S. labor laws know undocumented workers are some of the most exploited employees in the nation. Fearful of being deported back to the poverty they escaped, they rarely complain about supervisory abuse and must cope with conditions few Anglos would tolerate. These Hispanics know if their papers are scrutinized , their true status would become known, and back they go south of the Rio Grande.

Afraid to complain, or even to be noticed, today’s undocumentados stand in the shadows of American life. A number of them are exposed to a range of employer abuses in some processing: plants where safety standards and federal wage laws are sometimes ignored. These silenced workers are often paid less than Anglos or others having similar jobs –- but far more than they could ever earn in their native lands.

Enter the union organizer. Eager-to-believe Hispanics flock to Spanish-speaking organizers who promise an end to insults and abuses, who offer “free” health and medical insurance, more paid holidays, and pie-in-the-sky raises. And all for just “signing this little old (union) card.”

Food processors with high Hispanic populations need unbiased and unfiltered knowledge of their employees’ current morale and attitudes in order to uncover and cure any beneath-the-surface problems that might make their plants fertile fields for union organizers. This is best done in face-to-face interviews by a knowledgeable interviewer in an Employee Audit. Obviously, such an audit should be conducted by an outsider who can be trusted by the Hispanic workers and to whom they will speak freely.

As a result of an audit, ameliorative actions can be taken: rest rooms can be cleaned, safety hazards (which cause sky-high workman’s comp claims) can be rectified, wage programs unscrambled and benefit packages explained; lunch rooms brightened, and supervisory practices improved.

Using employee interviews as case studies, foremen and supervisors can be trained how to treat and motivate Hispanics in specialized supervisory training tailored to meet the specific needs and problems of their plant.

Unfortunately, most food processors use canned training because it is inexpensive. Rarely worth more than its price, such training is full of generalities and discounted by foremen who cannot connect the lessons with their own specific situations. Effective training requires materials drawn from the supervisors’ own plant, so they understand that the problems are real and are having deleterious effects on their employees and their performance.

The results of an employee audit and supervisory training are two-fold. First, they create an environment conducive to high employee performance -- better quality and productivity. While many Latino employees are not well-educated, they have as much common sense as anybody else. If asked in an encouraging way, they can quickly point out many ways in which productivity can be improved and waste reduced. Second, an employee audit and customized supervisory training will reduce to near zero the appeal of the union organizers, who no doubt will soon come a-calling.


Woodruff Imberman is president of Imberman and DeForest, an Evanston, Ill. labor relations consulting firm. E-mail him at IMBandDEF@aol.com.

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