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The Risk of Striking While Undocumented

Teamsters, Working Families United, National TPS Alliance, LA County Federation of Labor, CARECEN, National Day Laborer Organizing Network, Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE), Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE) gathered together for a rally in Wilmington on Wednesday, October. 3, 2018. This marked the end of a 3-day strike by truckers and warehouse workers. (Photo by Brittany Murray, Press-Telegram/SCNG)

I root for strikes because they are the ultimate expression of working class power and are necessary if the working class is once again going to have access to political and economic power in this nation. But let’s not pretend that striking comes with no risk. It does. And if you are undocumented, the risk is all the greater. That risk came true for the Mayan workers at a tire recycling place in New Bedford, Massachusetts:

The best tires arrive at Bob’s Tire ready to be painted and resold; the rest are disassembled and recycled. Conveyor belts spin day and night adding shredded rubber to piles that rise like hills above the houses in New Bedford’s surrounding North End. 

Until this month, the business employed around 65 men, most of them from a rural province of Guatemala. Regardless of their immigration status, migrants from El Quiché know Bob’s Tire as a place they can find a job, and maybe a few for their relatives too. 

Recently, though, the arrangement has started to fall apart. 

A video recorded on October 25 by the freelance journalist Gerardo Beltrán shows a New Bedford police officer leading a handcuffed worker into a crowd of protesters. In another video from the same morning, the worker, Alfredo Mateo, tells Beltrán he was arrested during a work stoppage inside the company’s gates. 

“I have the right to protest,” Mateo said in Spanish, shortly after he was released without charges. “They are paying me a miserable $13.50 per hour. I’m asking for a right to vacation and time for breaks during the day.” 

Mateo and roughly two dozen of his coworkers who participated in the protest were fired the next day, according to interviews with several people who attended the protest. Mateo, technically a temporary worker jointly employed by an independent staffing agency, said he had been working full time at Bob’s Tire for eight years. 

The mass termination marks a turn in a yearslong unionization effort that was once celebrated for setting a precedent in New Bedford’s indigenous Mayan community. Employees at Bob’s Tire voted overwhelmingly to join the United Food and Commercial Workers in 2015, a move that some hoped would trigger a wave of labor organizing in other local workplaces populated by Mayan temporary workers, like the city’s two dozen fish processing plants. 

Instead, six years later, many of the problems that drove workers to organize at Bob’s Tire remain unresolved. And allegations of other workplace abuses have surfaced, injecting new vigor into a simmering conflict that erupted once again at October’s protest. 

Usually this kind of thing gets no media attention at all, so I’m glad we are able to hear about it. Not sure if it helps these workers, who really do need the jobs and also need to be treated like human beings by their awful employer. This is also why we need organized labor to embrace immigrants regardless of legal status (which it mostly has in the last twenty years) and why if we are going to punish anyone for undocumented migration, it needs to be the employers to specifically target these workers so they can exploit them. But what we really need is to simply get rid of immigration status at all.

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