Sunday, May 09, 2010

Union janitors dismissed in San Francisco

Hundreds of Union Janitors Fired Under Pressure From Feds

Friday 07 May 2010

by: David Bacon, 

San Francisco, California - Federal immigration authorities
have pressured one of San Francisco's major building
service companies, ABM, into firing hundreds of its own
workers. Some 475 janitors have been told that unless they
can show legal immigration status, they will lose their
jobs in the near future.

ABM has been a union company for decades, and many of the
workers have been there for years. "They've been working in
the buildings downtown for 15, 20, some as many as 27
years," said Olga Miranda, president of Service Employees
Local 87. "They've built homes. They've provided for their
families. They've sent their kids to college. They're not
new workers. They didn't just get here a year ago."

Nevertheless, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)
division of the Department of Homeland Security has told
ABM that they have flagged the personnel records of those
workers. Weeks ago, ICE agents sifted through Social
Security records and the I-9 immigration forms all workers
have to fill out when they apply for jobs. They then told
ABM that the company had to fire 475 workers who were
accused of lacking legal immigration status.

ABM is one of the largest building service companies in the
country, and it appears that union janitorial companies are
the targets of the Obama administration' s immigration
enforcement program. "Homeland Security is going after
employers that are union," Miranda charged. "They're going
after employers that give benefits and are paying above the

Last October, 1,200 janitors working for ABM were fired in
similar circumstances in Minneapolis. In November, over 100
janitors working for Seattle Building Maintenance lost
their jobs. Minneapolis janitors belong to SEIU Local 26,
Seattle janitors to Local 6 and San Francisco janitors to
Local 87.

President Obama said sanctions enforcement targets
employers "who are using illegal workers in order to drive
down wages - and oftentimes mistreat those workers." An ICE
Worksite Enforcement Advisory claimed, "unscrupulous
employers are likely to pay illegal workers substandard
wages or force them to endure intolerable working

Curing intolerable conditions by firing or deporting
workers who endure them doesn't help the workers or change
the conditions, however.

 And despite Obama's contention
that sanctions enforcement will punish those employers who
exploit immigrants, employers are rewarded for cooperating
with ICE by being immunized from prosecution. Javier
Murillo, president of SEIU Local 26, said, "The promise
made during the audit is that if the company cooperates and
complies, they won't be fined. So this kind of enforcement
really only hurts workers."

ICE Director John Morton said the agency is auditing the
records of 1,654 companies nationwide. "What kind of
economic recovery goes with firing thousands of workers?"
Miranda asked. "Why don't they target employers who are not
paying taxes, who are not obeying safety or labor laws?"

The San Francisco janitors are now faced with an agonizing
dilemma. Should they turn themselves in to Homeland
Security, which might charge them with providing a bad
Social Security number to their employer, and even hold
them for deportation? For workers with families, homes and
deep roots in a community, it's not possible to just walk
away and disappear. "I have a lot of members who are single
mothers whose children were born here," Miranda said. "I
have a member whose child has leukemia. What are they
supposed to do? Leave their children here and go back to
Mexico and wait? And wait for what?"

Miranda's question reflects not just the dilemma facing
individual workers, but of 12 million undocumented people
living in the United States. Since 2005, successive
congress members, senators and administrations have dangled
the prospect of gaining legal status in front of those who
lack it. In exchange, their various schemes for immigration
reform have proposed huge new guest worker programs, and a
big increase in exactly the kind of enforcement now
directed at 475 San Francisco janitors.

While the potential criminalization of undocumented people
in Arizona continues to draw headlines, the actual
punishment of workers because of their immigration status
has become an increasingly bitter fact of life across the

President Obama, condemning Arizona's law that would make
being undocumented a state crime, said it would "undermine
basic notions of fairness that we cherish as Americans."
But then he announced his support for legislation with
guest worker programs and increased enforcement.

The country is no closer to legalization of the
undocumented than it was ten years ago. But the enforcement
provisions of the comprehensive immigration reform bills
debated in Congress over the last five years have already
been implemented on the ground. The Bush administration
conducted a high-profile series of raids in which it sent
heavily-armed agents into meatpacking plants and factories,
held workers for deportation and sent hundreds to federal
prison for using bad Social Security numbers.

After Barack Obama was elected president, immigration
authorities said they'd follow a softer policy, using an
electronic system to find undocumented people in
workplaces. People working with bad Social Security numbers
would be fired.

Ironically the Bush administration proposed a regulation
that would have required employers to fire any worker who
provided an employer with a Social Security number that
didn't match the SSA database. That regulation was then
stopped in court by unions, the ACLU and the National
Immigration Law Center. The Obama administration, however,
is implementing what amounts to the same requirement, with
the same consequence of thousands of fired workers.

Union leaders like Miranda see a conflict between the
rhetoric used by the president and other Washington, DC,
politicians and lobbyists in condemning the Arizona law,
and the immigration proposals they make in Congress.
"There's a huge contradiction here," she said. "You can't
tell one state that what they're doing is criminalizing
people, and at the same time go after employers paying more
than a living wage and the workers who have fought for that

Renee Saucedo, attorney for La Raza Centro Legal and former
director of the San Francisco Day Labor Program, is even
more critical. "Those bills in Congress, which are
presented as ones that will help some people get legal
status, will actually make things much worse," she charged.
"We'll see many more firings like the janitors here, and
more punishments for people who are just working and trying
to support their families."

Increasingly, however, the Washington proposals have even
less promise of legalization, and more emphasis on
punishment. The newest Democratic Party scheme virtually
abandons the legalization program promised by the
"bipartisan" Schumer/Graham proposal, saying that heavy
enforcement at the border and in the workplace must come
before any consideration of giving 12 million people legal

"We have to look at the whole picture," Saucedo urged. "So
long as we have trade agreements like NAFTA that create
poverty in countries like Mexico, people will continue to
come here, no matter how many walls we build. Instead of
turning people into guest workers, as these bills in
Washington would do, while firing and even jailing those
who don't have papers, we need to help people get legal
status, and repeal the laws that are making work a crime."

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