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Labor

Shifting ground

Lawsuit by immigrant workers highlights issue’s complexities

MT photo: Bruce Giffin
The UAW attempts to organize immigrant workers at Hope Global in Redford.
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Published 6/28/2006

Even though he's a named plaintiff in a federal lawsuit, the man we'll call Reynaldo didn't want his name used for this article. That request for anonymity, at least in part, speaks to the complexity surrounding the issue of undocumented foreign workers in this country.

Reynaldo, now 26, came into the United States illegally in 1999, seeking to earn more than the $15 a day he made selling bamboo furniture out of his home in Veracruz, Mexico. So he and his father snuck across the border, Reynaldo heading for California, while his father continued to Virginia. Reynaldo says he hasn't seen his father since.

He packed auto parts for a few months before the company laid him off. Then a supervisor recommended Reynaldo look up a friend of his in Michigan. So he headed off to the Canton-based auto supplier Lotus International. For five years he assembled televisions installed in automobile headrests. At first, he says, the company paid him $7 an hour. In cash. He says he sent much of it to his mother and siblings in Veracruz while he and his wife and daughter, both U.S. citizens, lived in southwest Detroit.

"I wanted to make a better life," he says. "And I wanted to give a better life for my mom."

A few months ago, that better life became more difficult. He didn't complain when the company started paying him by check, which had taxes, Social Security and Medicare fees deducted. But he and his fellow workers did mind when the company allegedly started paying them for only 40 of the 55 hours they worked weekly. And they got angrier in April when, Reynaldo claims, instead of giving them annual raises, management announced both a pay cut and an increase in production.

"Ten of us talked to the supervisor," he says. "He said, 'If you don't want to work like this, go home.'"

And here Reynaldo's story takes a twist. Not only did the workers not return to their jobs, they and other workers came back with a lawsuit. In June, 17 of them, including Reynaldo, filed a suit in U.S. District Court in Detroit against Lotus International under the Fair Labor Standards Act, seeking past overtime pay and penalties. One of their lawyers estimates it all could add up to tens of thousands of dollars.

Lotus spokeswoman Uma Sharma says that the workers involved in the suit were all paid properly. The company doesn't knowingly hire undocumented workers, she adds, and if any of the workers in the suit are in fact here illegally, they must have provided Lotus false documents at the outset. The company dismissed the workers because production needs decreased, she says, not because of pay and production disputes.

Some may question the chutzpah of undocumented workers suing for back pay. But in cases like Reynaldo's, which have been cropping up across metro Detroit, the tangled relationship the country has with its undocumented work force becomes apparent. And as Reynaldo and others like him assert their rights as workers, the U.S. government is increasingly cracking down on the companies that hire them.

The Worker Center in southwest Detroit is handling the Lotus case. Created by the Michigan AFL-CIO, it opened its doors last May. Since then, says center director Elena Herrada, at least 100 workers, documented and otherwise, have walked in to take advantage of the legal advice and ESL courses offered.

Herrada says she doesn't ask people whether they're in the country legally before taking their cases. Her main concern, she says, is helping immigrant workers who feel they've been taken advantage of.

"People call us and tell us they hadn't been paid for work they had done and are being threatened with immigration raids if they asked for their payment," says Herrada.

Some may think the AFL-CIO is catching a lot of flak for aiding immigrants who, the traditional argument goes, depress wages for other U.S. workers. But both Herrada and Michigan AFL-CIO President Mark Gaffney say the rank-and-file agree with what they're doing. They argue that the best way to maintain good wages and working conditions is to bring the newcomers into the fold, even going so far as to lobby the federal government to place some undocumented workers on the fast-track to legal residency.

And while the union seeks to help immigrant workers, it also seeks to help itself. Gaffney says the union considers the blue-collar immigrant community one of its last, best hopes for renewed organizational life.

"Our future depends on us organizing more workers and changing the way we relate to the community as a whole," he says. "Our future will be better if we organize more immigrant workers. And they are the ones who need to organize the most."

This can be seen in another case the center has taken on. Last month, roughly 20 immigrant workers were fired from the Redford-based auto supplier Hope Global. The workers, some of them undocumented, claim they were fired after complaining about low wages and unsafe working conditions. Company President and CEO Robert Louis-Ferdinand says he dismissed the workers after finding discrepancies in the Social Security numbers they provided when hired.

The center helped the workers organize a series of picket lines on the company's front lawn. Mingling with the workers were UAW representatives, suggesting they form a union.

Does something like that inflame anti-immigration activists on the right? Not necessarily.

The Washington, D.C.-based Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) is one of the groups fighting to stamp out illegal immigration and curb legal immigration. But in a situation that illustrates how the immigration debate has fractured old political alliances, even it says that undocumented workers, once here, should be protected by labor laws.

Mike Hethmon, a general consul for Immigration Reform Law Institute in Washington, D.C., and spokesman for FAIR, says that if not for U.S. labor laws protecting undocumented workers, businesses might even be more tempted to hire illegal aliens.

"Generally the labor laws should be applied to anyone who is construed to be a worker," he says. "No one believes that employers who already are getting off scot-free from immigration standards should be given immunity from fair labor standards. Otherwise there'd be an incentive to hire even more illegals."

The Supreme Court felt the same way. As National Labor Relations Board spokesman Stephen Glasser explains it, the court decided in 2002 that employers have to treat workers fairly no matter their legal status.

"If employees are illegally discharged and the claim is they're illegal immigrants, that doesn't affect the protection they're afforded," he says "The mere fact a worker is undocumented doesn't mean they have no protection under the statutes we enforce."

And as evidenced by April's massive demonstrations in Dallas, Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit and dozens of other cities, there are a lot of immigrants out there to protect, both legal and otherwise.

The Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, D.C., estimates that about 7 million undocumented immigrants are in the U.S. work force. Half of those have taxes and social program deductions taken from their paychecks; the other half is paid under the table.

The Pew Hispanic Center estimates there were between 100,000 and 150,000 undocumented aliens in Michigan in 2005.

Hethmon may agree with Reynaldo's rights under the country's labor laws, but he also applauds the recent increase in enforcement operations by the group representing the bane of Reynaldo's underground existence — the federal Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Which is why Reynaldo doesn't want his real name used for this story. Even though it's legal for him to participate in the lawsuit — which doesn't address the issue of documentation — if he appears in print admitting to being an illegal worker, he's inviting arrest and deportation.

But that may happen anyway. Even so, despite the danger that the lawsuit against Lotus International could expose Reynaldo to government scrutiny, Herrada says he and the other workers are willing to take the risk.

"They don't want to be deported," she says, "but they're not afraid to fight for what they worked for."

Ben Lefebvre is a Metro Times staff writer. Call him at 313-202-8015, or send e-mail to blefebvre@metrotimes.com.

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