Statement of the
International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers
on the Immigration Raid at Howard Industries
The massive August 25th raid by the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement at Howard Industries in Laurel, Mississippi, removed nearly 500 immigrant workers from Howard Industries—mostly from Mexico and Central America, all suspected of being undocumented—to a detention center in Jena, La. As the elected bargaining representative of more than 2,000 workers at the company, the IBEW carefully reviewed the facts as best we can determine before issuing any public statement.
Our union first won a representation vote at Howard Industries in 1974 after a difficult organizing campaign. The company has never accepted the IBEW as a working partner, and the relationship has never been positive.
Since the beginning of August—when our last collective bargaining agreement expired—our union has been in negotiations with Howard Industries on a new agreement.
Long before the raid, some IBEW Local 1317 representatives at Howard Industries became aware that many Spanish-speaking workers were being paid wages far below the rates that were paid to our members under provisions of our labor agreement. And the numbers don’t tell the story of people going to work every day but living in squalor. Our representatives filed grievances alleging that the company was undermining our labor agreement by assigning our work in its transformer operations to satellite facilities at a lower wage scale with lesser benefits.
Protecting wage standards is part and parcel of why workers, mostly African-American and white, at Howard Industries originally voted for the union. So was protecting safety on the job. In June, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration announced it intended to fine the company $123,000 for 36 violations of health and safety regulations at one plant and another $41,000 at another.
In a right-to-work state, where union membership is voluntary, unions’ sole method for maintaining bargaining strength is by constantly organizing to achieve majority status. So last year, knowing that contract negotiations were coming up, the IBEW assigned an organizer to reach out to Spanish-speaking workers about joining the IBEW. Hundreds did so with the understanding that becoming union members was the only way to win equitable pay and benefits with others in the plant. The IBEW believes that it is the employer’s job to screen workers for legal immigration status. Once they are working in a bargaining unit, our duty is to represent them and work to sign them as members.
The vast majority of members who joined IBEW during our campaign are here legally. We are still trying to determine exactly how many of those detained are IBEW members.
The agency says that it knew about the presence of undocumented workers at Howard Industries two years ago. It is suspicious, then, that the raid took place as contract negotiations were drawing near, the perfect time to undercut the strength of the union. We also gives credence to Mississippi State Rep. Jim Evans, who said that the raid was, in part, politically motivated, an election-year “attempt to drive a wedge between immigrants, African-Americans, whites and unions—all those who want political change here.”
Howard Industries is an influential employer in Mississippi. In 2002, the company received $31.5 million in subsidies to expand its operations. Despite these millions in subsidies, Howard maintained unsafe working conditions – until being forced to change – and deliberately pursued a policy of undercutting wage standards by hiring workers afraid to speak out because of their immigration status.
We are also aware of reports that information supplied by an unnamed “union member” led to the raid and that some workers cheered as the immigrants were taken into custody. We cannot confirm these as facts. What is clear, however, is that the mutual suspicion between native-born workers and immigrants is a tragic reminder that our immigration system is broken.
The IBEW has consistently supported an immigration policy based on respect for the law and the security of America’s borders. We also deplore the cynical abuse of those who come to the United States, with or without documentation, by employers who exploit the fears and economic desperation of workers. Through substandard wages, unsafe working conditions and no benefits, employers reap the benefits of cheap labor while undercutting the standards of all workers. This drives a wedge between workers and limits their ability to stand together for change. Allowing such a system to continue is a stain on the American character that must be addressed by our national leaders.
The IBEW will continue to organize within workplaces where we have bargaining units, like Howard Industries, and at the operations of nonunion employers across the country.
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