I have been posting on the hyped up racial tensions the media is using to frame the story of the recent ICE Raid at Howard Industries in Laurel Mississippi. Many stories went so far as to claim that African-American workers applauded as Latino immigrants were lined up by race, handcuffed and shuffled out of the plant.
Meanwhile, […]labor and community activists say media coverage of the raid has heightened racial tensions. Newspaper stories have painted a picture of a plant in which African-American and white union members were hostile to immigrants, based mostly on an incident in which some workers “applauded” as their coworkers were taken away by ICE agents. This simplistic picture obscures the real conditions in the plant, activists say, and the role the company itself played in fomenting divisions among workers.
According to Clarence Larkin, African-American president of IBEW Local 1317, the union at the plant, “this employer pits workers against each other by design, and breeds division among them that affects everyone,” he says. “By favoring one worker over another, workers sometimes can’t see who their real enemy is. And that’s what helps keep wages low.”
Workers at Howard Industries, however, do not simply look at each other as enemies across race lines. On August 28, Cintra led a group of women fired in the raid to the plant to demand their pay, after the company denied them paychecks. Managers called Laurel police. “They tried to intimidate us with 10 vehicles of police and sheriffs. They tried to arrest me and make us leave.” After workers began chanting, “Let her go!” and news reporters appeared on the scene, the company finally agreed to distribute checks to about 70 people.
The following day, Cintra and the women returned to the plant to get paychecks for other unpaid workers. They sat on the grass across the street from the factory in a silent protest. “When the shift changed, African-American workers started coming out and they went up to these Latina women and began hugging them. They said things like, “We’re with you. Do you need any food for your kids? How can we help? You need to assert your rights. We’re glad you’re here. We’ll support you.’ There’s a lot of support inside the factory for these workers who were caught up in the raid.”
Meanwhile, the union has been in negotiations with the company since its contract expired at the beginning of August. In preparation for those negotiations, the IBEW brought in a Spanish-speaking organizer, Maria Gonzalez, to recruit immigrant workers into the union. She visited people at home to help explain the benefits of belonging. Larkin says many immigrant workers joined, complaining of bad treatment. “Supervisors yell at people a lot,” he says, “not just immigrants, but at everyone. Howard has always been an anti-employee company, and treats workers with no respect, as though they make no contribution to its success.”