Early in the morning of March 6th, two days before International Women’s Day, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials made a massive raid at a sweatshop in the Massachusetts city of New Bedford. 327 workers, mainly female, and many mothers of young children, were rounded up and detained.
The raid, which happened so suddenly and was carried out with no concern for safety in a crowded plant, resulted in a number of injuries as chaos and panic spread among the workers, many of whom thought they were in the middle of a fire alarm. As ICE officials stormed in, the workers finally realized what was indeed taking place: a Gestapo-like slave raid. Fearing immediate detention and deportation, many workers fled, as a number of them had young children with no one else to provide for them. In other words they fled for survival. One woman, seven months pregnant, fell down during the chaos and began bleeding, requiring an ambulance escort to a hospital. Another worker broke her ankle; another pregnant worker was treated for hyperventilation; five workers were treated for “exposure to cold” as it was a frigid nine below zero that morning. Countless other injuries went untreated as workers inside the plant reported seeing people run into equipment like sewing machines; in the confusion workers fell upon one another – according to one witness, there were “piles of workers.”
Homeland Security spokesperson Richard Rocha, said ICE flew agents in from “all over the country to take part” in the grossly misnamed “Operation United Front”. The raid’s true intentions and the collaboration between the Homeland Security and ICE became clear when Rocha said: “[We] want to make the point that each of these illegal workers are taking jobs away from people in New Bedford.” In other words, the real reason for this raid and other raids like this is to divide the working class and inject more fear into the immigrant workers in particular, those that endure the worst conditions, lowest pay, and often have no legal avenues of defense against the abuse and exploitation. These raids aim to atomize the labor movement, and that only benefits the ruling class. The only solution is for all workers – documented and undocumented - to unite in the struggle to demand equal rights and protections for all workers, no matter where they were born.
While all the workers from the plant were being screened for citizenship status, their families and members of the community stood watch outside, shivering in the cold. Inside the plant, according to several working mothers who were released, it was reminiscent of a scene from the Spanish Inquisition: “They were insisting ‘sign here’, ‘sign here’ - we didn’t even know what we were signing, there were people who signed deportation orders because they couldn’t read.” Another female worker reported that “a woman next to me refused to sign the form and the officer signed it for her.”
A total of 361 workers, mostly from Guatemala and El Salvador were taken away, shackled and shipped off like cattle to a former military base turned detention center in Massachusetts. Half have already been flown to Texas detention center. They were put in orange prison garb and kept without heat in the below-zero weather; several nursing mothers had to pump out breast milk in the prison bathroom. The next day, ICE officials announced that they intended “to leave no child behind,” but already, one breast-feeding infant had been hospitalized for dehydration and an unknown number of older children with house keys had returned home to find their parents missing.
ICE hypocritically claims that it was concerned with the conditions the workers toiled under. But the inhuman treatment they meted out during the raid and its aftermath exposes the hollowness of that flimsy justification. However, it is true that the workers of Michael Bianco Inc., owned by Francisco Iosolia, worked in miserable conditions. The female workers who were released spoke of the indignities imposed on them by management. Aside from the dingy and unsafe conditions, the workers reported a host of “fines” including $20 fines for talking at work or for using the bathroom for more than two minutes. They were docked for every minute they were late, there were restrictions on the use of toilet paper, and emergency exits were kept locked. Any slight infraction of any of these rules often led to on-the-spot firings. These are precisely the kinds of conditions that workers would face if a “guest worker” program were introduced, which would be nothing more than a form of legalized indentured servitude.
As for Homeland Security’s claim that these workers were “stealing jobs”, this is a smokescreen intended to divert attention from the real issues involved. The government’s own affidavits claim that company management explicitly sought to hire undocumented immigrants. The owner and managers purposely preyed on undocumented immigrant workers in order to keep costs low and profits high. These workers have stolen nothing – rather, everything has been stolen from them!
Ironically, Michael Bianco Inc.’s main source of revenue is the federal government itself. It has an $82 million contract with the department of defense to produce leather goods for the military, including backpacks, pouches, and safety vests.
The very same day, another factory in the same city announced it was closing shop and that all 85 jobs would be lost in the coming months. The 85 jobs that will be lost forever are all quality jobs - engineers and electricians - union jobs that provide decent wages and conditions, a shop represented by UAW local 1596. The factory produces metals used in oil refineries, shipbuilding, desalination, chemical plants, and nuclear facilities. The products made here are still in demand and according to one, “We still make some of the best metal in the whole world.” Now, after 15 years’ dedication to this company, he expects to end up on the unemployment line. This underlines the real reasons for the grim job situation faced by U.S. workers. There is a relentless drive by the bosses to force down wages and conditions, moving operations overseas if necessary, all in order to maximize profits. The conditions faced by the New Bedford leather good sweatshop is the future for all workers if we don’t organize and fight back.
An Injury to One is an Injury to All
The situation for undocumented workers will soon become even more difficult. The Bureau of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service has stated that it intends to raise the cost of immigration applications across the board, with fees rising by hundreds of dollars. Application and petitions fees will go from $400 to $700, adjustment of status fees from $675 to $905, petition to sponsor relatives from $190 to $355, and fiancé petitions from $170 to $455. Immigrant workers, most of whom already make the lowest wages, will now be expected to jump through more hoops and pay even more money if they want to improve their lives.
These attacks are part and parcel of the bosses’ all-out assault on the wages and conditions of all workers. The only solution is working class unity, organization, and mass mobilization in order to defeat these attacks, just as we defeated the Sensenbrenner bill last spring. The labor movement needs to be at the forefront of this struggle. We have to mobilize not just for the “right” to work in poor conditions with low pay, but for the advancement of the entire working class.
Ultimately, the struggle for the rights of immigrant workers is part of the broader struggle to change the whole of society. All workers have the same interests, no matter where we were born. We want safe, secure jobs with decent pay and benefits, access to quality health care, education, and housing, etc. But the capitalist system cannot even provide these basic necessities. It is geared toward enriching a tiny minority, while the rest of us have to fight each other over the scraps. It must be replaced by a system where workers’ needs come before corporate profits, system in which we can democratically plan the economy in the interests of all - socialism.
The labor movement must organize and mobilize to stop the raids and deportations! For the immediate and unconditional legalization of all immigrant workers and their families! The working class must unite to struggle for its common interests: An injury to one is an injury to all!