Privacy: Look for the Union Label
by Wendy McElroy

In 1986, the AFL-CIO backed the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) and it became a crime for a worker without proper documents to hold a job in America. Now AFL-CIO Secretary Treasurer Richard Trumka proclaims, "we are all the eyes of Wall St." Now powerful unions, such as UNITE (garment workers), demand the repeal of the IRCA.

The new tack of Big Labor may unintentionally halt a violation of privacy so profound that the notoriously invasive Social Security Administration has called it "just not right." SSA representative Cathy Noe explains, "[T]hey wanted to hand us a list of names of people working at a business. It would mean going through the files of law-abiding workers." 'It' is Operation Vanguard. 'They' are the Immigration and Naturalization Service. And a massive fishing expedition is underway.

Employers already file an I-9 that meticulously records the documentation of each employee, but the forms are no longer satisfactory proof of "employment eligibility." Records can lie. The INS knows this because its own database is a tangle of inaccuracies. Thus, in late '99, the INS subpoenaed the employment/personnel records of all meatpacking plants in Nebraska. These were cross-referenced against SSA and other government databases, from the IRS to the federal Bureau of Land Management. Employees with 'discrepancies' were scheduled to be interviewed by the INS.

Hearing INS horror stories and fearing all governments, many workers -- illegal and not -- simply left their employment. During one segment of Operation Vanguard, 2,149 of 3,135 workers quit rather than be interviewed: they probably shifted to jobs of lesser quality. Of those who interviewed, 34 were arrested.

One or two privacy advocates grumbled about background checks being conducted without grounds for suspicion. Josh Bernstein, a senior policy analyst at the National Immigration Law Center warned about establishing a precedent.

"The government is flexing its muscles," he said, "trying to see what it can do about this collection of information that is now available on everyone." But the victims were immigrants, not Americans. Without sufficiently strong opposition, the INS pressed on with plans to expand Operation Vanguard nationally. Indeed, it is considering the use of private detective agencies to run the background checks: private enterprise is not burdened by the same constraints as government.

Now an opponent with clout has arisen. The AFL-CIO is a voting block upon which the Democratic Party rests and Big Labor has decided that immigrant workers are its constituents after all. Not that it cares about privacy. Or about the rights of undocumented workers. The AFL-CIO wants to preserve its own power. And Operation Vanguard has become an effective anti-Union weapon wielded by employers.

Consider two examples. When employees at a garment factory in California joined UNITE, foreign-born 'agitators' were required to produce their documents repeatedly for verification. The employer could easily justify this harassment: he could be fined from $100 to $1000 for clerical errors in paperwork. Union support declined dramatically. During a March sweep in the Yakima Valley of Washington State, the INS ordered thirteen apple-packing houses to fire 1,700 workers for "discrepancies" -- real or not. The Valley had been the focus of intense organizing by the Teamsters. In one sweep, the rank-and-file leadership was decimated and three years of unionizing efforts destroyed.

"Immigration law is a tool of the employers," declared Cristina Vazquez of UNITE, "and the INS has helped them." Workers' rights advocates have reason to worry. Employers are being used as enforcement "agents" by the INS. For example, to verify 'new hires' many employers are now authorized to access INS and Social Security databases.

Yet, despite the new muscle to union-bust, many employers dislike Operation Vanguard. Low employment rates nationwide mean that unattractive jobs are difficult to fill. In Nebraska, the governor and congressmen complained vigorously about the intrusion into meatpacking plants: slow slaughter lines were depressing farm profits statewide. Political pressure is being exerted on the INS to operate in a manner that does not disrupt business.

This has led to the Agricultural Job Opportunity Benefits and Security Act of 1999. The Act will give legal status to undocumented farm workers if they agree to labor for five years before obtaining residency papers. Using the words 'legalized slavery,' critics recall the bracero program of 1942-1964. For over two decades, farm workers were transported from Mexico to work in barbaric conditions and for low wages in American fields. At the expiration of their contracts -- written in English, which few laborers could read -- or at the employer's whim, the workers were shipped home.

In short, the AFL-CIO's support of IRCA has strengthened union busting and facilitated the return of indentured servitude to American farms. Meanwhile, Unions continue to decline. In the 50's, 35 percent of U.S. workers belonged to a union. Today, the percentage is closer to fourteen. With one in ten workers being foreign born, Big Labor has come to a tardy conclusion: immigrant labor needs union representation.

Eliseo Medina, vice-president of the Service Employees union explains, "I am...convinced that as the labor movement is the best hope for immigrants, so are immigrants the best hope of the labor movement."

Free market economists speak of unintentional consequences. These are the unpredictable results of actions taken to reach other goals. As the AFL-CIO and the INS prepare to make alphabet soup of each other, they may unintentionally make the privacy rights of American workers safer.

Ring the bell and let the fight begin.