Michael Theriault headshot

No Trade is more fundamental to California construction than the rodbuster, whom the Iron Workers represent. No building in California goes up without rebar.

In Northern California in the late 1990s the rebar industry was teetering on the precipice of going non-union. Its workforce was predominantly immigrant and Latino. We in the Iron Workers worked hard to organize this workforce, and we succeeded. We guaranteed thousands of workers better wages and lives.

Imagine if we had not. Imagine a non-union presence literally in the foundation of most major construction. Other Trades have often expressed gratitude to me for the support of the Iron Workers for their job actions. These actions protect area standards in wages and benefits that help uplift even non-union workers. Rebar constitutes more than half the Iron Workers' Trade. Imagine if more than half our Trade labored in a fear that kept it from honoring job actions of other Trades. Workers throughout construction would suffer.

Ours is not the only industry in California in which an entire industry depends on fair treatment and prosperity for immigrants.

Documented or not, immigrant workers are often intimidated by immigration authorities.

We have now heard many times of documented immigrant workers, including some who have attained citizenship, being arrested by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE. Davino Watson, a Jamaican-born American citizen detained in New York, was held for three and a half years because he was never granted access to an attorney, and after release was denied by the courts any compensation for his unjust detention. "Green Card" holders can lose them for immigration fraud or for legal problems demonstrating "moral turpitude." We can understand that under a President whose candidacy began with a speech accusing Mexico of sending people "bringing crime" and "rapists" here many documented immigrants might have fears that the "moral turpitude" standard might be applied unjustly, especially because, once seized, they are not guaranteed legal representation.

Some employers understand this intimidation all too well.

Danny Prince and I as Iron Worker organizers once worked with non-union workers, all immigrants, who were upset at the low pay and unfair treatment meted out to them by their employer, a rebar contractor. They wanted to protest, and so one day they left a job on which they'd been working, took up signs they'd prepared themselves and that we had kept for them, and picketed the job.

Their employer's response was instantaneous: He threatened to report them to la migra, immigration authorities.

This was far from the only employer we heard was making this threat. Any organizer in any Trade who has worked with immigrants can cite many such instances.

When United States Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced in Sacramento 7 March that his Department of Justice had filed suit to overturn three California laws protecting immigrants, some legal analysts rated one from our own Assemblymember David Chiu as vulnerable. Chiu's law requires employers not to let ICE raid a workplace without a court order. Analysts have cited the precedence of Federal immigration law over state law and noted that imposition by a state of requirements with regard to immigration on businesses could be undone by this precedence.

What analysts have not noted is that California law has since 1872 worked to prevent unfair competition among businesses, and that Chiu's law, through holding all businesses to the same standard in dealing with ICE, suits exactly this purpose.

Particularly in immigrant-heavy industries such as ours, the fears that have been heightened under the Trump administration and Attorney General Sessions can be exploited directly by unscrupulous employers to cow a workforce that might otherwise demand the wages and conditions other employers provide. Just as threats of la migra have long been used by employers against workers they consider uppity, so we can anticipate that an invitation to ICE to raid a jobsite will become a weapon for these employers; if the employer's workforce is spread over half a dozen jobsites, invite ICE onto one, and workers on the other five get very quiet. Yes, this was a possibility before Trump and Sessions, but their actions and rhetoric have made it likelier.

Chiu's law denies employers this weapon.

Employers that treat their workers fairly, that pay them a good wage, that provide them safe conditions, that do the very things we in the Trades demand for workers, are disadvantaged by the use of ICE as a weapon by unscrupulous employers. Not just are unions then damaged, and not just workers, whether union or non-union, but so is the economic health of a state that depends on responsible employers of a population with a high proportion of immigrants to sustain its families, communities, and institutions.

Chiu's law, by protecting immigrant workers, protects all of us in construction. Chiu's law, by protecting immigrant workers, protects California fundamentally.

Organized Labor


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