Union Tries to Unite Blacks, Latinos

By Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 24, 2006

RED SPRINGS, N.C. -- When she finished eating dinner at the party, Lenora Bruce Bailey sat for a spell on a little wood porch facing Main Street. Two years ago, she had one of the best jobs around: boxing scraps of hog meat at the nearby packing plant. Then she got sick. "They terminated me," she said. "Took away my health insurance."

In a nearby room, Raphael Abrego held up his purple and swollen right hand and wondered whether the same might happen to him. He was one of the better cutters on the fast-moving butcher line, but he slipped one day and injured his hand. "I can't close it," he said in Spanish, trying to clench bloated fingers.

Bailey is a black, native-born American. Abrego is a Latino immigrant. At Smithfield Packing Co., the largest meat-processing facility in the world, the two think of themselves as being in the same boat.

Recently, they attended a potluck to try to do something that is rare for African Americans and Latino immigrants: come together to fight for workers' rights.

Union officials hope their combined forces could be a power in North Carolina's Cape Fear region, where tens of thousands of illegal Central American immigrants seeking meatpacking jobs have joined hundreds of thousands of poor and working-class black people who struggle to get by. But the United Food and Commercial Workers union is finding it hard to overcome the deep wariness and suspicion between the groups in its quest to unite them.

The union's difficulties are part of a larger story of distrust between black and Latino workers, a vast cultural divide between immigrants who illegally enter the country seeking work and African Americans who worry that immigrants will take over their jobs, communities and local political power.

In Tifton, Ga., where immigrants replaced poor black and white farmworkers, five black men were arrested last year in connection with the slayings of six Mexican immigrants.

After Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin, who is black, asked, "How do I make sure New Orleans is not overrun with Mexican workers?" He was concerned because immigrants poured into the city to work low-wage construction jobs.

And in Dallas, black school-board members have charged that their Latino colleagues hire job candidates primarily because of ethnicity.

"The tension is as old as the hills," said Marshall Ganz, a lecturer at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. "Who were the most violently anti-Chinese in San Francisco? The Irish. They felt their jobs were threatened."

Ganz said it is no surprise that workers complained of Smithfield playing blacks and Latino against each other. In congressional testimony, court records and interviews, black employees said they were told that Latino hires were cheaper, while Latinos claimed they were told black people would replace them if they were deported.

"Employers have played that game forever," Ganz said. "It's kind of what unions have to overcome."

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