Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Workers complain of low wages at Mississippi plant where 600 undocumented workers were arrested seven years ago

Workers are complaining about low wages at a plant in Laurel, Miss., where an estimated 600 undocumented migrant workers were arrested by federal agents seven years ago and many of them sent to a Louisiana detention center without formal charges or even the opportunity to call a lawyer.

Most of Howard Industries’ 4,000-plus current workers are African American, and thus the NAACP also supported their plea before the Laurel City Council last month for higher wages at a company that not only enjoys local tax exemptions but also received a $31 million state taxpayer-funded subsidy back in 2002.

Laurel Mayor Johnny Magee, meeting with reporters after last month’s council meeting appearance by an attorney representing the workers and an NAACP official, said that the city can do nothing about wages at Howard Industries. He and Council President Tony Thaxton also agreed that the company’s local tax exemptions are not in danger.

The workers, members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, earn between $3.55 and $6 an hour less than their counterparts in other nearby Mississippi plants, said Roger Doolittle, an attorney representing IBEW Local 1317. Contract negotiations between management and workers have been in a stalemate over the pay issue.

“For the type of work they do, (wages) are incredibly low,” Doolittle said. “It is a travesty that the city of Laurel supports hundreds of thousands of dollars in tax exemptions to that kind of employer. … It defies belief.”

A request was made to Howard Industries for comment but no response has come thus far.

The local newspaper, the Laurel Leader-Call, editorialized strongly against the union on June 17. Unions “are an impediment to good business,” the editorial said. “Unions fleece workers under the guise of working in their best interests.”

The editorial went on to say that the solution to the workers’ complaints is as follows: “If you’re unhappy with your pay or working conditions, get another job.”

Howard Industries, which produces electrical transformers, is the company where hundreds of immigrant workers were arrested by federal agents with Immigration and Customs Enforcement in August 2008. This was the largest raid at a work place in the history of the nation.

Howard Industries, a company with a reputation for gifts to politicians, pleaded guilty to conspiring to violate the nation’s immigration laws and agreed to a $2.5 million fine. Federal prosecutors said the company hired undocumented workers even after receiving word from the Social Security Administration that their Social Security numbers were invalid.

Ironically the only conviction of an actual person in the case was of a Latino, company human resources director Jose Humberto Gonzalez.

Many of those arrested were sent to the LaSalle Detention Center in Jena, La. They were held for weeks without formal charges or the ability to see an attorney. The migrant workers were dumped into single rooms holding as many as 250 inmates, according to the Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance.

Their crime was working without proper documentation at a company that was fined in June of 2008 for 54 safety violations.

In 2012 the company agreed to a $1.3 million settlement of a discrimination lawsuit by four African American women who said Latinos got preferential treatment in hiring. The company also agreed to hire at least 70 rejected job applicants within nine months of the settlement.

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