Immigration and Customs Enforcement conducted the largest worksite immigration raid in U.S. history on Aug. 7 in Mississippi. Only four days after a racist, anti-Latinx massacre in El Paso, Texas, ICE arrested 680 supposedly undocumented and overwhelmingly Latinx workers.
U.S. authorities boasted of breaking the arrest record after raiding poultry processing plants in seven small central Mississippi towns. (CNN, Aug. 9, tinyurl.com/y2dsdvfj) All but one of the plants are operated by Koch Foods, one of the largest poultry producers in the U.S., employing 13,000 workers at locations primarily in Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, Ohio and Tennessee. (Koch has no known connection to the right-wing billionaire Koch brothers.)
The raids were carried out on the first day of the school year, which starts early in much of the South. Hundreds of children of im/migrant workers were left without their parents. Videos of the children sobbing in their classrooms or at plant fences went viral, bringing a blast of outrage from within and outside Mississippi.
The Facebook statement of the Mississippi Rising Coalition emphasized: “[This is] the largest single-state worksite raid in the nation’s history… in a state with three for-profit immigrant detention centers, the only state flag with the Confederate emblem, the highest number of recorded lynchings of people of color, the last to ratify the 13th Amendment [abolishing slavery except for prisoners] … where every April is Confederate Heritage Month.”
Hometown Action of Alabama stated on Facebook: “As southerners we recognize this type of state violence is another form of white supremacy and we won’t stand for it. #AbolishICE.”
The raids took place in Bay Springs (population 1,723), Canton (12,725), Carthage (4,822), Forest (5,655), Morton (3,423), Pelahatchie (1,353) and Walnut Grove (1,609).
Raids targeted union workers
Many workers belonged to Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 1529, Region 5, also with members in Tennessee, Arkansas and Kentucky. UFCW is meeting with community groups and immigrants rights activists to organize support. UFCW is the leading U.S. organizer of poultry workers, with more than 60,000 members in the industry.
ICE raided the plants as worker organizing rises throughout the South, including in Mississippi. Canton also houses one of the largest automobile plants in the U.S. South, a Nissan plant with 6,400 workers. African-American workers there have been leading a 15-year-long battle to win union recognition as a local in the United Auto Workers. (Workers World, July 18, 2017, tinyurl.com/yy83lzlh)
The poultry plant raid follows closely on a significant legal win by Mississippi UFCW workers. According to the Aug. 7 Payday Report, after an almost eight-year-long legal battle, Koch Foods was declared guilty last year in a $3.75 million worker harassment suit. (tinyurl.com/y4365yjj)
The lawsuit, brought by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, cited Koch Foods for incidents at the Morton plant when “supervisors touched and/or made sexually suggestive comments to female Hispanic employees, hit Hispanic employees, and charged many of them money for normal everyday work activities.”
In 2016, Koch Foods of Mississippi was cited and fined by the Occupational Health and Safety Administration after safety violations caused severe worker injuries from falls, unguarded machinery, electric shocks and other hazards.
The ICE raid in Mississippi is the latest to target plants and factories where immigrant workers have organized unions to fight back against discrimination and unsafe working conditions. For instance, last year ICE arrested 140 workers at a unionized Fresh Mark meatpacking plant in Salem, Ohio, only a week after OSHA fined that company more than $200,000 for dangerous equipment that caused the death of an undocumented worker. (tinyurl.com/yx8zy4o2)
Presidents of both the AFL-CIO and the Teamsters Union issued statements of support for the UFCW workers, but omitted white supremacy as a factor. Statements from UNITE HERE and CWA condemned white supremacy and racism in the raids.
‘The chicken plant replaced the cotton field’
In rural Mississippi, poultry plants have now become the dominant employer as Latinx immigrants join a predominantly Black community and workforce in this white supremacist state.
An in-depth 2013 Southern Spaces article recounted the long history of poultry worker organizing in Mississippi, saying: “The chicken plant replaced the cotton field… . Organizing by African American poultry workers in the 1970s grew from the seeds planted by the Mississippi freedom struggle … . The Southern Conference Educational Fund established its Grass Roots Organizing Work (GROW) Project, an anti-racist organizing initiative that sought to help Black and white workers improve their economic conditions… .
“Led by Bob Zellner, formerly of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, GROW had been organizing pulpwood haulers and wood cutters since the late 1960s. One of its chapters was located in Forest, Miss., and many of the haulers’ and cutters’ family members worked in poultry. Encouraged by the organizing efforts of their husbands and brothers and fed up with management’s refusal to provide breaks after one woman working the line urinated on herself, Black women at Southeastern Poultry walked off the job in 1972. That year they formed the independent Mississippi Poultry Workers’ Union …
“In the decade that followed, numerous union organizing attempts failed at plants in Morton, Hazlehurst, Laurel, Jackson, and other poultry towns. Sanderson Farms in Laurel, a processing stronghold one hundred miles to the south of Scott County, stands out as an exception. There, the largely Black female workforce self-organized, and a prolonged strike garnered the support of the AFL-CIO, leading to affiliation with the International Chemical Workers Union.” (tinyurl.com/yygpmn7r)
Workers assert solidarity, ICE attacks
The Southern Spaces article analyzes tactics used by companies to try to break worker solidarity and organizing: “The industry’s management employed intimidation, threats, bribes, and lies to instill fear in workers and defeat most [National Labor Relations Board] elections over the next two decades. Pitting Black and white workers against one another, as happened at Poultry Packers in Forest, became central to economic restructuring.
“This rising economic, political, and cultural logic soon led to Mississippi poultry’s recruitment of immigrant labor as a form of labor control.” In Forest, one of the raided towns, the Latinx population increased 1,000 percent from 1990 to 2000.
But in the poultry plants that ICE raided, Black and Latinx workers have continued to assert solidarity and fightback through union organizing and legal cases against death-dealing capitalist working conditions.
The recent ICE raids are the heavy hand of the U.S. state apparatus attempting to smash pro-immigrant and pro-worker organizing, using an array of racist, anti-worker attacks not just in Mississippi but throughout the country.
The impact of the ICE raids on the Mississippi communities is devastating, including economically. In the Aug. 9 CNN interview, Brittany Reynoso, who was waiting in a parking lot near the Morton plant, said members of her church had been seized in the raids, and she wanted them to see a familiar face if they were released.
Reynoso added: “I’ve never seen Morton or Forest or any of the surrounding areas look so empty during the day. It is horrible. And I honestly don’t think these communities will make it without them, because they really and truly are the backbone of what’s keeping this town afloat.” (tinyurl.com/y3yuo8qt)
The Southern Spaces article noted that the poultry workers are “from nearly every part of the continent. They are Black, Brown, and occasionally white; men and women; campesinos and former blue- and even white-collar workers; speakers of English, Spanish, and a handful of Indigenous languages.”
This is the 21st-century international working class, organizing in Mississippi, throughout the South and throughout the world. They are deep in the struggle against white supremacy, misogyny and capitalism.
Now is the moment to unite in struggle through the International Workers’ Solidarity Network (workersolidarity.net), and through local actions everywhere, to finally end white supremacist ICE raids and #AbolishICE.
Johnnie Lewis, member of UFCW Local 400, retired, also contributed to this article.