US companies are bracing for work stoppages on Monday during a series of demonstrations across the country to protest against efforts in Congress to crack down on illegal immigration. However, a marriage of convenience has emerged between undocumented workers who want to stay in the country and the companies that want them to remain.
That marriage will be tested on Monday with plans by immigrant groups for a series of demonstrations across the US – dubbed “A Day Without an Immigrant” or “el boicot” – that could see tens of thousands of workers walking off the job for a day to join in protests.
Restaurants, meat packing plants, small retail shops and others that rely heavily on immigrant labour have been preparing for possible shutdowns. In Los Angeles, a fruit and vegetable market in the city centre, employing 1,800 and serving 4,500 restaurants and 3,000 shops, will be closed today.
“We’re on the same side as our workers on this one from a policy standpoint,” said John Gay, senior vice-president for the National Restaurant Association. “So it’s somewhat ironic that some restaurants look like they’re going to have to close, because our industry’s been so much in the forefront of trying to fix the problem.”
The boycott is the latest demonstration that anger in immigrant communities over proposals to seal the border and arrest undocumented workers already in the country continues to swell. The protests are intended to drive home the dependence of the US economy on immigrant workers, including an undocumented population of nearly 12m people.
“The boycott has come out organically from the communities. This is a very spontaneous reaction to the debate,” said Christian Ramirez of the American Friends Service Committee, a group supporting the boycott. He acknowledged “there are some divisions among immigrant rights groups on whether or not people should be boycotting”.
Most of the leading voices have opposed the boycott. In Los Angeles and in other western cities, priests and pastors have taken a lead from LA’s Cardinal Roger Mahony, who has spoken out against the planned boycott.
Although he has emerged as an influential supporter of the immigrant rights activists, and congratulated the 500,000 who jammed central LA on March 26, he has urged people to work normally today.
“I believe we can make May 1 a ‘win-win’ day here in southern California,” he said. “Go to work, go to school, and then join thousands of us at a major rally afterwards.”
Some union leaders have predicted a turnout of more than 2m people at rallies in Los Angeles, and walk-outs are expected at schools and colleges. In Phoenix, Arizona, a coalition of unions and immigrant advocacy groups was planning a human chain stretching 20 miles across the city.
Employers are grappling with how harsh to be on workers who fail to show up. US law gives tremendous power to companies to fire employees who miss work without reasonable cause. “The risks of leaving work without authorisation are very high,” warned John Trasvina, general counsel for the Mexican-American Legal Defense Fund.
County employees in LA and suburbs to the east have been warned that they must obtain permission to take the day off. In San Bernardino County they were told “improper use of sick leave?.?.?.?shall be construed as grounds for disciplinary action”.
But the councils of five mainly Latino cities in the LA area have come out in support of the boycott and rallies within their boundaries. Filipino and Korean groups have also supported the boycott. The Los Angeles Korean clothing makers’ association has told its members not to retaliate if their workers fail to turn up.
Angelo Amador, director of immigration policy for the US Chamber of Commerce, said he was advising companies not to take a strict position unless they were consistent. “You have to be careful if somebody takes off to go to a baseball game and you don’t fire them for that, then you cannot fire them because of this.”
Jonathan Spitz, an attorney with Jackson Lewis who advises businesses on workplace issues, said: “Most of our clients want to support their employees in their beliefs, and they have been working with employees to adjust schedules and make alternative arrangements.”
He said employers should not be overly concerned about the work stoppages. “I don’t think anybody intends for it to go on indefinitely. I think the organisers of this event are really making their point, which is the impact immigrant workers have on our economy and our workplaces.”
© Copyright The Financial Times Ltd 2006.