Howard Industries Lawsuit Helps Fuel Myth of Black and Latino Beef

Four black women have filed suit alleging the company preferred to hire undocumented workers. But a union battle is what's really at stake.

By Julianne Hing Mar 04, 2011

Last Friday four black women filed a discrimination lawsuit in U.S. District court against Mississippi company Howard Industries claiming that the electrical equipment distribution company showed preferential treatment in hiring Latino workers, many of whom were undocumented.

It is just the latest chapter in the labor and immigration controversies that have surrounded the company since August 25, 2008, when Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials raided Howard and detained 595 employees who were undocumented. The raid remains the largest-ever worksite raid in U.S. history.

In the lawsuit Charlyn Dozier, one of the four plaintiffs, claims that she applied for work every three to six months starting in 2002 but could not get a job there until after the 2008 raid.

"As a result of bringing in undocumented Latino workers, they were discriminating against blacks and whites," the women’s attorney Lisa Ross told ABC.

Ross told ABC that Howard bought into racial stereotypes that immigrants work harder and are easier to exploit than U.S.-born workers and showed preferential treatment by hiring Latinos over other black and white workers.

The lawsuit was filed the day after Howard was fined $2.5 million when it pleaded guilty to knowingly hiring undocumented workers. Yesterday, Jose Humberto Gonzalez, the sole Howard Industries official who was charged with any crime after a 2008 raid on the company, was sentenced to six months of house arrest and five years of probation, the Laurel Leader Call reported.

Immigrant rights groups in Mississippi say that the only way to make sense of the current mess is by understanding the unique economic and labor dynamics in the town, where Howard is the largest employer. In 2008, Howard workers were organized under the IBEW, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. White, black and Latino workers were building capacity so they could head into contract negotiations with a solid worker mandate, according to Bill Chandler, executive director of the Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance. Their union contract expired on August 30, 2008.

"The irony of course is that the raid occurred five days before the expiration of the union contract," Chandler said. "It’s very suspicious why that raid occurred when it did."

Labor and immigrant rights advocates speculated that Howard Industries, facing growing worker strength, leveraged its considerable ties to Mississippi officials to help orchestrate the raid.

At the time, Jim Evans, who works with the AFL-CIO in Mississippi and was a member of the state legislature’s Black Caucus, told New America Media, "This raid is an effort to drive immigrants out of Mississippi," adding, "It is also an attempt to drive a wedge between immigrants, African Americans, white people and unions–all those who want political change here."

Mississippi had seen an influx of immigrants from Latin America in recent years because of NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, and Hurricane Katrina, when many were hired to do contract recovery work.

According to Chandler, most Latino immigrants arrived and worked in poultry and lumber processing plants, which were vacated after gains in education in the 1970s and 1980s allowed black workers to seek work outside these sectors. Chandler added that Howard ended up hiring Latino immigrants who were machinists and welders in their home countries.

"One of the myths is that Latinos undermine the jobs of so-called American workers because they’ll work for lower wages," Chandler said. "But the fact of the matter is that at Howard there was a union contract and significant participation in the union by Latino workers, which meant that everyone’s pay was determined by what was negotiated between bosses and the negotiation committee of the union."

"It has been easy to demonize Latinos first of course with white workers in the South and then with some black workers," Chandler said. "Except a significant number of black workers, because of their own experiences, recognize that attacking Latinos is the same crap that’s been used against them."

Raids like the one on Howard don’t occur in quite the same fashion these days. During President Obama’s tenure, he’s scrapped high-profile worksite raids like the one on Howard for so-called "silent raids," where immigration officials quietly audit the worker rolls at companies. Every worker who turns out to be undocumented, and not just the ones who happen to be on site at the time, is then fired. Last month ICE announced it would begin investigating 1,000 companies.

The lawsuit comes on the heels of renewed debate in Congress about immigrants and jobs. The Republican-led House Immigration Subcommittee held a hearing this week titled "Making Immigration Work for American Minorities," in which Rep. Lamar Smith posited that high rates of black unemployment were the fault of undocumented immigrants, who depressed wages and drove out black workers. Democrats led by the Congressional Black Caucus fought back on those claims, and said it was a bald attempt to divide communities of color to crack down on immigrants.