The POWER Campaign seeks to ensure the basic civil and labor rights of workers who organize to end exploitation.

Building POWER also ensures that American workers’ wages and conditions are not undermined by employers who pit them against a captive workforce of exploited immigrant workers. Learn more >>

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The National Guestworker Alliance just announced a huge victory. The C.J.’s Seafood workers who exposed forced labor on the Wal-Mart supply chain in June were vindicated by the federal government, which granted them U-Visas—special visas for victims of serious crimes. This is an extraordinary victory for worker organizing and labor law enforcement in the U.S.

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The U.S. Census Bureau once again confirmed that the middle class is shrinking and poverty is on the rise.  In today’s environment where it is not only viable, but economically rational for employers to exploit and retaliate against workers, it is easy to understand how we have ended up on a road headed toward increasing inequality.

Thankfully more than 20 leading expert labor and economic policy organizations have collaborated on a new report laying out a road map of common sense policies that have the potential to change the course of current U.S. economic trends.  The POWER Act, a legislative component of the POWER Campaign, is one of the common sense policies included in the road map.

“10 Ways to Rebuild the Middle Class,” provides a snap shot of ten issues that require deliberate action if we are to get away from putting short-term profits over workers, hollowing out the middle class, and undermining our long-term prosperity.   The report lifts up the growing problem of wage theft – where employers steal wages by paying workers less than the minimum wage, not paying workers overtime, or not paying workers at all.  The POWER Act is spotlighted in the report as a real policy answer to our nation’s wage theft problem.  The report recommends the adoption of the POWER Act to wisely ensure that immigrant workers who face wage theft or try to exercise their basic civil and labor rights are protected from retaliation.

The POWER Campaign shares the core value of the report, “that all work has dignity; and that through work, all of us should be able to support our families, educated our children and enjoy our retirements.”  Moreover, as the POWER Campaign continues to develop its organizing components, it has the potential to tackle some of the other nine issues mentioned in the report, such as upholding the freedom to join unions and protecting worker safety and health.

On June 4th, 2012, eight brave workers from CJ’s Seafood went on strike in their fight to expose serious exploitation by their employer.  The workers were victims of forced labor, enduring conditions that have been described as deplorable as abuses found in third world countries by a report released by the Workers’ Rights Consortium on June 20th, 2012.

The workers were subjected to 16-24 hour shifts.  They were not allowed breaks, and the doors to the facility were blocked to keep workers in.  Their pay checks did not add up to all the hours worked, let alone overtime, falling far short of minimum wage or prevailing wage standards.

CJ’s Seafood workers on strike. Photo by National Guestworkers Alliance.

After a complaint to local authorities surfaced, a special staff meeting was called – one in which all U.S. citizen workers were excluded.  The manager told workers, ‘he knew good and bad people, and knew how to find them and their families, here or in Mexico.’  This was a threat he thought he could get away with because of the precarious immigration status of the workers.

All too often that is the entirety of the story.  A story so common in fact, that Jobs with Justice has joined other national organizations in the POWER Campaign to build protections for the basic civil and labor rights of workers who organize to end such exploitation.

Workers who try to stand up for their rights are often retaliated against with immigration enforcement in order to shut them up.  But in this case, the decision of eight workers to bravely organize exposed the forced labor at CJs Seafood, a Walmart supplier, to the world.

The workers joined the National Guest Workers Alliance, a POWER Campaign partner, to make sure their employer was held liable for labor law violations.  Even as Walmart tried to cover it up, the striking workers went to Washington D.C. to meet with officials and share their stories.

From there they went on to New York, where they staged a hunger strike in front of a Walmart board member’s house.  They continued organizing even after CJs was fined by the Department of Labor to the tune of nearly a quarter million dollars to help other workers facing similar abuse.

But despite the victory against their employer, these workers are still in a precarious position.  Because there visas are tied to their employer and because there are no whistle blower protections for immigrant workers who report labor violations, like those that would be provided in the POWER Act, these workers run the risk of being deported.

Without specific protections the CJ’s Seafood workers are determined to continue to fight so that they can stay in Louisiana reach out to other workers suffering from exploitation and retaliation.  And the POWER Campaign is determined to expand protections for worker leaders in their fight for dignity.

Following onto the intent of the POWER Act, a bill twice introduced by Senator Menendez, the POWER Campaign has been working to lift up workers in their struggle for increased protections from exploitation and retaliation.  This spring when 32 workers from the South banded together to form Stand Up 2012, the POWER Campaign rallied around to demand that current protections be applied to these workers and to expose where current policies have failed workers in their access to labor and civil rights.

On June 5th, six workers from Southern 32 made the trip from New Orleans to DC to tell decision makers how they ended up detained and in deportation proceedings for standing up for their labor and civil rights.  Sitting with Representative Gutierrez one of the workers, Melvin, told how he was hired to clean up after Hurricane Ike, but he and other workers were denied safety gear for working in toxic sludge – and then weren’t paid the wages they were owed. When Melvin helped organize a strike, his employer called the police. He was arrested and put in deportation proceedings – all for having the courage to speak out.

As is all too common, Melvin and the other Southern 32 workers were retaliated against for trying to organize themselves and for defending their rights.  Because these thirty-two were immigrant workers ICE was used to limit their access to justice and they are currently on the verge of deportation.

The problem of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in workplace retaliation and the chilling effect it has on the rights of all workers has been widely recognized, but current policies to protect against such abuses are not working.  The Southern 32 qualify for prosecutorial discretion under the civil rights provisions of the Morton Memo, but regional ICE officials have so far ignored the claims.

The POWER Campaign is working to demand prosecutorial discretion as an important protection for these workers, and to support them as they continue to tell their stories and expose where current policies are failing workers.

Help the Southern 32 access protection:

To read more stories from the Southern 32:

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