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Arriving at the New Bedford tire yard from all over New England and New York, a fleet of trucks delivers endless loads of spent rubber. A shredder feeds a conveyor belt that spits bits of rubber onto a mountain as black as coal, destined to be reused as heating fuel.
Most of the workers here at Bob's Tire Company are from the same municipality in western Guatemala, San Andrés Sajcabajá. They are indigenous Mayans and native speakers of K'iche' — Spanish is a second language. At least some say they're undocumented.
At 18, Tomas Ventura came to New Bedford from Guatemala and landed a job at this tire recycling plant. He's 26 now, and says most of the workers get no paid sick leave or vacation time. Raises are scarce: After eight years of work, he earns $11 an hour.
“In January we got together and asked for a [$1] raise,” Ventura said. “Our boss said he’d give it to us in April, but time passed and ... we never got our raise.”
The owner of Bob's Tire declined to comment for this story, but Ventura says he and three others were fired over their demand for better wages. He says they returned to protest, threatened to file a complaint and successfully pressured the company to take them back.
“I think we were fired to teach a lesson to the other workers. ‘Nobody should speak out, nobody should ask for a raise.,' " he said. "That's why I gained courage. I told the other workers: 'Let's do something, this is the time, if we don't do it now it will never happen.' "
Last month, shortly after the four were rehired, the workers at Bob's Tire voted overwhelmingly — 65-5 — to join the United Food and Commercial Workers union, or UFCW. Advocates describe the vote as a first for New Bedford's Guatemalan community.
'It's Like A Pressure Cooker'
According to the U.S. Census, New Bedford is home to 1,500 Guatemalans, though advocates estimate the real number could be three times that. Many work in gritty, low wage jobs, like shucking clams in one of the dozens of seafood processing shops in the city.
Advocates say most of them, including the recycling workers at Bob’s Tire, work through temp agencies. And many are undocumented.
The Bob's Tire employees were connected to the UFCW by the Centro Comunitario de Trabajadores, a Guatemalan-run workers center in New Bedford. The group's director, Adrian Ventura, says immigration status does not come into question at the center or at the union.
"The workers are aware that with or without papers, they have to be able to express themselves and demand their rights,” Adrian Ventura said. “They've overcome their fear because with so much exploitation, abuse, trickery and discrimination … the workers eventually explode. It's like a pressure cooker."
Illegal immigration is a sensitive topic in New Bedford. In 2007, federal agents rounded up 361 workers in the raid of the Michael Bianco textile factory.
Union organizing offers undocumented workers some immigration protection. The Department of Homeland Security has a policy discouraging enforcement while organizing is underway — particularly when status is used by employers as a means of retaliation.
"For years, advocates and unions and lawyers have notified INS, now ICE, of pending labor disputes to let them know that they should not engage in any enforcement action," said Rebecca Smith, deputy director of the National Employment Law Project. "And the policy arose out of instances in which businesses would call immigration authorities on their own workers in order to rid themselves of a labor dispute."
"Undocumented workers are considered employees," said Wilma Liebman, former chair of the National Labor Relations Board. "They're permitted to vote in [union] elections, they, at least hypothetically, have all the rights of employees who are documented or citizens."
But there's a wrinkle: Liebman says the U.S. Supreme Court decided that an employer can't be ordered to rehire an undocumented worker.
"What that means is that undocumented workers who are involved in an organizing effort, risk, if they are fired, not being able to get their job back and not being able to get back pay for the time they've been fired," Liebman said.
The vote to unionize at Bob's Tire comes a month after the NLRB made it easier for unions to qualify companies and the temp agencies they use as “joint employers.” The workers unionized as employees of both the tire company and the temp agency, BJ's Temp Service. (Officials at the temp agency did not respond to interview requests.)
Boston University law professor Michael Harper recently testified before a congressional committee in favor of the NLRB change. He said the board has restored the original meaning of joint employment, which had been narrowed by the NLRB under President Ronald Reagan.
"By bringing the law back to what it was before they at least give these leased employees, and subcontracting employees, a chance to have meaningful bargaining," Harper said.
Harper explained what can happen without a joint employment relationship: "'Oh your employees formed a union, temp agency? We're going cut your employees off. They're out of a job because they formed a union.' Now if they're a joint employer, if they do that that's an unfair labor practice."
The NLRB decision came down 3-2 along partisan lines. The board's two Republicans argued the decision will subject companies to previously unlawful strikes, boycotts and pickets, as well as liability for unfair labor practices.
Stephen Dwyer, general counsel for the American Staffing Association, a trade group that represents temp agencies, said the decision was an overreach.
"The business community and the employee community need to be able to rely on established legal precedent, and when there is a moving target in terms of what that standard is, it creates confusion," Dwyer said.
Dwyer downplayed the importance of the joint employment decision. He said the number of union workers in the private sector has declined to less than 7 percent, and just 2 percent of the workforce is made up of temporary employees.
“Historically temporary workers haven't joined unions," Dwyer said.
But the change could have major implications for New Bedford's Mayans. According to the workers center, almost all of the city's two dozen fish houses use temp labor.
With a union now in place at Bob's Tire Company, the next step is to begin negotiating a contract.
"So now we've made the correct decision ... Let's do things right," said worker Domingo Ventura. "We're not going to hurt the company — we're going to put the company in its place and make it respect us."
The Guatemalan workers say they hope to get what all workers want: sick time, paid vacation, holidays and job security.
Comments from Tomas Ventura, Adrian Ventura and Domingo Ventura are translated from Spanish.
This segment aired on November 3, 2015.
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