Two years ago, in April 2017, about 25 workers at Tom Cat bakery in Long Island City, New York were given notice that the company was being audited by the Department of Homeland Security, and that they had ten days to provide documentation proving their legal eligibility to continue work. Most had been there for well over a decade. Some had worked there their entire adult lives, for 15 years or more. Soon after, they were all fired.
The process is known as an “I-9 audit” and has been in use across the country.
Employees at Tom Cat had previously partnered with a worker center in Long Island City called Brandworkers. Years prior, Brandworkers had helped them oust an abusive manager, among other wins. When the Tom Cat employees got this notice, they again turned to Brandworkers for help.
For over two years now, Brandworkers has helped these workers wage a campaign to get justice. I spoke to Program Director Gabriel Morales about that struggle.
Why do you think this happened?
We don’t know. Because it’s ICE. And I don’t know if we’ll ever know, because all of our experience with ICE is: they are a non-transparent institution. They are shrouded in secrecy. This being the first prominent audit in NYC in the previous 10 years, it’s hard to say why this particular group was targeted specifically.
The workers weren’t actively engaged in an organizing campaign.
No. They’re represented by Local 53 of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers. BCTGM had a militant tradition in its past but at this point in the union’s life cycle, it’s very varied. Some locals are legit, and local 53 is just dying. It’s essentially been captured by the company, so they [the union] just do whatever Tom Cat says.
But previously they had worked with Brandworkers. So was their targeting a coincidence?
I don’t know.
One of the main points of contention we had with Tom Cat was, when did they learn about the audit? And to the best of our knowledge, they found out about it November or December 2016. So the main point of contention with Tom Cat was that they knew about this for 3 months without approaching workers.
Why do you think Tom Cat waited to tell the workers about the I9 audit?
There are two competing factors at play. There’s the moral factor. If you tell this group of workers you have been approached by ICE, they can hire a lawyer, can make arrangements for their children, their family, in case they get deported, etc. You could do that, as a boss, so they could get their affairs in order. Or you could not disrupt your production cycle. And potentially disrupt your profit. When those two factors are competing in our society, one of them wins.
What do you make of the crackdown on migrant workers?
I feel like it’s just part of a longstanding tradition in US culture and history of trying to clamp down on worker power. This particular form it has taken is devastating to immigrant workers especially, but it’s part of a much larger tradition in US society where you have to rein in any expression of collective worker action, even if you have to jump out in front of it before it manifests itself at all.
ICE as an institution has never been good. It’s always been predatory institution in US society. It’s devastated immigrant communities from day one, but how it’s been unleashed in the Trump administration, is that it’s like a rabid wolf that’s been unchained. It’s always been a rabid wolf, but now it’s been unchained, and it’s wreaking havoc.
The [former] acting director of ICE, Tom Homan, is like an arch villain. Sometime late in 2017, he talked about the increasing use of the audit as a tactic, and he said, “I love it, it’s great. I’d like to see a 400% increase in the use of workplace audits to happen in the US.” He just wants to keep ramping it up more and more. And it’s really effective, the audit, as a process. People just disappear. They just vanish.
In Chicago in the summer of 2017, 600 workers just disappeared from the Cloverhill factory in Chicago. They were bakers who baked the buns for McDonald’s. So they are baking for a very powerful and visible company, but they were hit by this ICE audit.
Some of them go back to their countries of origin, some disperse to different parts of the country, some get a new job in a different industry, some get jobs in the same industry. But it has wide-ranging impacts through the entire community.
Have the Tom Cat workers experienced other harassment from ICE? If not, are they worried about it?
Over time, it’s been much less of a discussion, but initially, especially when they were still in the factory, during the ten days, when we had those initial demos — which pushed the company to get an extension on those ten days, so they ended up having 30 days in the factory before Tom Cat was forced to fire them — it was an every day concern: was ICE going to come and bang down the door? Because often these audits are accompanied by a raid. About a year and a half ago there was a series of audits at 7/11s across the country, and many of those were accompanied by raids.
It’s been interesting because the raid process and audit the process have the same outcome, even though the particulars are different. The audit is the less flashy cousin of the raid but it is just as devastating.
Is the audit tactic deployed in NYC because we wouldn’t tolerate raids here?
The audit process generates less heat in the media. And so yeah. Raids get headlines. You get pictures. You get people getting walked out of factories. The audit, you get this letter from your employer. If you don’t get your documentation fixed in the next ten days, you’re fired. And then people have to figure out what to do.
What are the workers’ demands?
There are two campaign demands. One is about the broader immigration rights movement as a whole. We are trying to push the company to adopt a set of policies drafted by the National Employment Law Project and National Immigration Law Center: What to do if immigration comes to your workplace. It outlines a set of policies that employers should adopt to protect immigrant workers. If ICE comes, ask for a warrant. A lot of companies just don’t do that. ICE comes and they’re talking to mid-level managers, and they don’t know what to do, so they just let them in. So it’s partly about training those managers.
That’s the first demand. That Tom Cat adopt this set of policies to protect workers who are still at the company.
The second is about the severance package. Tom Cat’s initial offering was nothing. Wave goodbye to them when they leave. There were some initial demonstrations in April of 2017 outside of the factory [when the workers still worked there]. It was those that pushed the company to offer its first real severance package, which the group of workers just rejected outright. It was one week‘s severance for every year they had worked there.
It wasn’t nothing. But the workers found it to be insulting.
Which demand is the company dragging its feet on?
At this point it’s the money issue. They’re like, you want the policy? Fine, we’ll adopt that.
Is there anything in the policy that would fend off an audit?
There’s no real policy that can fend off an audit. There are things in these policies that make the situation better when an audit is happening, but there is nothing that is going to stave off the audit itself. Just like there is nothing that is going to stave off a raid, necessarily, because ICE can just go and get the warrant.
So if I’m ICE and you’re a factory owner, and I say, “Give me your I9 docs,” you can’t say no, and then I take them and I give them to my researchers, and then my researchers spend some amount of months going thru them looking for something that Isn’t right. Maybe it’s a Social Security Number of a dead person. Or someone [has the SSN of a person] who is employed at a factory in LA at the same time. So I take that back to you and say, “What’s up with these people?” You’ve known the whole time that your workforce has documentation issues. You’ve been exploiting this to your benefit. So part of this is a whole show. “Oh I had no idea. I’ll get right on that.” And ICE puts on a show of believing you. So I give you a list of 30 people, and you say, “Oh I’ll look into that.”
Most of these people have been trying to fix their documentation issues for years. They’re not going to fix it in ten days. So then you have to fire them. You could resist, but you [the employer] would take a series of escalating fines, and then you are arrested. So no boss is going to do that. so you end up firing them.
What do you think about E-Verify?
It’s being implemented in different parts of our industry already. It’s had a real serious impact for immigrant workers. People talk about it all the time. “Does that place use E-Verify?”
I have my own thoughts about how I think immigrant workers should be treated in this society, and E-Verify doesn’t align with that at all. I think it’s bad for workers.
I feel like it’s a tactic that’s used to criminalize immigrant workers, and push them further and further into the margins, where they can be more and more effectively exploited by bosses. And that’s what you hear about.
At the last demo I went to [on March 23], outside of the Tom Cat Bakery, you mentioned that a delegation of workers had just returned from negotiations in Connecticut…
That was the first day that we were able to have a face-to-face conversation with someone from Tom Cat management. The workers themselves have been meeting with Peter Sonensteen, and trying to figure out the particulars. Now that he’s agreed to the policies themselves, they’re just trying to figure out how to move him on this severance.
I think they’re at a point where they just want this thing resolved.
What do you think brought the company to the table?
We’ve knocked out enough customers. [Supporters have encouraged Tom Cat customers such as restaurants to choose another bakery –Ed.] And we just haven’t gone away.
To be honest there are workers who went back to Tom Cat and accepted the initial offer. They all rejected it unanimously initially. When you read Tom Cat’s version [of events], they talk about how workers have come back and accepted the offer. What they don’t talk about is the extreme hardship that these workers were under, after losing their job, and not being able to find jobs super easily. They accepted that offer because they were desperate. And then Tom Cat put a gag order on them. Like, “You’re not able to talk about the deal, you’re not able to participate in the campaign anymore. You just have to go away.”
What form would this new policy on raids and audits take?
We haven’t gotten down to the particular details of how it would be enforced. We’ve talked about getting it incorporated into the collective bargaining agreement that the company already has with Local 53.
We’ve been trying to take some of the lessons of dealing with this process for the last 2 years to develop a checklist for immigrant worker centers, and immigrant community groups, on how to be prepared for an audit in particular. We have a 7-step checklist from the baseline stuff like know your rights, to making sure you have access to an immigration lawyer, then other steps like making sure you are campaign-ready. To make sure you are able to have campaigns that push employers to do things they maybe don’t want to do.
As far as I know, this is the most sustained and organized response to an I9 audit in NYC’s history. The usual narrative that plays out – that played out in Chicago and at 7/11 — is those workers just disappear. And that’s what they’re supposed to do. That’s how the process is supposed to play out: the workers are just supposed to go away.
And that’s what’s been inspiring, according to other immigrant workers, about this campaign. Despite the fact that it’s a multi-billion-dollar corporation. Tom Cat is the oldest artisanal bread factory in NYC, but now it’s just owned by a mega-conglomerate, the Tokyo-based Yamazaki Baking Co. I think it’s the third largest baking company in the world. It has revenues close to $9 billion. So it’s not like a mom-and-pop shop. It’s got vast resources to continue to fight this group of workers forever. So the fact that we’ve been able to force them to sit down with these workers face-to-face is a real testament to their ability to keep fighting. They’re fighting this multi-billion-dollar corporation and they’re fighting ICE.