U.S. Labor News Roundup: Immigrant Hunger Strike, SuperShuttle Drivers Confront Veolia
Week of March 10, 2014
Making Noise: Solidarity with Immigrant Hunger Strikers
The collective voice of 1,200 immigrants echoed through the halls of the Northwest Detention Center March 11 and reverberated with the community at a solidarity rally in Tacoma, Washington. Their hunger strike began March 7, over systematic exploitation and substandard living conditions.
Maru Mora Villalpando of Latino Advocacy described the exploitation. The contract given to the GEO Group gives them $120 to $160 per detainee each day.
“The diet of an immigrant detained here consists of mashed potatoes and oatmeal. People are so hungry that they’ll work for a dollar a day in the ‘volunteer work program’ just to buy $5 of instant soup. Do the math: we’re talking about a lot of money they’re making off immigrants.”
Detainees are on hunger strike to demand better food, wages for work they perform at the facility such as cooking and cleaning, bonds so that families can remain together while they contest their cases—and an end to deportations.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the Obama Administration enforce the federal program they call “Secure Communities.” They insist it is designed to go after violent and dangerous criminal alien offenders. But as the number of immigrants deported under Obama approaches 2 million, actions led by undocumented immigrants have shown the flaws in this story.
The billions of dollars reaped by private prison corporations like the GEO Group were noted by supporters at the rally from the faith, labor, and student communities.
Antonio Flores of the advocacy group El Comité said, “We can get demoralized with the constant deportations, but the hunger strikers have given us hope to keep pushing on.”
It’s been a bumpy road for SuperShuttle drivers attempting to organize at D.C.-area airports. To win recognition, the drivers must prove they are employees—of a global corporation that’s making more money off workers’ fees than customers’ payments.
More than 200 SuperShuttle drivers, mostly West African immigrants, serve the three airports surrounding Washington, D.C. SuperShuttle calls its drivers “franchisees” and says they’re independent contractors, which disqualifies them from protections like minimum wage, overtime pay, workers’ compensation, unemployment insurance, and the right to organize a union.
The drivers are working with Food and Commercial Workers Local 1994.
Patrick Benhene started driving for SuperShuttle six years ago. He had to pay a $35,000 “franchise fee,” spread over years of weekly payments, with interest. He has paid that off, but continues to pay licensing fees, insurance fees, a $500 “system fee,” and a leasing fee to use the van every week.
“Before you start the week, you owe them,” he said.
SuperShuttle also takes 10 percent of Benhene’s revenue for the week, even from tips paid online.
Drivers sleep in their cars, working 18- to 20-hour days to pay back everything they owe. Many end the week with only $300 or $400, which must be used to pay for the next week’s gas.
SuperShuttle is a subsidiary of a large, lesser known but powerful global conglomerate: Veolia. The French company has a track record of taking on private contracts to run public transit, and breaking up unions.
Bus drivers in Phoenix and Los Angeles, where Veolia holds contracts to privately administer parts of the public transit systems, struck in 2012 and 2013 respectively over wages and job security.
On November 7, 50 Baltimore drivers drove around the airport in a chain of vehicles, to protest SuperShuttle’s unwillingness to update van computer systems that regularly froze up.
“It worked tremendously,” Benhene said: SuperShuttle updated the systems, and workers got a taste of power.