Life changed dramatically for Potter and the other officers and staff of Local 1161 on Dec. 12, when ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) agents surrounded the Swift Co. meatpacking plant and detained hundreds of workers. Some were released; 230 were arrested.
"I never would have dreamed that this would happen, not at this magnitude," Potter said in an interview at the union office Friday. "I don't think anybody was prepared for it. . . It was just total chaos."
Since the raid, the phone calls have been nonstop. So has the stream of people into the Local 1161 office, housed alongside a couple of small businesses on a main street in this city of 12,000. Some come to the union seeking help or information; others come bearing donations of food or cash. Potter's office houses an impromptu food shelf.
"We've been bombarded," he said. "I can honestly tell you that."
The Minnesota Immigrant Rights Network and other advocates help staff the phones and provide other assistance. Union staff alternate between meetings and phone calls with members and members' families, media interviews and conversations with supporters, immigration attorneys and others.
"My primary concern is those families out there that are in need right now," said Potter.
|UFCW Local 1161 President Mike Potter (left) and Business Agent Darin Rehnelt have spent the last several days trying to locate and help missing union members.
Because of the raid, his local union and its members suddenly find themselves at the center of the heated national debate over immigration. They are living the reality of current immigration policy.
The raid and the devastating effect it has had "may be a valuable lesson for us all, including the government, that immigration reform is needed," Potter said.
"We definitely have to do something with the borders. But deporting 12 million people who are already in this country, when they are vital and crucial to the companies to have these workers, they make a contribution to the economy. We need them here.
"We've had a problem (with undocumented immigration) for 20 years or better. Now I guess this is a wakeup call for everyone that it needs to be addressed. But I want to do it the right way where human rights and civil rights and workers rights are not violated. We certainly don't condone any illegal processes or illegal activities or anything of that nature, but my job is to represent my membership, represent human beings. And right now this is a humanitarian issue."
A large percentage of the Swift employees – and Local 1161 members – are immigrants. Meatpacking, once a highly unionized industry that offered relatively high wages and benefits, underwent a transformation in the 1980s when corporations closed and relocated plants and broke what had been a national pattern of union contract bargaining.
The result is that few people want to do work that is low-paid and unsafe. The industry has become increasingly dependent on immigrants.
"In my opinion, a lot of people don't want these jobs," said Potter. "You're constantly on the line. You're standing in one place. And you're working with literally thousands of pounds of pork product in an eight-hour day. It's a very difficult job. You go home and you hurt."
Since well before the current crisis, Local 1161 has been working in solidarity with other groups seeking comprehensive immigration reform, Potter said. The effort to step outside the normal sphere of union activity – bargaining contracts, handling grievances – hasn't always been easy, he acknowledged.
"Basically, I believe the majority of our membership supports what we're doing," he said. "I pray for my membership and I pray that the membership can all come back together."
View a video clip of Mike Potter and Local 1161 Secretary-Treasurer Jose Pedro Lira at this link:
|Alondra Espejel of the Minnesota Immigrant Freedom Network fields calls at the Local 1161 office.