When Immigrants Try To Organize, Their Employers Know Who To Call

Documents reveal some of the tactics deployed specifically against immigrants during union campaigns.

In the fall of 2020, a group of workers at a recycling company called United Scrap Metal were trying to form a union at their Philadelphia plant. The company hired a “union avoidance” firm called Chessboard Consulting in hopes of defeating the organizing campaign.

The firm sent a bilingual consultant named Mike Rosado to give the workers, who were mostly immigrants, second thoughts about a union. United Scrap provided Rosado with detailed spreadsheets listing each worker’s name and address, as well as their fluency levels in both Spanish and English, according to documents obtained from the National Labor Relations Board. Many of the workers were deemed “completely illiterate.”

Separate spreadsheets grouped workers who carpooled or lived together. Many of the workers had ties going back to their home countries of Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, so they could be uniquely positioned to influence a relative or roommate on how to vote in a union election. The spreadsheets were color-coded to show individual workers’ varying degrees of union support.

Rosado said he was most concerned with nine workers listed as “questionable.”

“Right now I have them leaning to Union Yes Vote for the sake of assessment,” the consultant wrote in an email to United Scrap and Chessboard offici. “The margin of error is the hope that we may be able to persuade one or two of them.”

The documents, which were obtained through a public records request, help shed light on how employers try to undermine union efforts with the help of outside consultants. But they also reveal some of the tactics employers use specifically in labor campaigns involving immigrants.

Rosado, himself a former union official, learned that union support was highest among the Hondurans. After conducting meetings, he said that the election among roughly 30 workers could be close: “Solid committed 14 No Votes… Union 15 Yes votes,” he wrote, noting there was the possibility of “moving” one of those pro-union workers. Rosado drove home the message that a union could cost workers flexibility and lead to a strike, but there were factors beyond his control.

“Some carpool together, some live together, some are related to each other,” he wrote. “This I feel is our hurdle.”

The workers at United Scrap were the sort of foreign-born laborers that many unions in the building trades would have ignored a generation ago, believing they undercut pay for the native-born. Most unions now argue that strong workplace protections for immigrants can raise wages and standards for everyone.

Yet organizing immigrants comes with unique challenges. Many workers face language barriers, have little familiarity with the U.S. form of collective bargaining, or are afraid to challenge their bosses’ control because they or their family members may be undocumented.

To defeat the union at United Scrap, the company and its consultants settled on a plan, according to emails. They would produce flyers equating the union with oppressive “dictators” from Latin America. United Scrap President Brad Serlin, who did not respond to repeated requests for comment for this story, seemed enthusiastic about the idea.

“Their photos and names are critical and the words can be along the lines of ‘do you trust these leaders of your native countries’? ‘Do they truly care about the people, including your families’?” Serlin wrote to Chris Cimino, the head of Chessboard. “This can be simple and highly impactful. A common thread that connects our different Spanish speaking cultures.”

But Serlin appeared unsure about whether the current leaders of countries like El Salvador and Mexico were good or bad: “If [they] are truly of the people while representing reform, we’ll need to go back in time to illustrate the bad leader who oppressed the people.”

Workers were given flyers likening the union to then-Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández, who would later be indicted on drug trafficking and firearms charges.

Workers were given flyers likening the union to then-Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández, who would later be indicted on drug trafficking and firearms charges.


As the election neared, the consultant wrote in his notes, “We need to make sure all company supporters [are] here Friday and also the illiterate people.”

U.S. employers have been hiring consultants to help ward off unions for decades. While the talking points have not changed much over time — the union is a “third party,” the union could send you out on strike, the union wants your dues money — many firms now tailor their campaigns to particular occupations or demographic groups, said John Logan, a labor studies professor at San Francisco State University who tracks the industry.

“They push the diversity and linguistic abilities of their consultants and how that gives them a competitive advantage,” Logan said.

Laura Garza, director of the worker center Arise Chicago, said she frequently runs into the same bilingual consultants on different campaigns. Her group organizes immigrants in industries like food processing. Garza argued that the consulting firms are profiting off of fear.

“These firms ― it’s mainly white men behind the desks ― they’re hiring [out] these consultants at $3,000 a day [plus] expenses and they’re targeting Spanish-speaking workers,” Garza said. “You don’t see the man at the top. They’re just getting a cut out of it.”

Rosado, the consultant who worked at United Scrap, said in an interview that he was not “anti-union,” and that his meetings were meant to educate workers on the pros and cons of collective bargaining. He said it was common practice to evaluate where individual workers stand and to try to understand the dynamics at play between them.

“It happens in every campaign,” said Rosado, who retired from persuader work last year. “You want to rate that room, and that’s [just] internal. You don’t go out there and kind of segregate people.”

As for the flyer given to workers, Rosado said he would never distribute anything on a campaign without the approval of the employer and the consulting firm he was working for. (Chessboard’s Cimino did not respond to requests for comment for this story.)

The Hispanic workforce in the U.S. has roughly tripled since 1990, making it fertile ground for union organizing ― and for “union avoidance” work. One consultant bluntly described in a court deposition how employers would contract him to provide bilingual consultants: “Sometimes they hire me to use, you know, José or someone on a case where there’s a language issue or a diversity issue or what have you.” Another persuader promotes himself on LinkedIn as “proficient with the Spanish language and extremely familiar with the Mexican culture.”

In 2021, the beverage bottler Refresco retained the firm of Lupe Cruz, a former union organizer who’s been running campaigns against unions for years. Cruz’s consultants held several weeks’ worth of meetings with Refresco employees from Ecuador, Colombia, Peru, Mexico and the Dominican Republic, according to John Ocampo, an organizer with the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America.

Ocampo said Refresco’s consultants tried to develop a rapport with a workforce he estimated to be predominantly Latin American immigrants, and made the U.S. system of collective bargaining out to sound intimidating.

“It was, ‘We’re all Latin Americans here, we all speak Spanish just like you, so we’re looking out for your interests,’” Ocampo, whose parents are from Colombia, said in an interview. “They said, ‘You might be familiar with labor law in Mexico, but this is completely different.’”

Cruz, who didn’t respond to an interview request, had previously been hired by former President Donald Trump’s Las Vegas hotel to counter a union campaign by housekeepers, many of them immigrants. The company spent more than half a million dollars on the effort, though the housekeepers ultimately voted in favor of the union.

In some cases, employers expend huge sums on union-avoidance consultants while their workers are asking for modest raises or other concessions.

In some cases, employers expend huge sums on union-avoidance consultants while their workers are asking for modest raises or other concessions.

Workers at the tortilla maker El Milagro in Illinois organized a walkout at their factory in 2021 demanding the company address excessive heat and other safety concerns, according to employees. The company hired the labor consulting firm Government Resources Consultants of America, which subcontracted several persuaders to work on-site, according to the firm’s disclosure filings with the Labor Department.

Government Resources Consultants of America, which did not respond to a request for comment, reported that El Milagro paid nearly $1.8 million for its services in 2021 and 2022.

Pedro Manzanares, who packs tortillas in boxes at one of the company’s facilities, said in an interview that he was aware of how much money the company had spent and wished it had been pumped back into El Milagro’s workforce.

“It’s weird that a company would spend so much money trying to avoid letting their workers have a union,” Manzanares said in Spanish. “If they’re paying for this, it’s because if we were to have a union, we could have a chance for more.”

Manzanares said he and other workers eventually did secure raises from the company. El Milagro did not respond to a request for comment.

The El Milagro workers have been organizing with the help of Arise Chicago. Jorge Mújica, an organizer with the group, said many immigrant workers in general are afraid to challenge their employers because either they or their family members are undocumented. Private-sector labor law is enforced by a federal agency, and although the labor board says it does not share personal information with the Department of Homeland Security unless a worker asks it to, many workers are understandably fearful, Mújica said.

“Any mention of the immigration issue and you immediately feel it and you resent it.”

–Jorge Mújica, Arise Chicago

“Any suggestion, any mention of the immigration issue and you immediately feel it and you resent it,” he said. “‘Federal government.’ That’s all you need to say and you’re scaring workers right away.”

In another campaign Arise Chicago was involved in, a worker at the flan maker Raymundo’s accused a persuader of stoking fears around immigration status.

“He told us to be careful about getting any paperwork that we would fill out, any documents, because it would have our personal information, and the federal government would go and knock on our doors,” the worker testified in a hearing, according to transcripts. In labor board filings, the company claimed it was union representatives who threatened workers over the immigration issue.

The union at Raymundo’s barely lost the election, 53-50, but a board official determined that the company’s consultant had “incited fear into employees” that they could be deported and threw out the results. The workers unionized in a second vote, 66-45, held three months later.

Employers and consultants often argue that the union’s claims of illegal threats are baseless. But organizers say many alleged unfair labor practices involving immigrants are never litigated because workers are often too afraid to speak up. Jeff Armstrong, a labor organizer with the Service Employees International Union in California, said it can be difficult to prove someone broke the law when workers are leery of putting their names on affidavits or testifying at trial.

“[Unfair labor practice charges] are nice when you can actually get witnesses to come forward,” Armstrong said. “But when folks are being put in cages or deported regularly, they’re not going to come forward and give a statement on that stuff.”

At United Scrap, the consultant Rosado tried to raise concerns among employees about how a union might change the workplace, according to his notes. He said in an email to the company’s CEO that he wanted to focus on losing on-the-job “flexibility.” “example: no more punching in late, personal favors by management…etc.” He noted that his presentation on strikes brought about a “positive reaction.”

“Some employees made comments like ‘screw the union, I would cross [the] picket line and work,’” he wrote.

United Scrap’s top accountant recommended in an email that they create a visual presentation for the workers showing how business dropped, yet the company didn’t lay people off when it could have.

“Obviously, a very straightforward visual, keeping in mind the intellectual capacity of the audience,” he added.

One United Scrap worker provided the labor board a written statement saying he had arrived in the U.S. in debt and earned just $14 and change per hour, with no benefits. The worker said he had been called into meetings with a man who spoke English and Spanish, identified in board proceedings as Rosado.

One worker provided the labor board a written statement saying he had arrived in the U.S. in debt and earned just $14 and change per hour.

“The man told us he was not with the company or with the union and asked us if we were with the union,” he alleged. He claimed that in a one-on-one chat, Rosado “asked me how we were all going to vote,” which would be illegal.

In an interview, Rosado insisted it didn’t happen.

“You never ask anybody how you’re going to vote. Jesus. That’s outlandish,” he said. “I’ve been in labor 30-some-odd years. I know better.”

In the end, Rosado’s message did not persuade enough workers for the company to prevail. Workers voted 17 to 10 in favor of joining the Laborers’ International Union of North America, or LiUNA.

But more than two and a half years later, the United Scrap workers still do not have a contract. In February the labor board ordered the company to bargain with the union, and the dispute is now in federal court. The union declined to comment for this story.

An administrative law judge at the NLRB ruled that Rosado had broken the law during the campaign. Rosado said until then he had never had an unfair labor practice charge upheld against him by a judge. He chose not to testify in the case, and the testimony against him was “unrebutted and credited,” the judge wrote.

Some employees had also seen their hours cut since voting for the union. The judge ruled that United Scrap had illegally changed their schedules without bargaining and ordered that the company make the workers whole for any wages they lost. But there are no monetary fines for such violations under the law. United Scrap was simply ordered to read a notice to workers about their legal rights.

The judge recommended it be read aloud in Spanish.

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