Watching Alabama workers mount one of the “largest and most aggressive efforts to unionize Amazon” was the first time many Americans saw the powerful labor organizing that is happening in the South, a region of the country that is home to anti-worker laws rooted in racism. But Juan Miranda says the movement in Alabama was just a snapshot.
Miranda is the organizing director of Siembra NC, a grassroots Latinx organization that sprouted up in 2017 to organize immigrant communities against the Trump administration’s attacks. Four years later, Siembra has put down deep roots in the state, building power alongside Black-led organizations and expanding to include workers’ rights, with a focus on organizing undocumented workers, many of whom fear retaliation in the form of immigration enforcement. Miranda came to Siembra from NC Raise Up, the Durham, North Carolina, branch of Fight for $15 and a Union, which advocates for corporations to increase wages and for state and federal governments to step in to mandate a $15 minimum wage.
At Siembra, part of Miranda’s job is assuring undocumented workers that they have rights in the workplace and that joining an organizing community makes them safer, but the fear can feel insurmountable. Miranda spoke to Prism about organizing in the South and helping workers come out of the shadows. Our conversation has been condensed and edited.
Tina Vasquez: Siembra NC first emerged in 2017 in response to both the Trump administration and the lack of support and resources for North Carolina’s large Latinx community. Most people familiar with Siembra’s work know of its organizing against ICE and anti-immigrant sheriffs, but tell me why you started to wade into labor organizing.
Juan Miranda: For a while, we’ve had a hotline called Migra Watch for people to report ICE raids, but people in the community started to call the hotline for help with other issues. Now that the conditions have changed a little bit and the threats of ICE raids aren’t as present as they used to be under Trump, we wanted to be able to expand our work to include workers’ rights.
Just like in the rest of the South, it’s very hard to organize workers in North Carolina because it’s very anti-labor. But all workers—including undocumented workers—have rights, and that means being able to organize without retaliation or discrimination. We decided to take on this fight and support workers to take collective action to recover their wages because wage theft is a big problem here. So far, we’ve supported workers who work in hotels, restaurants, and housekeeping, but the bulk of the bigger cases we’ve taken on were in construction. A disproportionate number of undocumented people work in construction and they’re hired by subcontractors who don’t pay them. More recently we’ve also started to work more with restaurant workers like Rosita, an undocumented worker at a Winston Salem IHOP who fought for the wages she was owed from a manager wouldn’t pay her. A video about her story went viral on TikTok and had millions of views.
Vasquez: This might sound like a weird question, but what does wage theft look like for North Carolina’s undocumented workers? Is it always as blatant as a subcontractor disappearing on a worker on pay day or a manager not paying a worker a cent they’re owed?
Miranda: Because wage theft is so rampant, most victims of it aren’t even fully aware that it’s happening because it does take place in many different kinds of ways. Sometimes it’s not getting paid overtime, or sometimes it’s not getting paid for every hour or getting paid the amount per hour that was agreed on. It’s most obvious when you don’t get your paycheck at all, which is what was happening at IHOP. Many workers there were getting their paychecks late or not at all. Some of those workers were undocumented and they were told they couldn’t be paid because of their [immigration] status. In this case, the workers decided to stand up for each other and when Rosita wasn’t paid, all of the workers walked out for her and they shut down the store.
Vasquez: I think people outside of the South don’t always understand the kind of powerful labor organizing that is happening here. Before joining Siembra, you organized as part of the Fight for $15. Do you see an overlap between Siembra’s organizing of undocumented workers and the Fight for $15?
Miranda: Absolutely. I think for too long workers in North Carolina were told that certain things weren’t possible for people in low-wage industries. The Fight for $15 has disrupted that. If you can organize low-wage workers, you can organize the most vulnerable and precarious undocumented workers because these communities overlap. You have to build those relationships really intentionally and like I said before, make it clear that workers know they are not alone. That’s how we build people’s confidence to protect their rights and fight for a bigger vision of what’s possible when they come together, and the Fight for $15 has provided a real model for that.
Vasquez: What are the particular challenges of organizing undocumented workers in North Carolina?
Miranda: Part of it is that we are a right-to-work state, but what that means is completely misunderstood. Workers here are banned from collective bargaining for public sector unions, but it doesn’t mean that you can’t organize with your coworkers. You still have the ability to do that and it’s protected by federal law, but a lot of people think that they can’t do labor organizing in a right-to-work state.
One of the biggest challenges is that we can’t really rely on state agencies here to enforce labor laws that exist. When it comes to wage theft, there are thousands of claims that make it to the Department of Labor (DOL) and very few that actually get investigated. They’re not using the resources they have and they don’t have the political will to ensure that large corporations are held accountable for their crimes—and that’s what wage theft is; it’s a crime. There’s this general assumption that undocumented workers don’t have the same rights because that’s how they’re treated and it’s normalized, and a lot of workers internalize that. They feel like they’re here as guests who are not protected in the same way, so they just put their head down and work. But that’s not always the case. Look at the case of Rosita. She stood up and so did her coworkers. They knew they deserve respect and dignity, too. They work hard and they deserve to get paid, too.
Vasquez: I can understand just wanting to put your head down because in a state like North Carolina, there have been workplace raids and retaliatory immigration raids. I’m not an organizer, but I imagine another big challenge is helping folks overcome deep-seated fears of retaliation—whether that’s an ICE raid or losing your job and being unable to support your family.
Miranda: There is fear of retaliation and there’s fear because of their status, but what we want our communities to know is that they don’t have to settle and live here in fear. They don’t have to put up with having their money stolen from them and putting their families in economic distress.
Vasquez: As an organizer, how do you help people begin to overcome that overwhelming fear that if they speak out or organize, something bad will happen to them?
Miranda: One of our biggest principles we try to communicate to the community is that we cannot worry about things that we don’t see. If we don’t have evidence of something, we cannot spend our time panicking. It doesn’t serve us. When bad things happen to our community, they’re amplified. But there are many more instances of undocumented workers coming together and organizing and getting positive results—and these incidents aren’t publicized as much. It’s helpful to share stories and examples of wins that will counteract their fears and assure them that yes, there are real threats, but those threats can also happen if you’re in the shadows or not. There is safety in coming out and taking a stand publicly and having the community stand behind you.
For riskier actions, it’s our job to make sure there is support for people. It’s our job to make sure that they know their coworkers are by their side, that there are members of Siembra and there are faith leaders and community supporters who will stand with them and fight for them if anything goes wrong. This is how we move people to take action and it’s why they are now sharing their stories publicly or marching into their boss’ office and delivering a list of demands.
Vasquez: President Joe Biden signaled that he has far more of an interest in worker protections that Trump did, but undocumented workers will still face many of the same challenges under the new administration. What do you expect to change or stay the same?
Miranda: It’s the nature of the movement to have these ups and downs or have these trigger moments and then moments where things feel like we’re going to be okay. Post-election, a lot of people are just burnt out. They gave it their all to make sure we wouldn’t have another four years of Trump. That is something to celebrate because I think his defeat was the people’s victory. I also think people have taken time to take a breath and they have a little more hope and faith that things are going to change. But we know it won’t be perfect. Already some of what we’re seeing goes against what [Biden] promised and definitely against what we wanted. At Siembra, we know the work has to keep moving. During these lulls when our communities aren’t under constant attack, we need to build up our organizing so that when attacks ramp up again, we have leaders who can sustain their communities. We need to keep building a bigger and bigger support net so that when the next wave comes, we’re stronger at each iteration of this never-ending cycle.
Vasquez: What does that look like in the coming weeks and months?
Miranda: We’re going to keep experimenting in how we reach workers—whether that’s going to work sites or in certain neighborhoods or outside of grocery stores. We try to reach people where they’re at because no matter the administration or COVID, the conditions that undocumented workers are up against aren’t changing overnight.
During the pandemic, people have been talked about as “essential workers” and we acted like these workers were celebrated, but conditions did not change for them. In many cases, conditions worsened and workers were put at more risk. Now is a real time to develop some momentum for undocumented workers because we’re not constantly under threat of immigration raids. We want to take this time to reach out to workers, educate them about their rights, and support them taking collective action and doing it in a way that makes them feel safe and models that it’s possible to defend your rights—not just in your house and in the streets, but also in your workplace.