Latino Cheese Workers Jailed after Demanding Pay

The factory workers had simply had enough.

On Oct. 22, 2007, after repeatedly being underpaid for their work and having their paychecks delayed for weeks, about a dozen Latino workers at Durrett Cheese Sales of Manchester, Tenn., decided to take a stand. They refused to leave the company's break room until they were paid.

Even after a supervisor fired them, they refused to leave. That's when company officials called in the sheriff.

"I was so happy when I heard that the police were on their way," said Teresa, one of the factory workers. "I thought to myself that they would help us get the checks we were owed."

But the sheriff's deputies weren't there to help the workers. Instead, they arrested and jailed them.

"I couldn't believe it, because we hadn't done anything wrong," Teresa said. "We were just asking for our paychecks for work we had already completed."

The workers were charged with trespassing, even though the officers knew they were involved in a pay dispute. The local prosecutor dropped the charges the next day, but the workers remained behind bars. The company had suggested they were undocumented immigrants.

Agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) took the workers to the Elizabeth Detention Center in Nashville, where they were interrogated. Some of the women had young children who were disabled or very ill. The women feared they would be deported without saying goodbye or arranging for their children's care.

An SPLC attorney eventually secured their release, and in October 2008, the SPLC filed a federal lawsuit charging that the company and the Coffee County Sheriff's Department subjected the workers to illegal retaliation and discrimination.

The Durrett work stoppage illustrates a plight all too familiar to Latino immigrants. They frequently encounter employers who see them as disposable workers to be exploited — people who can be underpaid or otherwise abused with little risk of a lawsuit.

Mixteco Workers Targeted
Durrett hired indigent Mexican workers to perform various jobs at the factory, including the slicing, packaging and processing of cheese. The company specifically targeted members of the Mixteco indigenous group in the Manchester area to work at the factory.

The workers say they were subjected to a hostile, intimidating and abusive work environment, where they were referred to as "stupid Indians" and "donkeys."

The company, in fact, repeatedly failed to pay the Latino workers on time before and after filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on Aug. 28, 2007. Some workers sometimes worked for more than a month without pay. Other times they were underpaid or paid with checks backed with insufficient funds. Durrett also repeatedly changed its pay dates. One of Durrett's supervisors threatened that if the workers quit they would not receive any of their back pay.

"The way they treated us was terrible," said Juana, another factory worker. "I had never been so badly treated at work. This experience hurt my children very much. They have suffered a lot because of this."