Last Thursday’s “Day Without Immigrants” walkouts were meant to protest President Trump’s moves to step up deportations, and to point out how reliant the economy is on immigrant labor. But for at least 100 people nationwide, the decision to join the walkout meant losing their jobs. Two of those were right here in the Northwest.
About 15 immigrant workers at Schenk Packing Company, a meat processing plant in Stanwood, north of Everett, joined the walkout. Schenk Packing employs over 100 people, many from Hispanic backgrounds, and sells patties and other beef products to food service companies, hotels, retailers and restaurants including Safeway, Walmart and Dairy Queen.
Rene Suazo, one of the employees who took part in the walkout, said he and his coworkers were trying to support their community. As an immigrant, he says feels strongly about speaking out on the injustices at Schenk.
“There are a lot of Hispanic employees at the company. We gathered to support the immigrant movement on Thursday,” said Suazo, who added that the company had warned them against taking part in the walkout the day before.
The next day when he returned to work, he says he was pulled aside by the supervisor to talk near the lockers.
Sauzo says he apologized to the boss, Steve Lenz, for the workers walking out the previous day, but Lenz wouldn’t accept his apology.
“He told us he wasn’t going to put up with any of this shit because it’s his business, he runs this business and he’s not going to let other people come and run his business,” said Sauzo, who was fired along with one other worker.
According to Sauzo, at this point the other workers who’d taken part in the walkout started to worry.
“The rest of the guys started saying, ‘What about us? Are we fired?’ They didn’t speak English so they didn’t know what was going on,” said Sauzo, who is one of the only Hispanic employees who speaks English.
Sauzo says the rest of his coworkers were taken to the office, where management told them they’d call immigration officials if something like this happened again. Another employee who didn’t want to share his name confirmed he and other workers were threatened with losing their jobs and deportation.
Lenz denied this claim outright. He says Sauzo and his coworker’s dismissal were not at all related to the walkout.
“A lot of the stories are coming out and saying that they were fired because they walked, but it has nothing to do with what happened that day,” said Lenz. “What they did were some internal violations of our handbook. Nothing to do with the actual walk.”
Lenz wouldn’t comment on what these internal violations were, saying they were personal matters of the individuals involved. He also adds that he doesn’t believe the claims that workers are now feeling intimidated.
“We have very many Hispanic employees here, and many are foremen. We have a very good working relationship with them.”
“We have very many Hispanic employees here, and many are foremen,” said Lenz. “We have a very good working relationship with them.”
Lenz says his company always tries to show the employees how much he appreciates their work.
“Coffee here is free, we bring donuts here to everybody on Fridays, we work Sundays and everyone here gets breakfast. We have carnita roasts and that kind of thing — the kind of things Hispanics enjoy,” said Lenz.
Schenk Packing Company has been around for over 50 years and Lenz says he’d be surprised if any of his employees felt intimidated.
“We support the Hispanic community. We have for as long as we’ve been here,” said Lenz. “I don’t see us as any kind of threat to the Hispanic community when we’re employing them.”
As for Sauzo, he says now that he doesn’t have a job he’s taking some time to rest. He says he’s endured injuries to the neck, shoulder and back while on the job. But he encourages other community members to speak out on the injustices taking place at Schenk.
Sauzo thinks many of his coworkers haven’t done so because they’re scared of being fired and they have families to support, so they can’t risk losing their jobs.
“I think this country has a lot of freedom, but Schenk is cutting off our freedom of free speech,” said Sauzo. “Something needs to be done.”