The Lost Tribes of Faribault

Latinos, Somalis, and the American dream in southern Minnesota

Fatima believes this ultimately led to her ouster. In May, the company fired her, supposedly for poor work habits. However, the two instances of troublesome behavior cited in the termination letter occurred in 2001 and 2002. There was no mention of any recent event that might have led to her dismissal.

Donaldson Lawhead, an Austin attorney who is representing Fatima, believes that her case is part of a disturbing pattern. "They're taking people who have injuries and they're putting them in jobs that exceed what the doctor says they should be doing. And when they complain, they say they're guilty of misconduct," argues Lawhead. He is currently representing seven other workers who have been injured on the job.

Because Fatima was fired for purported misconduct, she is ineligible for workers' compensation. Lawhead has filed an appeal with the U.S. Department of Labor arguing that her injuries entitle her to compensation. The UFCW is also considering filing charges of labor-law violations with the National Labor Relations Board.

Diana Watters

Andrew Mason, an organizer with the UFCW, contends that firing workers when they get injured or display support for the union is a tactic that the Turkey Store uses to bully its employees. Workers at the slaughterhouse used to be represented by the UFCW, but in the mid-'90s the plant was temporarily shut down. When it reopened, the union had been ousted and wages had been cut. Since that time, the workforce has become increasingly dominated by immigrants, particularly Somalis.

Mason has been attempting to organize Turkey Store employees since February, but without much success. He blames the lack of progress on ignorance among the workers and intimidation by the company. "The immigrant workers are not aware of what their rights are and they're not aware of what to do," Mason says. He alleges that the company is constantly holding meetings to discourage employees from organizing and that workers are forced to stand outside the plant with anti-union placards each time the UFCW hands out leaflets. "Basically the organizing campaign is in neutral due to the effect of the intimidation by the company," Mason says.

It is impossible to discern the Turkey Store's take on these allegations. The plant's human resources director referred inquiries to an office inWillmar. Repeated calls over a two-month period were not returned.

Kymn Anderson, executive director of the Faribault Chamber of Commerce, defends the Turkey Store's employment practices, arguing that the company has gone out of its way to accommodate the needs of employees. For example, the Turkey Store has created a prayer room for its Muslim workers. "We have found them to be a great partner in the community for issues that have come up," Anderson says.

The prayer room will be of little help to Fatima. She is now living with a cousin in Minneapolis and remains unemployed.

 

On a muggy thursday evening shortly before the Fourth of July, 27-year-old police officer Eric Sammon is providing me with a tour of the Cannon River Trailer Park. It's a relatively slow night on patrol. So far we've delivered a sick cat to the Humane Society and responded to a purported burglary that turned out to be someone breaking into his own home.

Sammon is a Faribault native. The three-year veteran of the police department is roughly 5'6", with a square jaw and baby face. He wears a pair of wraparound silver shades to augment his police blues. "Back in my high school days and my elementary school days, it was pretty much all white," Sammon says of his hometown.

The Cannon River Trailer Park is a cluster of almost 200 mobile homes situated alongside State Road 21. "This is probably our worst trailer park right here, as far as getting calls," Sammon ventures. He drives slowly down the narrow roads, occasionally waving to the Hispanic kids who are clustered everywhere, riding bikes or shooting off firecrackers. Some of the trailers are dilapidated, scarred with broken windows and splintered siding. Others are pristine, with neat gardens squeezed into sandbox-sized yards. "That one burned down about two months ago," Sammon says, pointing to a ramshackle structure rendered uninhabitable by fire. "I can't remember what it was from. I think it was a stove." Cars are squeezed into every conceivable inch of space, as many as five per trailer.

Sammon figures that over the last seven years, Cannon River has morphed from an entirely white enclave to one that is now perhaps 90 percent Hispanic. No matter what ethnic group dominates, however, it has remained a hot spot for the police. "It used to be all our whites that were in trouble that lived here," he notes.

The arrival of significant numbers of foreign-born residents over the last decade has presented Faribault's cops and courts with some predicaments. The chief problem is language. Of the police force's 28 officers, not one is fluent in Spanish or Somali. Police Chief Michael Lewis says that it's extremely difficult to hire bilingual cops, because such officers are highly sought after by larger departments.

Last year the police department spent $6,000 on translation services, a figure that rises annually. On one criminal sexual conduct case alone this year, the department has shelled out $2,500 to pay translators. With the city facing a serious fiscal crunch, Lewis says that the police department might have to make do without such services in the future. "One of the things we may have to look at with budget cuts is relying on the community to help themselves," he says.

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