Friday, October 13, 2006

A federal judge has ruled that workers can file a class-action suit against Tyson Foods Inc. for depressing wages by hiring illegal aliens.

Howard W. Foster, a Chicago lawyer for the Tyson employees, described the ruling in Winchester, Tenn., as a “very big step,” allowing him to seek damages for thousands of workers at eight plants — including one in Glen Allen, Va. — instead of just the four original plaintiffs.

The case, filed in 2002 under the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), is one of a growing number across the nation challenging illegal aliens in the workplace. In August, a temporary agency in California sued its competitors under the state’s unfair-competition laws.

Mr. Foster has represented U.S. citizens seeking damages for wage depression caused by employment of illegal aliens in other cases, including one against Mohawk Industries and a class-action case against Zirkle Fruit Co., which has been settled.

“You can’t bring these cases unless they get certified as class actions,” he said yesterday.

“An individual person can’t bring one — it’s not economically viable to do it. So it’s important that it gets certified as a class action,” he said.

An estimated 12 million to 20 million illegal aliens are living in the United States, making up a large part of the nation’s work force.

In April, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff announced a nationwide crackdown to target employers who “knowingly and recklessly” hire illegal aliens, and those who help them find jobs.

His announcement coincided with news that more than 1,180 illegal aliens had been arrested during raids at 40 IFCO Systems North America Inc. plants. The Houston company is the largest pallet services company in the U.S.

Yesterday, Tyson Foods described the judge’s ruling as “procedural,” adding that it was “not based on the merits of this case, which was actually dismissed by another judge back in 2002.”

“We remain confident our company will ultimately prevail,” Tyson spokesman Gary Mickelson said by e-mail.

“The plaintiffs’ claims in this lawsuit are simply unfounded and largely based on federal charges our company has already successfully defended,” he said, adding, “In 2003, a Chattanooga jury found the Springdale, Ark., company not guilty of violating immigration laws, confirming the company has made a concerted effort to hire properly and abide by the law.”

U.S. District Judge Curtis L. Collier’s order, issued Tuesday, schedules a Jan. 29 conference with lawyers. It is expected he will set a trial date then.

A federal jury in March 2003 acquitted Tyson and three former managers of conspiring to hire illegal aliens from Mexico and Central America for low-wage production jobs to boost profits. Two former Tyson managers who made plea deals were sentenced to one year each of probation.

Before the case went to trial, four former employees at Tyson’s Shelbyville, Tenn., plant sued. The lawsuit by Birda Trollinger, Robert Martinez, Tabetha Edding and Doris Jewell contends the company violated the RICO Act by knowingly hiring illegal aliens who were willing to work for wages below those acceptable to Americans.

In 2004, a three-judge panel of the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati overturned a lower-court dismissal of the four workers’ case.

The lawsuit says Tyson relied on a network of recruiters and temporary employment agencies that brought illegal workers into the United States and supplied them with false identification.

Mr. Foster said Tyson employee pay, “probably $8 to $10 an hour,” was depressed by the hiring of illegal aliens.

“We haven’t stated exactly” by what amount wages were depressed, he said, adding that that would be determined by “experts.”

The eight Tyson plants named in the suit are at Shelbyville; Corydon, Ind.; Gadsden, Ala., Blountsville, Ala., Ashland, Ala.; Sedalia, Mo.; Center, Texas and Glen Allen, Va.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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