Four Mexican guest workers came to New York the last weekend in June to hold a 24-hour hunger strike protesting labor practices by suppliers for the retail giant Wal-Mart.

About 20 supporters turned out for a small rally the morning of Saturday, June 30, in a semi-public park beside a luxury apartment building on Spruce Street, a few blocks from City Hall. The four Mexicans—who were employed at CJ’s Seafood, a Wal-Mart supplier in Breaux Bridge, Louisiana, through the government’s H-2B temporary worker program—choose the site because Wal-Mart board member Michelle Burns lives there.

In theory H-2B workers enjoy full labor rights. But the reality is different, hunger striker Ana Díaz explained at the rally as the temperature rose past 90 degrees. Workers in the program are only authorized to stay in the United States as long as they work for a specific employer, she said, and CJ’s Seafood general manager Michael LeBlanc told the workers this meant their visas were really his visas. He could take them away any time he wanted.

So LeBlanc felt free to make the immigrants work long shifts without overtime, sometimes from 2 am to 6 pm, sometimes for a full 24 hours. On at least two occasions he had the doors blocked so the workers couldn’t leave, and one supervisor threatened to hit workers with a shovel if they didn’t get back to work fast enough after breaks. The Worker Rights Consortium, an independent monitoring group, confirmed these and other allegations in a June 20 report.

After one of the employees told local police about labor abuses at the plant in May, LeBlanc called the company’s 40 guest workers together for a meeting. He knew “good and bad people” in the United States and in Mexico, he said, according to Díaz, and if his employees complained to the government, he could get at them and their families wherever they went.

This threat was too much for eight of the workers. They joined the National Guestworker Alliance, a project of the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice, and on June 4 they did something H-2B workers rarely dare to do—they went on strike.

--“Joe Arpaio or CJ’s Seafood”--

When told about the horrendous working conditions undocumented immigrants face in the United States, many people ask: “Why don’t they just get legal?” After all, we have temporary worker programs: why don’t the immigrants come here through those?

But for immigrant workers there’s no meaningful difference between “legal” and “illegal” work, National Guestworker Alliance lead organizer Jacob Horwitz told the rally. Immigrants who want to work here can come without authorization and be subjected to the harsh anti-immigrant enforcement measures exemplified by Joe Arpaio, the publicity-seeking sheriff of Arizona’s Maricopa County; or they can come “legally” as guest workers to serve at the pleasure of whatever company holds their contract.

“The choice for immigrant workers is between Joe Arpaio in Arizona and CJ’s Seafood in Louisiana,” Horwitz said.

Despite its size, the strike by eight guest workers has been remarkably successful so far, partly because of the tactic of targeting Wal-Mart.

Saket Soni, the alliance’s executive director, announced at the rally that 145,000 people had already signed an online petition set up by Change.org to support the workers’ demands, and some 500 people around the world had committed to fasting for 24 hours in solidarity with the workers. But the big news that morning was on the front page of the New York Times business section: Wal-Mart was suspending CJ’s Seafood as a supplier.

Soni cautioned that the victory was still partial. Wal-Mart executives had only suspended CJ’s Seafood pending an investigation of the company’s labor practices—and had done it after the end of the season for crawfish, the product that Wal-Mart buys from the Louisiana firm. And this was just one abusive employer among many; alliance researchers reported that they had found labor violations at 12 of the 18 Wal-Mart suppliers that they tracked because they employ guest workers.

The four workers in Lower Manhattan looked tired as the rally ended, and maybe a little intimidated by the posh neighborhood they found themselves in, or by the prospect of fasting outdoors in the midst of a New York heat wave. But they hadn’t lost the determination that led them and their four colleagues to take action against their employer.

“We’re not in the struggle just for ourselves,” striker Fernando Navarro said. “We’re here to improve conditions for all the workers.”

For more information, see the Worker Rights Consortium report: http://www.workersrights.org/freports/WRC%20Assessment%20re%20CJ's%20Seafood,%206-20-12.pdf

The National Guestworker Alliance report is at: http://www.guestworkeralliance.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/Preliminary-Evidence-of-Forced-Labor-on-WalMart-Supply-Chain.pdf

You can sign the Change.org petition at: http://www.change.org/petitions/walmart-stop-profiting-from-forced-labor-in-louisiana

David L. Wilson is co-author, with Jane Guskin, of The Politics of Immigration: Questions and Answers, Monthly Review Press, July 2007. He also co-edits Weekly News Update on the Americas, a summary of news from Latin America and the Caribbean.