When tires get worn down, they go to places like Bob’s Tire. At the company’s recycling plant in New Bedford, workers carve up tires with razors and feed the rubber through a shredder.

The pay is low. A slip of the hand can slice open skin or dislocate a shoulder. But Bob’s Tire is known as a place where New Bedford’s large community of indigenous Mayan immigrants can get a job, regardless of whether they have work visas.

This arrangement started to change around 2015, when the plant’s 70 workers unionized against the wishes of their boss. Mounting tensions reached a climax in October 2021 at a protest workers staged on their lunch break without notifying their union.

One of the workers, Alfredo Mateo Chach, was led off the property by the New Bedford police in handcuffs. All 26 who participated were fired shortly after.

Mateo, a 37-year-old father of four who still earned minimum wage at the end of his eight years at Bob’s Tire, said the company’s employees were fighting for more than a pay raise.

“We did a good thing because we are asking for our right to be treated as if we have a conscience, to be treated as if we are human beings,” Mateo said in a recent interview translated from Spanish.

Workers interviewed by The Public’s Radio said they had been quietly enduring treatment they found humiliating for years. Management was often stingy with protective equipment, they said, and gave insulting nicknames to workers. One colleague was allegedly groping his coworkers without consequences.

The owner of Bob’s Tire, Bob Bates, did not respond to requests from The Public’s Radio to discuss these claims.

Instead of taking their complaints seriously, workers said Bates would often laugh at them or threaten to call immigration authorities. Bates, who does manual labor in the tire yard alongside his employees, would sometimes wear an Immigration and Customs Enforcement hat to work, they said.

“Bob used to taunt them that Trump’s going to lock them up,” said Domenic Pontarelli, an executive from the workers’ union, the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 328. “They live in fear every day that they’re going to be scooped up by ICE. And Bob intimidated them with that card every day.”

After the protest, the union filed a wrongful termination complaint with the National Labor Relations Board — their 26th against Bob’s Tire in six years.

Cases often spend years moving through the federal bureaucracy. In the meantime, many workers fired from Bob’s Tire struggled to buy food and pay rent. Some grew frustrated with the pace of their union’s actions.

Mateo said the staffing agency that originally placed him and his colleagues at Bob’s Tire, BJ’s Temp Services, stopped offering them work after the protest. (An attorney for BJ’s did not respond to requests for comment.) After three months without pay, Mateo said he found a construction job on his own. Others from Bob’s Tire were less fortunate.

“You try to help but there are so many of us,” Mateo said. “I want to help but I can’t.”

A breakthrough finally arrived this winter. Some cases that had languished under the Trump administration’s NLRB started moving faster during the Biden administration. In March, Bob Bates agreed to pay nearly a million dollars to current and former employees of Bob’s Tire as part of a voluntary settlement.

Back pay is difficult for undocumented workers to win in America, because the NLRB cannot order employers to pay unauthorized workers who were wrongfully terminated. But to invoke that protection, Bates would have to prove his workers are undocumented.

Pablo Carrasco, an attorney with Justice at Work who represented a pair of workers during the NLRB investigation, said many employers fear that will expose them to other legal penalties and force them to find documented workers willing to do tough jobs.

“A lot of employers rely on an unauthorized workforce so they’re not going to fight something that is their business model,” Carrasco said.

As part of the settlement, the 26 terminated workers will not return to Bob’s Tire. Many will take home settlements of more than $15,000 over the next two years. But their departure marks the end of their union’s presence at Bob’s Tire, which still employs dozens of workers.

Still, some former Bob’s Tire workers feel they have won a hard fight against a vindictive employer. As part of the settlement agreement, a manager from the company read and posted a notice to employees acknowledging the mass termination broke the law.

Under a new Biden administration policy that protects immigrants who report workplace abuses, many of the workers can now apply for two-year work visas — a path to temporary legal status they never had before.

Mateo said what happened at Bob’s Tire has caught the attention of other undocumented workers in New Bedford too.

“Many people are waking up,” Mateo said. “Many people are reacting because one has their right to speak and protest.”

Similar forms of labor organizing are taking root in other workplaces around the city. Last month, at a seafood processing plant up the road from Bob’s Tire, a larger group of 100 immigrant workers filed a wrongful termination case of their own. That case is still pending before the NLRB.

Ben Berke is the South Coast Bureau Reporter for The Public’s Radio. He can be reached at bberke@thepublicsradio.org. Follow him on Twitter @BenBerke6.