AFL-CIO Opens its Convention: Back to the Barricades
Dodd-Conyers has garnered fifty-one sponsors in the Senate, but that's not enough. A 60-40 margin is required to stop any oppositional Republican filibuster. "Dodd-Conyers is dead," said Harvard Law professor Christopher Edley Jr., who also addressed the conference. "The Democrats just don't have enough votes to pass it." But Edley expressed confidence that a more moderate measure, known as Ney-Hoyer, not only has a good chance of being adopted but will also go a long way -- if not all the way -- in guaranteeing a more equitable election system. "I believe we are winning on this issue," Edley said as he warned against labor "overstating" its criticism of the bill.
Where labor's victory seems less certain is on the thorny issue of immigration reform, the focus of the conference's afternoon sessions. In February 2000 the executive council of the AFL-CIO pushed aside decades of labor's nativist reflexes by endorsing a general amnesty of undocumented workers and by pushing immigration reform to the top of the federation agenda. It wasn't only the right and ethical thing to do, Hotel and Restaurant Employees president John Wilhelm told the conference; it was also a matter of labor's own survival. "Virtually every union in our movement is now trying to organize," he said. "And what we found is that there isn't one industry in America, not one city, not one town, not one hamlet that doesn't have immigrant workers."
The AFL-CIO political push for fairer immigration policies built over the course of a year of organizing and lobbying and reached its peak the first week of this past September, when President Bush met with Mexican President Vicente Fox with the amnesty issue at the top of the agenda. "But then came September 11," says Wilhelm, who now chairs the federation's internal committee on immigration. That committee met in November, Wilhelm said, and found a "passion for the fight" against the anti-immigrant "backlash" that has ensued since the September 11 attacks. "The bad news is the backlash," he said. "The good news is that the labor movement is going to jump-start this national debate once again."
For starters, a resolution endorsing the battle for liberalization of immigration policies will be put before the assembly of convention delegates later this week. It's expected to pass easily. As a second step, the AFL-CIO is also helping to draft a bill to be carried by friendly Democrats as early as next month that would grant federal benefits to the survivors of undocumented workers killed in the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks. From there, the federation plans to renew its full-blown campaign for major overhaul and some form of legalization of the millions who now work in the United States with no official status or documentation.
Union officials recognize that it will be a tough, uncertain fight. Not only because of anti-immigrant sentiments riled by September 11 but also because periods of economic recession usually contribute to the nativist impulse.
While the outcome of the fight is difficult to predict, there seemed to be no lack of willingness or passion to join the fray at the convention. The nearly 1,000 attendees were brought to their feet cheering, clapping and hooting when Clayola Brown, vice president of the clothing and textile workers' union UNITE, shouted to the crowd: "They say if you say anything against the government you are unpatriotic. Well, I say George W. Bush is the same sucker today as he was before September 11!"