Labor Fights for Immigrants | The Nation


Labor Fights for Immigrants

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After a no-match letter was used to threaten a worker involved in an organizing drive across the bay in Oakland, a campaign by HERE Local 2850 and the Labor Immigrant Organizers Network (LION), a loose coalition of labor and community activists, saved his job. The union eventually won recognition and a contract. The local in turn gave staff time and office space to help LION organize a march of 5,000 people through Oakland's Latino Fruitvale neighborhood in January, calling for amnesty and immigrant rights. It was the third labor-backed immigrant rights march in Northern California in a year.

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David Bacon
David Bacon is author of Illegal People—How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants, and the...

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"Most unions today are at least trying to organize," explains HERE president John Wilhelm, who spoke at the Oakland march. "And no matter the industry, they run into immigrant workers. Immigrants are everywhere, not just in the service industry, not just in California and the Southwest. That's what brought home the failure of the AFL-CIO's old immigration policy."

Over the past year, the AFL-CIO, individual unions and community organizations around the country have organized hearings and marches in support of amnesty. Thousands marched in Chicago, Portland and other cities in the fall, and a hearing in Los Angeles in June drew 20,000 people, who filled the LA Sports Arena and spilled onto the streets outside. Those actions targeted the key element in the Clinton Administration's immigration program, which concentrated on enforcing immigration law not at the border but in the workplace. The heat promises to continue under George Bush.

The AFL-CIO's previous position in favor of employer sanctions rested on the idea that if it became illegal for the undocumented to work, fewer immigrants would come to the United States, while those working here illegally would return home. The position, which reflected the federation's cold war, business union policies, created a color line. It sought to protect wages for native-born workers by excluding immigrants, rather than by organizing everyone, as the CIO and Wobblies had done. Sanctions did not succeed in halting the flow of immigrants, but they did undermine their rights once they were here: Employers used them to fire workers who tried to organize unions, and they made it easier to exploit undocumented workers, keeping their wages down.

Since 1986 organizing efforts of immigrant workers have become more important to unions. Last year, the percentage of US workers belonging to unions fell from 13.9 percent to 13.5 percent, and fell to 9 percent in the private sector. For the overall percentage to stay constant, unions have to organize 400,000 workers a year; to increase by 1 percent, it's twice that number. The AFL-CIO recently proposed a goal of organizing 1 million workers yearly, a rate not achieved since perhaps the late 1930s.

Over the past decade, immigrant workers have proven key to the labor movement's growth. In Los Angeles, the resurgence of union activism has largely rested on strikes and organizing drives among immigrant janitors and hotel workers. Immigrant carpenters, harbor truckers, garment workers, factory hands and tortilla drivers have staged pivotal strikes and organizing drives. Immigrant day laborers, domestics and gardeners have built independent organizations, even without labor law protection or support from local unions. And LA is not an isolated case. As union activity among immigrant workers became a national phenomenon, the federation began to see that defending their right to organize was in its own self-interest. "Every period of significant growth in the labor movement was fueled by organizing activity among immigrant workers," Wilhelm says. "We're a labor movement of immigrants, and we always have been."

In 1999 LION activists in Oakland wrote a resolution calling for the AFL-CIO to change its old pro-sanctions position. It was circulated and adopted in labor councils across the country, generating a wave of support that crested at the national convention in Los Angeles in the fall. There a succession of union presidents spoke in its favor. Wilhelm declared that his own union's support for sanctions in 1986 was a big mistake: "Those who came before us, who built this labor movement in the Great Depression, in strikes in rubber and steel and hotels, didn't say, 'Let me see your papers' to the workers in those industries. They said, 'Which side are you on?' And immigrant workers today have the right to ask of us the same question: 'Which side are we on?'" Following the convention, the AFL-CIO executive council adopted its own resolution embodying its new position.

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