Labor Fights for Immigrants

Labor Fights for Immigrants

The stage is set for a showdown over the fate of undocumented workers.


Even though she was working forty hours a week at the Valencia Street Travelodge in San Francisco, Matilda (last name withheld), who moved to the United States from Mexico a decade ago, couldn't afford to clothe her four children. "First I go to churches where they give clothes and food away," she said. "When school begins, we get pencils and books from the Salvation Army. If it wasn't for this kind of help, we couldn't live in San Francisco."

Her co-worker Patricia, meanwhile, was paying $635 a month for a studio apartment for her children and husband, and considered herself lucky. Rent for a San Francisco studio usually starts at $1,000. At the end of each month, after putting out $250 for food, nothing was left from her paycheck. The motel paid room cleaners $6.25 an hour–not enough to send any money home to families in Mexico and El Salvador.

Motel managers never said much about the workers' immigration status until the low wages inspired them to join a union, Hotel Employees (HERE) Local 2. According to organizer Chito Cuellar, supervisors began making such threats after the union signed its first contract, to derail protests over heavy workloads and harassment. Then, in May 1999, John Jake, the general manager, called nine workers into his office, including the two women. He told them Social Security had notified the motel that their numbers didn't match the government's database. Straighten it all out in a week, he warned, or you're out of a job. A week later, when they tried to punch in, security guards told them they'd been fired.

Twenty years ago, most unions would have written off such workers and their problems. As recently as 1986, the AFL-CIO supported the "employer sanctions" provision of the Immigration Reform and Control Act. Sanctions make it possible for employers like Travelodge to use Social Security "no match" letters as a pretext for firing immigrants who assert their rights. The law requires employers to keep records of workers' immigration status, and it imposes fines (low and rarely collected) on those who hire the undocumented. The real impact of the law is on the workers, making it illegal for them to hold a job.

Today unions are rethinking their attitude toward immigrants like Patricia and Matilda. Since 1986 it has become common for companies to use the employer sanctions as a weapon to resist organizing drives. Recognizing this, in February 2000 the AFL-CIO passed a historic resolution calling for the repeal of sanctions and for a legalization program that would allow undocumented immigrants to normalize their status. As a result, the political rules and alliances that limited the possibility for immigration reform have also changed. Amnesty for the country's 9-11 million undocumented immigrants, which was off the radar screen in Washington just a few years ago, is now a realistic goal.

But employers see opportunity as well. With the avid support of key Congressional Republicans and the Bush Administration, they are seeking new "bracero" contract labor programs, which would transform workers like the room cleaners into an even cheaper and more vulnerable labor force of guestworkers. Activists such as Ernesto Galarza and Cesar Chavez, and writers such as former Nation editor Carey McWilliams, documented extensive abuses of workers under the bracero program, in place from 1942 to 1964. Although they are guaranteed labor rights on paper, guestworkers depend on the continuation of a job to remain in the country. Employers therefore have the power not only to fire workers who protest bad conditions, but in effect to deport them as well.

The impact of the labor movement's shift on immigration policy extends far beyond the corridors of Congress. The Travelodge case reverberated through Local 2's master contract negotiations last year, covering about 5,000 San Francisco hotel employees. "Our members understood we needed stronger protection for immigrants, and were willing to fight for it," says Cuellar. "Not just the Latinos. The Anglos, the Filipinos and others who weren't directly affected also knew why it was important. If a hotel can use immigration to make some workers work faster, the pressure affects everyone." The union eventually won contract language increasing its ability to represent immigrants and protect their job rights. And the Travelodge case eventually produced a historic decision in arbitration, which said a no-match letter is not a legal reason to fire workers, setting a precedent that could help thousands who lose their jobs because of the letters every year.

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.

"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.

Many immigrant rights activists expected a major national campaign for amnesty and against sanctions to follow. Yet no bill was introduced into Congress last year calling for such basic reforms. Instead, last April Henry Cisneros, former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, proposed that unions and immigrant communities support expansion of the H1-B program, which supplies contract labor to high-tech industry. In return, he suggested, Congress could be convinced to pass proposals to end discrimination against Central American and Haitian refugees, for fair treatment for late applicants to the last immigration amnesty and for other reforms. Cisneros's prediction was wrong. The Republican Congress was ultimately able to pass H1-B without those amendments. The AFL-CIO lobbied against the program, but there was little union campaigning against it outside Washington. Even immigrant rights groups were divided over it.

"I don't think the H1-B strategy was the right one," says Eliseo Medina, vice president of the Service Employees International Union and a leading immigration strategist. "High-tech was only interested in its own issue and had no desire to link it to any broader program. We also tried to pass a more limited set of reforms, and in the end we got a minor amnesty, which may affect 600,000-800,000 people." The Clinton Administration pledged support for these more limited goals. For presidential candidate Al Gore, the absence in Congress of a broad amnesty bill repealing sanctions was good news. He didn't have to open himself up to a GOP attack by supporting such a proposal or alienate the Latino vote in states like California by opposing it.

With the Bush Administration in office, the political terrain is changing quickly. In January, Texas Senator Phil Gramm, the most rabid anti-immigrant voice in Congress, flew to Mexico City to meet new Mexican President Vicente Fox, a former Coca-Cola executive with close links to major Mexican and US corporations. On his return Gramm announced that he and Fox had discussed a vast expansion of bracero contract labor programs.

"It is delusional," Gramm told reporters, "not to recognize that illegal aliens from Mexico already hold millions of jobs in the United States with the implicit permission of governments at every level, as well as companies and communities." While Gramm called for transforming Mexican migrants into braceros, he also proposed increased enforcement of employer sanctions to force them into his contract labor scheme.

Gramm's visit was followed by that of Bush himself, who has carefully cultivated a pro-Latino, pro-immigrant image, fearing the kind of punishment that California's Latino voters, enraged over Governor Pete Wilson's anti-immigrant policies, imposed on that state's Republican Party. Bush nonetheless opposes amnesty, unwilling to cross the right wing, to whom immigration is still anathema. His solution: contract labor, which he touts to Latinos as a chance to work legally in the United States, while telling his conservative base that it affords no one the opportunity to stay. Bush's position also aligns him with industries that want guestworkers, like agriculture and meatpacking. "I look south and see opportunities and potential," he said before the summit.

For his part, Fox needs to protect the huge role migrant labor plays in the Mexican economy. The remittances of Mexicans working in the United States total $6-$8 billion a year, the third-largest source of foreign income. Fox must also speak to the millions of Mexicans who seek a way to cross the border without the harrowing journey through the desert, which for hundreds every year is a walk to their death. He supports a general amnesty but also contract labor, seeing as Bush does that it can be portrayed as a means of providing work opportunities in the North.

Indeed, behind all the backslapping between the two weekend cowboys on Fox's Guanajuato ranch, expanding guestworker programs was the only area of immigration reform under discussion in which they came close to agreement. Foreign Minister Jorge Castañeda revealed at the time that talks were already under way on expanding contract labor in agriculture; he is critical of some such programs but insists others are good. "There is no better way for Mexicans to defend themselves than for them to be legal," he said. Of course, the nature of that legal status–whether it grants people all the rights of citizenship or, like contract labor, makes residency contingent on employment–is the question.

The AFL-CIO officially opposes the expansion of existing contract labor programs, calling instead for labor protections within those that already exist. But Wilhelm, who heads the federation's immigration committee, says, "I don't think it's possible to have labor protections for contract workers. To think the law will protect people whose right to stay in the country ends with their job is not living in the real world."

The agriculture industry has pushed hard for expansion of its existing H2-A guestworker program. At the end of the last Congressional session, a legalization program for undocumented farm laborers was proposed. In exchange, growers wouldn't have to prove there was a labor shortage before recruiting guestworkers, and wage and housing requirements would be relaxed. The compromise was supported by farmworker unions, which reasoned that a big increase in guestworkers was unlikely given the glut of minimum-wage farm labor, and that some expansion of the program was likely to pass in any case. At the last minute the GOP right wing, opposing any amnesty at all, killed the proposal. But guestworker expansion in agriculture is sure to resurface in Congress soon.

"We're going to have a big fight this year," Eliseo Medina predicts. "The Republicans think a stolen presidency gives them a free hand, and Gramm's new bracero program is going to be front and center on their agenda. I think they'll introduce a comprehensive bill. Even nursing home employers want guestworkers now."

While fighting guestworker schemes, labor is preparing to introduce its own program. "We're going to put forward a comprehensive agenda, which will include legalization, repeal of employer sanctions and workplace protections regardless of legal status," Medina says. At the Oakland march, the new president of the Laborers union, Terence O'Sullivan (also a member of the AFL-CIO immigration committee), announced support for five general proposals, including a broad legalization program, repeal of employer sanctions, opposition to contract labor and protection for the right to organize. A fifth point, especially important to Asian-American immigrants, calls for increased ability to reunite families in the United States.

Illinois Congressman Luis Gutierrez introduced one bill at the end of January to end discrimination against Central American and Haitian refugees, and another at the beginning of February to expand legalization opportunities for immigrants who arrived before that month. No bill repealing sanctions or containing the AFL-CIO's other program points has yet been introduced. Despite Republican control of both the White House and Congress, however, labor strategists believe real reform is possible, although they caution that it will not likely happen this year, or maybe even next. "But there is a coalition out there that can win," Medina emphasizes. "We need immigrant communities to unite. We have to strengthen labor support, and we need churches, especially the Catholic Church, which has historically been the most active. Even some sectors of business will support us. For them, sanctions have failed–they fear a new bracero program and don't have the resources to take advantage of one."

Wilhelm says, "We're going to go to all members of Congress and ask them to sign on. If we can get the Democrats, and part of the Republicans, we can make a great law. If not, this will be our opportunity to punish those who oppose it." He compares the immigrant vote to that of African-Americans: "The Democratic Party can rely on the votes of African-Americans today because some people in it supported the African-American freedom movement. Those who didn't are still paying the price. It's going to be the same with the votes of immigrants."

Making immigration a civil rights issue won't be easy, however. Many civil rights groups opposed the H1-B tradeoff, pointing out that increasing the number of contract labor visas makes it more difficult to open up high-tech jobs for engineers of color. In Los Angeles, the wave of immigrants now changing its political landscape and fueling organizing drives among janitors and hotel workers actually displaced an earlier generation of African-American workers in those same industries. "Today, hotels and janitorial contractors no longer hire African-Americans," Wilhelm says. "The work force should fairly reflect the community. It's not responsible to support the rights of immigrant workers and not support people who've paid their dues, and I don't mean union dues."

The conversion of Phil Gramm and at least part of the Republican right (including, most recently, Jesse Helms) to the pro-bracero position may actually help clarify the immigration debate. Gramm, the AFL-CIO and immigrant rights activists agree on one thing: The choice to be made is not over what will or won't stop people from coming across the border but over their status in the United States. It's the age-old American dilemma: bondage (whether as slaves, indentured servants or braceros) or freedom (even if that still leaves workers with the need to organize and fight to improve conditions).

Migrant Watch International, based in Switzerland, estimates that 130 million people live outside their countries of birth. Because neoliberal reforms and the transfer of wealth from developing to developed countries makes survival impossible for many in their home countries, they migrate to places with greater employment possibilities and higher standards of living. US investment in Mexico (the largest source of migrants to the United States) and the low-wage economic climate fostered by the governments of both countries push people north, along with repatriated profits. Under the rules of free trade, profits and investment have free passage across the border, but people don't.

In addition to factors pushing people out of their countries of origin, there are pull factors. Communities of immigrants act as magnets, attracting the family members of those who have already immigrated. "These people are not strangers," explains Lillian Galedo, co-chair of Filipino Civil Rights Advocates. "They are our mothers and fathers, grandparents, aunts and uncles, brothers and sisters, and even our children."

Behind the immediate political debates over individual reform proposals lies a fundamental question: Is the purpose of immigration law to supply labor to industry on terms it finds acceptable, or is its purpose the protection of the rights and welfare of immigrants themselves?

Punitive policies and the militarization of borders cannot stop the flow of immigrants. But there is another framework for dealing with migration, other than contract labor and repression. In 1990 the UN General Assembly adopted an International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families. It extends basic human rights without distinction to all migrants, documented or undocumented. It supports the right of family reunification, establishes the principle of "equality of treatment" with citizens of the host country in employment and education, protects migrants against collective deportation and makes both sending and receiving countries responsible for protecting them. All countries retain the right to determine who is admitted to their territory, and under what conditions people gain the right to work.

Predictably, countries that send immigrants favor the convention, and countries that receive them don't. The United States has not ratified it. The convention does not answer all questions, but it takes two basic steps that still paralyze the US debate: It recognizes the global scale and permanence of migration, and its starting point is the protection of the rights of migrants themselves. That's where an immigration policy based on human rights begins.

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