Ten years ago, before Donald Trump made anti-immigrant scapegoating into popular politics, a group of organizers in Fort Wayne, Indiana, were trying to figure out how to bridge the divide between white workers and undocumented Latino workers.
Indiana University–Purdue University Fort Wayne (IPFW) had hired a construction company that used some union labor and some non-union, undocumented workers to helm an expansion project. The unions involved reached out for help to the Workers’ Project, at the time an initiative of the Northeast Indiana Central Labor Council (CLC), to represent workers who weren’t formally members of the council’s member unions. The unions had planned a campaign under the banner of “Local Jobs for Local People,” but Workers’ Project co-founders Tom Lewandowski, at the time president of the CLC, and Mike Lauer, director of the Indiana/Kentucky/Ohio Regional Council of Carpenters, argued against this framing—it would contribute to xenophobia, to us-against-them thinking. Instead, Lewandowski says, “Our operational theme for this campaign was going to be, ‘If they’re getting fucked, we’re getting fucked.’”
Community outreach also paid off when a local Mexican restaurant owner stepped in to help with the campaign, offering lunch receipts from Saturdays as proof that the laborers were working overtime for which they weren’t getting paid. “We ended up eventually developing enough trust among the undocumented workers that they began to come to meetings,” Lewandowski says. “I would have them sign their names on a sheet, and I said, ‘What do you want to call yourselves? Because you are a union at this point.’ They said ‘IPFW Construction Workers Association.’” The union workers kept an eye on safety conditions for the undocumented workers, and when the non-union workers held an informational picket outside the job site to protest threats to their jobs, the building trades honored their picket line and refused to work. Eventually, some of the undocumented workers won settlements; some of them also got into the unions.
“If they’re getting fucked, we’re getting fucked” isn’t a TV-ready campaign slogan, but it speaks to the core organizing philosophy of the Workers’ Project: solidarity, not scapegoating. In Indiana, where Donald Trump won the Republican primary handily and selected his running mate, Governor Mike Pence, trying to rally anger about trade and immigration into a wave he can ride into the White House, such campaigns have special significance. While organized labor has begun only in recent years to reverse course on immigration, to support the rights of undocumented workers and guest workers and welcome new immigrants into its ranks, in Fort Wayne organizers were building a bulwark against Trumpism long before Trump hit his first campaign stage. They were doing their best to create a model for the rest of labor as the old model crumbled around them.