May 4, 2001

The Labor Movement, Best Hope for Immigrants

By David Bacon

OAKLAND, CA — "For immigrants to build a better future, they need to build a union," says Eliseo Medina, an immigrant from Zacatecas who became a leading organizer for the United Farm Workers, and now serves as executive vice-president of the Service Employees union. "But I am also convinced that as the labor movement is the best hope for immigrants, so are immigrants the best hope of the labor movement."

It's not hard to understand why he takes that view. Unions represent about 13 percent of U.S. workers today, down from 35 percent in the early 1950s. To maintain that percentage, given the growth of the workforce and structural changes that eliminate jobs, unions have to organize 400,000 workers a year. To grow by just one percent, labor must organize 800,000 people, a rate not achieved since the 1940s.

Who, in the modern American workforce, actively wants to join the labor movement? For a growing number of unions, immigrant workers are part of the answer.

The history of labor organizing over the last decade in Los Angeles, currently the hotbed of organizing activity nationwide, is largely the story of immigrant workers fighting heavy odds. Immigrant janitors defied police beatings in Century City in 1989, recovering union contracts in the city's office buildings. Immigrant workers in Local 11 have made the Hotel Employees one of the strongest unions in the city. Carpenters, harbor truckers, garment workers, factory hands, and tortilla drivers have all staged pivotal strikes and organizing drives. Day laborers, domestics, and gardeners have built independent organizations, even in the absence of labor law protection and support from local unions.

LA is hardly an isolated case. The labor upsurge among immigrant workers has become a national phenomenon. Many unions are starting to see immigrant labor as a base for rebuilding labor strength in industries where it's been eroded, such as meatpacking, food processing, and residential construction.

However, the federation now confronts the reality that the backward immigration policies it has supported in the past have made it harder for unions to organize and represent immigrants.

The impact has, in fact, been devastating. In the summer of 1999, in the heart of California's San Joaquin Valley, hundreds of workers at the world's largest rose grower lost their jobs.

The Immigration and Naturalization Service audited the personnel records of over 1,000 employees of the Bear Creek Production Co. in Bakersfield. After deciding that almost 300 of them were undocumented, the INS demanded that the company terminate them, citing the employer sanctions provision of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, which passed with the support of the AFL-CIO. That provision makes working a crime for undocumented immigrants, and prohibits employers from hiring them. Like almost all California farm workers, Bear Creek workers are immigrants from Mexico and Central America.

The terminations were denounced by Arturo Rodriguez, president of the United Farm Workers. "These workers have been here 15, 20, 25 years," he declared. "They have houses and families. Their kids are in our schools. They've paid taxes for years and belong to our community."

The wave of firings at Bear Creek was not an isolated incident.

Workers at a small Los Angeles office furniture plant had a similar experience. The 70 employees at RCR Classic Designs furniture factory voted for the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE) that same summer. Afterwards, "the secretary told me I had to show my green card, along with ID and Social Security," said Salvador Ruiz, a union activist. "I refused. I told her I didn't think what she was asking for was legal." Other workers in the factory weren't so brave. "They were very afraid to organize and support the union because of this," according to Dolores Alcala, another union supporter.

The company's demands, made of every RCR employee, couldn't have come at a worse time. After RCR started demanding that workers reverify their immigration status, union support dropped dramatically. And in contract negotiations, Ruiz said, "the company wouldn't agree on anything."

It's a simple equation. If workers can't pressure the company to raise wages above $7-8/hour, Cruz's profits won't suffer, even with a union in the plant. "Immigration law is a tool of the employers to keep workers unorganized," said UNITE regional manager Cristina Vasquez. "The INS helps them."

"This was my first job after coming here from Colima, 17 years ago," Ruiz recalled. "No one ever asked me for papers then. They didn't care until now." After immigrating to the U.S. as a teenager, "what I didn't expect was so much discrimination," Alcala added. "We all have a right to work and eat. The immigration law is just trampling on all of us."

In case after case, immigration law has been used to counter organizing efforts among immigrant workers. That problem is growing even more acute, because the Clin-ton administration made the workplace the focus of its efforts to enforce immigration law. According to Doris Meiss-ner, INS Commissioner under Clinton, "work is the incentive that brings illegal immigrants into our country." Preventing workers from entering the U.S. without visas, she says, depends on removing them from the workplace, an INS strategy called "interior enforcement" away from the border.

The policy rests on employer sanctions, requiring employers to document the immigration status of their employees on I-9 forms. Verifying the I-9s has become a major INS preoccupation, which many unions say undermines worker's rights.

The INS depends on a new set of relationships with other government agencies. An agreement with the Department of Labor, for instance, requires federal inspectors looking for violations of minimum wage and overtime laws to turn over names of workers they think lack papers. In Los Angeles the INS used Labor Department information to raid garment sweatshops, and then Korean restaurants, following a campaign by the Korean Immigrant Workers Association to enforce wage and hour laws.

Controversy erupted over similar efforts by the Social Security Administration's "no match" letters to employers, listing workers whose numbers don't match its database. Many employers view the list as evidence that workers have no legal immigration status. That has provided another pretext for firings, especially during organizing drives. In New York and New Jersey, after thousands of immigrant asbestos removal workers organized their industry and revitalized the Laborers Union three years ago, contractors sent the union a "no match" list of workers they would no longer accept from the union hiring hall, including the leaders of the union drive.

According to William Gould, former chair of the National Labor Relations Board and one of the highest African American officials in the Clinton administration, "there is a basic conflict" between workers' rights under the National Labor Relations Act and workplace enforcement of immigration law.

But the huge population of immigrant workers now living in the U.S. may have a new ally — the AFL-CIO.

The AFL-CIO's former support for employer sanctions reflected the federation's business union policies of the Cold War. It enforced a defacto color line, seeking to protect wages for native-born workers by excluding immigrants rather than by organizing everyone.

That position represented one of two opposing trends in U.S. unions. At the turn of the century, the Industrial Workers of the World actively organized immigrants, many of whom became its leaders. In the 1930s, the Congress of Industrial Organizations called for organizing mass production plants "wall-to-wall," targeting immigrant workers on the lines, and making alliances with their national associations against companies like General Motors and U.S. Steel.

Even during the Cold War, radicals like Bert Corona called on unions to defend the undocumented, and fought the deportations of immigrant leaders like Mexican cannery organizer Lucio Bernabe and Australian longshoreman Harry Bridges. Corona "saw Mexicanos in the United States, not just as a people suffering racial and national discrimination, but as a working-class community, exploited for their labor," says Nativo Lopez, who worked with him in the Hermandad Nacional Mexicana.

In the last decade, a rising tide of labor opinion has challenged the AFL-CIO's Cold War immigration policy of excluding immigrant workers, arguing that unions should try to organize them instead. For many years, that argument was far from the mainstream. But increased union interest in organizing generally, AND the growing numbers of immigrant labor activists and leaders, and the shift of leadership within the federation from the building trades unions to more progressive unions, finally changed the balance of forces.

The California Labor Federation began calling for the repeal of sanctions in 1994, along with the two garment unions (now merged in UNITE), the Service Employees International Union, and the independent United Electrical Workers.

Two years ago, a group of union and community organizers involved in campaigns among immigrant workers in the San Francisco Bay Area formed the Labor Immigrant Organizers Network. LION organized demonstrations against SSA's "no match" letters and wrote a resolution in 1999 calling for the AFL-CIO to change its old pro-sanctions position. It was adopted in labor councils throughout the country, and support crested at the national convention in Los Angeles. Last February, the AFL-CIO executive council adopted its own resolution, calling for a new legalization program for the undocumented and the repeal of sanctions.

The AFL-CIO resolution enjoys wide support, especially in service sector unions with large immigrant membership like SEIU, UNITE, and the Hotel Workers. Teamsters support for general amnesty is less clear. And while no union openly opposes it, some don't see it as important.

Other labor activists go beyond the resolution. At a march organized by LION in Oakland in January, the new president of the Laborers Union, Terence O'Sullivan, announced support for five general proposals, including a broad legalization program, repeal of employer sanctions, opposition to contract labor, protection for the right to organize, and increased ability to reunite families in the U.S.

While immigrant activists continue to struggle to get unions to support legislation embodying those demands, employers are putting forward a very different program — the vast expansion of current "guestworker" visas, reinstituting a modern version of the old bracero program.

Opposition to guestworker schemes historically stems not just from a desire to prevent an oversupply of labor, and therefore falling wages, but also from the bracero pro-gram's own record. Millions of Mexicans were recruited as braceros by U.S. growers from 1942 to 1964. Activists like Ernesto Galarza and Cesar Chavez demonstrated that while they had labor rights on paper, they couldn't exercise them. Employers not only could fire anyone who protested bad conditions or organized unions, but could deport them as well. Today's guestworkers suffer the same problem.

Last year Silicon Valley's wealthy high-tech industry won a unanimous vote in the House of Representatives expanding the H-1B guestworker program. New proposals are now being made by agribusi-ness, meatpacking, healthcare, and other industries. They're supported by the Bush administration, and even Senator Phil Gramm, who formerly opposed any increase in immigration. These proposals call for recruiting Mexican workers as one-year temporary laborers, and would force workers into the program through increased enforcement of employer sanctions.

The conflict between labor, advocating legalization and the repeal of sanctions, and business, pushing guestworkers and greater sanctions enforcement, defines the new terrain of the immigration debate. They both agree that immigrants have become a permanent part of the workforce, and whole industries depend on their labor. But should immigration law be used to supply those workers to industry at a price industry wants to pay, or should it be used to protect the rights of immigrants themselves?

The AFL-CIO's reversal in position has shifted the political climate around immigration in Washington, D.C. dramatically. Just two years ago, even discussion of limited amnesty was considered laughable among Beltway lobbyists. "It's really obvious that the change by the labor movement has made a whole new discussion possible," says Victor Narro, a staff attorney at the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights in Los Angeles. "Now we have a labor movement that's on the side of immigrants, rather than one bent on trying to stop immigration."

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