May 11, 2001


Labor Fights For Immigrants

By David Bacon

OAKLAND, CA - Even though she was working 40 hours a week at the Valencia St. Travelodge in San Francisco, Matilda (last name withheld), who moved to the US 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 coworker, 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 $1000. At the end of each month, after putting out $250 for food, nothing was left from her paycheck. The motel paid roomcleaners $6.25/hour-not enough to send any money home to their 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 Local 2. According to organizer Chito Cuellar, once the union signed its first contract, supervisors began making immigration threats to derail protests over heavy work loads 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 to use Social Security "no-match" letters as a pretext for firing immigrants who assert their rights, as the Travelodge management did. The law requires employers to keep records of workers' immigration status, and 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 of 2000 the AFL-CIO passed an 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.

The labor movement's shift on immigration policy has an impact far beyond the corridors of Congress, however.


The Travelodge case reverberated through Local 2's master contract negotiations in 2000, covering about 5000 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 an 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 5000 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.

Workplace enforcement of immigration law became the key element in the Clinton administration's overall immigration policy. In its ultimate expression, Operation Vanguard, the INS conducted checks of immigration documents at every meatpacking plant in Nebraska in 1999. Over 4700 workers were called in by agents, and 3000 left the plants. In Omaha, where a community organization, Omaha Together One Community, had made beginning steps towards organizing non-union plants, Operation Vanguard wiped out its rank-and-file organizing committee.

Last year the United Food and Commercial Workers and OTOC together mounted new organizing drives at the Omaha plants, winning several elections. Despite an internal operating procedure directing INS agents not to initiate immigration enforcement actions during labor disputes, however, the INS responded with new raids. At Nebraska Beef, over 200 workers were arrested. "It divided families and threw fear into the community, right at the moment when workers were risking their jobs to change conditions," charges OTOC organizer Sergio Sosa.


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 U.S. 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 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 bra-ceros, he also proposed increased enforcement of employer sanctions, to force them into his contract labor scheme.

Gramm's visit to Fox was followed by that of Bush himself, who carefully cultivated a pro-Latino, pro-immigrant image during his election campaign, fearing the kind of punishment that California's Latino voters, enraged over Governor Pete Wilson's anti-immigrant policies, imposed on the state's Republican Party. Bush nonetheless opposes amnesty, fearing to cross the right wing of his own party, to whom immigration is still anathema. His solution: supporting contract labor, touting it to Latinos as a chance to work legally in the U.S., 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, such as agriculture and meatpacking. "I look south, and see opportunities and potential," he explained after the summit.

For his part, Fox needs to protect the huge economic role migrant labor plays in the Mexican economy. The remittances of Mexicans working in the U.S.-estimated to be between $6 and $8 billion a year-rank as the third largest source of foreign income after oil and tourism. Politically, Fox has to speak to the needs of 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 deaths. He supports a general amnesty but he also supports contract labor, seeing like Bush that it can be portrayed as a means of providing the sought-after opportunity to work 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 agreement might eventually be possible. Mexico's foreign minister Jorge Castañeda revealed at the time that talks are already under way on expanding contract labor in agriculture; he is critical of some contract labor programs, but insists that others are good.

The AFL-CIO officially opposes contract labor programs, and calls 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, liberal Democrat Howard Berman and Oregon Republican Gordon Smith, a traditional bracero supporter, proposed a legalization program for undocumented farm laborers. In exchange, wage and housing requirements for using guest-workers would be relaxed, and growers wouldn't have to prove a labor shortage before recruiting them. The compromise was supported by farmworker unions, who argued that the existing glut of farm labor made it unlikely that growers would vastly increase their use of guestworkers, and that some expansion of the program was likely to pass in any case. At the last moment the Republican 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," Medina predicts. "The Republicans think that 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 also 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 immigration march in Oakland, 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 U.S.

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 this year. 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."

The conversion of Phil Gramm and at least part of the Republican right (including, most recently, longtime immigrant-basher 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 U.S. 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).

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 as well. Communities of immigrants act as magnets, attracting other 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 migrants. But there is another framework for dealing with migration, other than contract labor and repression. In 1990, the United Nations 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 territories, 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 U.S. has not ratified it. The Convention does not answer all questions, but it takes two basic steps that still paralyze U.S. 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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