What's Labor's Role in Immigration Reform?
Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
LN: Why is a united position important right now? Where have the federations and key unions differed in the past?
DB: In 1986, the AFL-CIO supported the Immigration Reform and Control Act. It had an amnesty provision which gave about 4 million people legal status, but it also had a section called “employer sanctions,” which says that employers may not hire people who don’t have papers. It becomes illegal for people who don’t have papers to work.
Immigrant communities and immigrant rights activists inside the labor movement opposed that bill, but the AFL-CIO supported it. Their rationale was that if people can’t work, they will go home, or they won’t come here. It was an us vs. them argument. In other words, the labor movement and jobs belong to citizens, and immigrants shouldn’t be here.
What Way Forward?
Work groups are being set up this summer on Capitol Hill to draft immigration reform legislation, which the president says is a priority. But what kind of bill will emerge, and when? Read more.
After that, immigrant rights activists inside unions agitated and organized against that position and tried to get unions to call for the repeal of employer sanctions. As the demographics of the workforce changed, and as unions became more interested in organizing unorganized workers, we were able to win battle after battle inside unions around repealing employer sanctions. That meant that if you try to fire somebody because they don’t have authorization, we’re going to fight you.
Inside the AFL-CIO, the first unions we won were the garment unions, and then the Service Employees (SEIU). This was during the period of rising activity of Justice for Janitors. Employers were using employer sanctions against those workers whenever they would try to organize. We won the battle in SEIU by showing that employer sanctions had become a weapon against the union in its efforts to organize workers.
John Sweeney got elected in 1995 on the promise that he would move organizing unorganized workers into the center of the agenda. So we were able to argue that if you are really interested in organizing workers, then you must oppose employer sanctions, because they are going to be used against you whenever you try to organize. This was proven time after time. Sanctions were used against the Teamsters when they tried to organize apple workers in Washington state, they were used against janitors in Silicon Valley, used against clothing workers in New York.
We had an organization in Northern California called the Labor and Immigrant Organizers Network, which wrote a resolution in 1998 and began circulating it in unions and labor councils around the country, calling for four things: repeal employer sanctions; legalize people without papers; protect the rights of workers to organize, including undocumented workers; and reunify families. We didn’t include guest worker programs in that resolution, because the AFL-CIO was already opposed to guest worker programs.
That resolution caught fire and coming into the AFL-CIO convention in LA, we had many labor councils from around the country signed on, and international unions that were prepared to call for a change in position. The executive council meeting a couple of months later adopted a new position calling for all the things in our resolution.
That was a historic change for the labor movement, because it said “our movement belongs to all workers, not just some; we have to fight for the legal status of everybody; we have to oppose laws that criminalize work.” It was the high point.
LN: What happened in years to come that led to opposing positions on immigration reform by the major unions and federations?