Immigration

What's Labor's Role in Immigration Reform?

Tiffany Ten Eyck interviewed longtime Bay Area immigrant rights activist David Bacon about the immigration position of AFL-CIO and Change to Win.

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.


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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?

DB: The big question after the convention was how to get immigration reform through Congress. Those unions that went off to form the CTW federation, generally speaking, adopted a position that the only way we are going to be able to get legalization is by building an alliance with employers, and employers want guest workers. If we give them guest workers, and we agree that enforcement of employer sanctions will continue, maybe we’ll be able to get amnesty in trade for that.

And that was the architecture for the “comprehensive immigration reform” bills we saw in Congress over the last few years: big guest worker programs, increases in enforcement of employer sanctions, and some degree of legalization. But the legalization proposals were actually more pro-corporate: they proposed things like 18-year waiting periods, but they would immunize employers from punishment under employer sanctions. In other words, they would grandfather in the existing workforce while guest worker programs were getting up and running.

So we’ve had the labor movement divided in the last few years on immigration reform, with AFL-CIO continuing to support the position that we won in 1999 and SEIU, UNITE HERE, and other unions in CTW basically changing positions and supporting those comprehensive immigration reform bills instead. The irony is that these are the unions that fought the hardest in 1999 for a repeal of sanctions!

So the new joint position between the AFL-CIO and CTW is an effort to overcome that division. I think it’s actually an effort to bring the CTW and AFL-CIO back together, period. If you can do it on immigration reform, then you can do it pretty much on everything else, because this is one of the places where there was the sharpest conflict between CTW and AFL-CIO.

A joint position on immigration reform is a good idea if it’s a good position. It’s not a good idea if it’s not. We have to look at what it actually says.

There’s one good piece to this position that is worth trying to get the labor movement to live up to it. It says a long-term solution to uncontrolled immigration is to encourage just economic integration, which will eliminate enormous economic inequalities. An essential component of that is a fair trade globalization model that promotes the creation of free trade unions for all workers.

There was an even better statement that Sweeney and Ken Georgetti of the Canadian Labour Congress wrote to Obama about NAFTA. They talked about the displacement of people, that NAFTA caused migration by increasing poverty.

So here we look at the connection of immigration policy to trade policy. We can’t support a free trade agreement with Colombia if it is going to lead to the displacement of millions of Colombians, which it will. Same thing with Panama, with Peru, all these agreements and the economic model they are part of are displacing millions of people. So we have to not only oppose the trade agreements but also call for a new economic relationship with other countries. That is a very profound thing to say, and it’s going to take a lot of work to get our labor movement to live up to those words.

Because what we are really saying is that we demand a fundamental change in the foreign policy of this country, economic, political, military. That’s going to bring us into confrontation with the Obama administration.

LN: It’s great on paper but how do we make it real?

DB: It represents a basic increase in understanding by our labor movement and by workers. NAFTA educated us, with some very painful costs. It taught us not just that corporations would be more than willing to take our jobs and move them to Mexico but that those same trade agreements were no good for the people in those countries either.

They impoverished people, they eliminated their jobs, they tore up their union contracts, they dumped agricultural products on their markets so that farmers couldn’t survive, all of these things that produce migration.

In other words, working people in this country and working people in those countries, Mexico, specifically, we have a common interest in opposing these agreements.

That’s an important realization for us. We’re on the same side here. Those Mexican workers that are crossing the border into the U.S., we have the same problem.

So if it’s true that the reason that people are coming here is NAFTA and unfair economic and trade policies, then we need to make sure that those people, as they come into our workforce, have the same rights as we do. They’re not somebody else, they’re us.

So the question is, does the rest of this statement live up to that, is it consistent? It’s not.

It says that those people who are displaced and coming here should not be allowed to work. In fact, they should really go home.

When you say there must be a “secure and effective worker authorization” mechanism, what you mean is that employers may not hire undocumented workers, and if people are already in the workforce, they must leave.

LN: That brings us to amnesty. This platform offers up the adjustment of status for current undocumented workers.

DB: Amnesty is important, but it is not going to eliminate the effect of worker authorization. Because people are going to continue to come so long as this economic inequality exists—they will be in our organizing drives, they will be members of our union.

So the real question for us is, are we going to defend our sisters and brothers who don’t have work authorization?

We just had a good example at Overhill Farms down in LA. Management fired 254 people on May 31 for not having good Social Security numbers. These people belong to UFCW Local 770. What is the union going to do?

If the union was following the protocol in the AFL-CIO-CTW position it would say, “OK, you don’t have work authorization; I guess you shouldn’t be here." That basically gutted the union. How can you have a union in which 254 members out of 800 get fired and you don’t defend them?

LN: Part of the platform calls for an independent commission that determines the number of foreign workers admitted to work. I wonder if the folks who charted out this new platform would argue, “There’s going to be plenty more work visas and people can come in legally.”

DB: This is the heart of the employers’ proposal. Employers have been proposing guest worker programs since going back a long way.

But we now have 10 percent unemployment. So proposals for allowing employers to recruit 400,000 or 500,000 workers a year under work visas and bring them to the U.S. are not politically realistic. Congress is not going to pass them.

So what employers have proposed is to kick the ball down the road: if in the future employers want to claim there are labor shortages, they can go to a commission and if the commission agrees, then the commission will allow them to bring people in on temporary work visas.

Now, there are a lot of things wrong with work visas. First of all, people are recruited by employers. That means a system of corruption and recruitment in the countries that people come from. People have to pay someone off in order to get visas.

The workers at the Signal shipyard in Pascagoula, Mississippi, paid $20,000 apiece for those visas to come to the U.S. People have mortgaged everything their family has in order to send someone here.

The other big problem is that these are all visas that say you can only stay in the U.S. if you are employed. If you are thinking about signing the union card or you want to make a complaint about unpaid wages, if your employer fires you, you become deportable. So people are not free in this status. These are not visas that lead to permanent residence or citizenship, they don’t carry political rights, these folks are never going to be able to vote or receive social benefits. They’re not the social or political equals of the people living in the community around them. This is what employers want. Because this is the way of forcing people to work for cheap.

If you believe that there have to be full rights for immigrant workers, then you would not support work visas or guest worker programs. If there’s work for 400,000 people a year in the U.S., why not give people green cards instead of work visas?

Besides that: what is a good union supposed to do if there’s a labor shortage? If an employer is having a hard time finding workers, what do you do? You go on strike. You use that as a way to force wages up. So why are we being bad trade unionists?

LN: Why did the AFL-CIO soften its stance against guest worker programs?

DB: The AFL-CIO agreed to a position that is much closer to Change to Win’s, specifically to SEIU’s. So you could say that this is the price of unity.

But the rationale always given for this by union lobbyists was that this is just political realism. That we are not going to be able to get any kind of immigration reform without the support of the employers, and the employers are not going to support any reform proposals that don’t include guest workers. So this is surrender to that logic.

And the answer to that is that we are only going to get what we are able and willing to fight for. And we have to fight for what we really want, not for what we think employers are going to give us. When we go into contract bargaining, we don’t start by offering employers what we think they are likely to agree to. We fight for what we need.

That’s exactly the same thing as what’s going on here—if we want immigration reform based on human rights.

LN: My sense is that it’s a hard time to talk about immigration among native-born union members because of the economic crisis. How could labor deal with them together?

DB: We can’t win the right of undocumented people to work without saying everybody in this country needs to be able to have a job. Because the way they defeat us is they say, there aren’t enough jobs. Why should someone from Mexico who crossed the border without a visa have a job, and I can’t get one?

The answer to job competition isn’t for us to fight over the crumbs.

The response to the plant closures crisis in the 1980s was that when employers said, “we have the right to close plants and we determine whether there are jobs there or not,” we said, “no, we have the right to a job. And if the private sector is not willing or capable of providing employment, then the federal government has to do it.” That’s what the New Deal said.

The answer is to force the federal government to guarantee the right of all workers to be able to work—and to fight against things like the GM bankruptcy that are leading to the unemployment of tens of thousands of workers. Undocumented workers did not steal the jobs of those 14 plants that GM is going to close. GM took those jobs, with the Obama administration.

Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee from Houston is saying that there is a common ground. She authored a bill that said, have an amnesty for people who are here without papers, and then let’s take the fees that those workers are paying for the normalization of their status and use them to set up job creation and job training programs in communities with high unemployment.

If we fight for jobs programs at the same time that we are fighting for the legal status and legal rights of immigrant workers, we can have a program that unemployed African American workers and Latino and Asian workers can benefit from.

It’s the same thing in talking about rights at work. The lesson at Smithfield Foods was that when the employer and ICE were able to use raids against the workers when they were trying to organize the union, everyone in that plant suffered. Not just the workers who got picked up, not just the immigrants. The Black workers at Smithfield suffered, too, because so long as they could terrorize the workforce, they could stop that union drive from succeeding. It was only when workers could say to each other, “everybody in this plant has a right to be here,” that they were able to get enough strength that they finally beat the company.

But if we say that there are not enough jobs for everybody, some people have the right to put bread on the table and other people should go hungry, all we’re doing is helping our employers beat us over the head.

LN: So how do activists get unions to do the right thing on immigration?

DB: We have to look for a rational immigration policy that reflects what’s actually happening to us. In LA at Overhill Farms 254 people are fired and then replaced with part-time employees with no benefits. It makes no sense for us to have a policy that allows employers to do this and then to go to Congress and lobby for a bill that says we want a “secure and effective worker authorization mechanism.” We are lobbying for the same thing that’s being used against us!

We need a reality check and an immigration position that helps us, not our employers, and we have to look for the things that bring us together.

Tiffany Ten Eyck, a veteran of the successful Taco Bell Boycott campaign, is Promotions Coordinator for Labor Notes, where this piece originally appeared.
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