Doing Right By Immigrants on Labor Day

In the year that has passed since Sept. 11, immigrant workers mattered to the labor movement more than ever.

"We're a city of immigrants unlike any other city, within a nation of immigrants," New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani said shortly after the terrorist attacks. "It's the thing that renews us and revives us in every generation."

Labor has been the first to agree. Recognizing the "increased fear and scapegoating of immigrants and the great burden imposed on immigrants by the recession," AFL-CIO President John Sweeney argued that we must stand firmly on the side of immigrant workers and their families.

The labor movement's renewed embrace of immigrant workers constitutes a historic shift. Only in the past two years has the AFL-CIO reversed its support for the 1986 federal law requiring that companies verify their employees' immigration status when hiring.

By changing its stance, the labor federation acknowledged what many of its members knew long ago: that the verification laws don't create safe workplace conditions or maintain decent-paying jobs. In practice, these measures benefit employers who use the specter of an INS inspection to quiet troublemakers -- workers who blow the whistle on safety violations, or who speak up for their legal right to organize.

Even without the help of immigration officials, anti-union companies prove all too willing to act on threats against employees. As Cornell University Professor Kate Bronfenbrenner showed in a study of 400 National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) elections, employers illegally fire workers for union activity in one of every three organizing campaigns.

Responding to these abuses, and acknowledging the crucial contributions of the estimated eight million undocumented workers to our economy, the AFL-CIO now supports a broad amnesty for these immigrants and their families.

All workers would benefit from changes in government policy that allow immigrant families to gain legal citizenship status, and that create real penalties for employers who break the law.

Labor wins when it welcomes new workers into its ranks -- infusing new energy into the movement for living wages and dignity on the job. And America wins when we maintain high standards for safety and respect in every workplace.

That's why the Supreme Court decision in Hoffman Plastic Compounds v. the NLRB represents a tragic setback for the country. Last April, the Court ruled that undocumented workers do not have the same rights as other employees to receive back pay if fired illegally. As Justice Stephen Breyer noted in the Court's minority opinion, this removes a key financial incentive for employers to respect the both labor and immigration law. In effect, the decision encourages union busters to hire more immigrant workers, because employers now have little to lose in firing those who try to organize in places like hazardous packinghouses or garment sweatshops.

Already employers guilty of targeting pro-union workers for pay cuts, surveillance, and intimidation have taken advantage of this decision. In one example, the owners of the Tuv Taam food plant in New York City immediately used the Hoffman Plastics precedent to deny that they owed lost wages to locked-out workers, even though the immigration status of Tuv Taam's abused employees had never been questioned.

These injustices have only strengthened the labor movement's resolve to pass strong immigration reforms. The AFL-CIO and some of its member unions who have been most shaped by the recent waves of immigration recently announced that they will sponsor "Freedom Rides" in 2003 to highlight the plight of undocumented immigrants. Civil Rights leaders like Reverend James Lawson and Congressman John Lewis, who participated in the original Freedom Rides through the South more than forty years ago, will join with people experiencing discrimination on the job today.

With workers busing into New York from cities including Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Miami, Houston and Minneapolis, the labor movement will send a powerful message to Congress and to President Bush: That immigrant rights are workers' rights. And that only by standing behind immigrant workers in a time of national crisis do we uphold Mayor Giuliani's statement that "diversity has been our greatest source of strength."

Mark Engler, a writer based in Brooklyn, has previously worked with the Arias Foundation for Peace and Human Progress in San José, Costa Rica, as well as the Public Intellectuals Program at Florida Atlantic University.

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