Labor Leaders Join Civil Rights Groups to Fight Alabama's Draconian Immigration Law

The following article first appeared at Working In These Times, the labor blog of In These Times magazine. For more news and analysis like this, sign up to receive In These Timesweekly updates.


Foreign auto companies are a bedrock of Alabama’s economy. Hence it is ironic, civil rights activists say, that Alabama has perhaps the country’s most draconian law targeting immigrant workers—attacking people displaced by and working in the global economy while depending on this same economy for its economic survival.

At the Daimler AG annual shareholders meeting in Berlin April 4, U.S. labor and civil rights leaders said that unless the German company takes a stand on Alabama’s infamous anti-immigrant law, it is tacitly supporting a racist and unjust regime in a state where its Mercedes Benz factory is considered responsible for 10,000 jobs and $1.5 billion in economic impact.

United Steelworkers international vice president Fred Redmond and other representatives of the AFL-CIO and Latino rights groups demanded that Daimler join calls for a repeal of the Alabama law HB 56. They noted that Daimler was a founding member of the United Nations Global Compact, which calls on private businesses to use their influence to uphold human rights and universal values, and says that businesses are complicit if they are silent in the face of human rights abuses in their sphere of influence.

In March, civil rights activists and labor leaders attended Hyundai’s annual shareholder meeting in Seoul to make a similar point, as Colorlines reported, since Hyundai’s Alabama operations account for 2 percent of the state’s GDP. Depending whether the state legislature acts to repeal before then, they may also visit Honda’s shareholder meeting in Tokyo in June.

On April 2, Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and its affiliate, the Southern Regional Joint Board of Workers United, filed a complaint with the International Labour Organization’s Committee on Freedom of Association charging that the Alabama law denies civil rights to immigrants and minorities and also inhibits freedom of association for trade unions.

A letter from SEIU International President Mary Kay Henry and International Secretary-Treasurer Eliseo Medina to the ILO said the U.S. federal government needs to take more responsibility for preventing and repealing such state laws.

HB 56, which took effect last year, was modeled on Arizona’s notorious SB 1070 law but went even further. It has been blamed for forcing thousands of immigrants to leave the state, depopulating schools and communities. A recent study by a University of Alabama economist projected it could cost the state as much as $10.8 billion and more than 70,000 jobs lost annually.

The law authorizes racial profiling by police, mandates that schools determine the immigration status of students and their parents, prohibits landlords renting to undocumented immigrants and bars undocumented immigrants from looking for work or entering into legal contracts for anything from buying a home to opening an electric account.

Opponents say the law is unconstitutional in that it demands racial profiling and essentially forces people to carry documentation. According to the labor delegation, a German Mercedes Benz executive was actually jailed under the law because he was not carrying the right documents.

Redmond was joined at the shareholder meeting by National Council of La Raza board member Renata Soto and America’s Voice representative Patricia Kupfer, along with a representative from SEIU. Kupfer pointed out that she is the descendant of German immigrants, who like countless Americans’ predecessors would have been targeted by Alabama’s law if such a thing existed at the time. Soto told the Daimler executives that:

This is very personal to me. In Alabama, i could be stopped by police officer just because of my brown hair and my Spanish accent.

She noted that the shareholder meeting fell on the anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, and framed the Alabama law as a civil rights struggle that cannot be ignored:

You might argue that you do not want to become involved in a local political fight. But Alabama drew you and all of us into this fight when it passed this law. As one of the largest employers in the state, as the flagship company that revitalized the Alabama economy when the Confederate flag came down, Daimler is one of the few actors in the state that has the power to stop this law. You have the power to make the state Legislature listen.

Immigrants rights activists say that in Tennessee, automotive companies Nissan, Bridgestone and Volkswagen have spoken out against proposed anti-immigrant bills that so far have not passed.

An AFL-CIO backgrounder adds:

Mercedes-Benz built their Alabama plant after securing lucrative tax benefits from the government of Alabama and following the state government’s decision to remove the confederate flag from the state Capitol, a symbol that the state was ready to move beyond its bloody past of racial intolerance and violence. Mercedes and other manufacturers have located in Alabama because it has some of the worst labor protections in America. Alabama is a small state most famous for bloody protests in the 1960s over civil and human rights – a past that it is shamefully returning to.

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