[Documents menu] Documents menu

From owc@energy-net.org Fri Aug 18 07:06:21 2000
Date: Thu, 17 Aug 2000 00:19:21 -0500 (CDT)
From: Open World Conference <owc@energy-net.org>
Subject: [OWC UPDATE, 8/16] Amnesty/Labor Rights Campaign
Article: 102833
To: undisclosed-recipients:;

Labor Rights For All Workers

OWC Update, 16 August 2000


1) Resolution in Support of Unconditional Amnesty for All Undocumented Immigrants and Labor Rights For All Workers (adopted by the national convention of the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement/LCLAA, AFL-CIO, which was held August 9-13, in Chicago)

2) Organize and Defend the Rights of Immigrant Workers - Presentation by David Bacon to the Oregon State AFL-CIO Summer School on August 5 at the University of Oregon in Eugene, Oregon

Resolution in Support of Unconditional Amnesty for All Undocumented Immigrants and Labor Rights For All Workers

[Introductory Note: The following resolution was adopted by the national convention of the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement/LCLAA, which was held Aug. 9-13, in Chicago. LCLAA is the national coalition of Latino unionists in the AFL-CIO. The resolution was submitted to the convention by the San Francisco chapter of LCLAA, of which Ed Rosario, OWC co-coordinator, is president. We urge all unionists and activists to use this resolution as a model resolution to be submitted to your unions or organizations. Together let us build a visible movement for amnesty and labor rights for all! - Alan Benjamin, for the OWC Continuations Committee}

WHEREAS, an appeal calling on President Clinton and the U.S. Congress to grant unconditional amnesty for all undocumented immigrants and to ratify ILO Conventions that address the fundamental rights of all workers was launched by four organizations - the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC/AFL-CIO), the National Coalition for Dignity and Amnesty for Undocumented Immigrants, the Black Workers For Justice (BWFJ), and the North Carolina Public Service Workers Union UE Local 150;

WHEREAS, the initiators of this campaign seek to gather one million signatures in support of this petition before the end of this year;

WHEREAS, there are more than 8 million undocumented immigrants in the United States who are subjected to conditions of horrendous servitude, laboring here without the most elementary human rights while they help the economy flourish;

WHEREAS, keeping workers undocumented subjects them to discrimination and shameless exploitation, including meager wages, long hours, and no benefits - while giving them limited opportunity for economic mobility;

WHEREAS, for generations, bosses have profited by dividing working people on the basis of race and national origin, with immigrant workers being blamed unjustly for the loss of jobs and the decline in the quality of life;

WHEREAS, a campaign for unconditional amnesty for undocumented workers unifies the working class, creating a situation where the fighting capacity of all working people is improved;

WHEREAS, last February, the National Executive Committee of the AFL-CIO voted to endorse the call for amnesty for undocumented immigrants and to hold a series of hearings nationwide to highlight the plight of these immigrant workers;

WHEREAS, the pro-immigrant effort by the national AFL-CIO needs to be backed by one million signatures on this national petition demanding that the U.S. Congress take immediate action to grant unconditional amnesty for all undocumented immigrants;

WHEREAS, the International Labor Organization (ILO) Conventions have registered the gains won through struggle by the workers' movement over the past century and established the standard for labor rights worldwide;

WHEREAS, the United States has one of the worst records in the world regarding workers' rights, according to the July 14, 1999, report issued by the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU), which fully documents the massive, ongoing, and appalling violations in the United States of the right to freedom of association and the right to organize;

WHEREAS, the U.S. government - which has one of the worst ratification records in the world of these ILO Conventions - has failed to ratify ILO Conventions 11, 87, 98, and 143, which address the fundamental rights of all workers: the right to freedom of association, the right to organize and bargain collectively, and the human rights of all migrant workers;

WHEREAS, according to the ICFTU report, union solidarity in the United States is restricted by the law which makes secondary boycotts and sympathy strikes illegal - a direct reference to the anti-labor Taft-Hartley Act;

WHEREAS, the ICFTU report concludes by calling on the United States to take a series of far-reaching measures to establish genuine respect for core labor standards in the United States. ... The core ILO Conventions should be ratified and the United States' laws brought into conformity with these Conventions;

WHEREAS, any country that pretends to be a democracy and to uphold workers' rights must begin by ratifying and implementing these ILO Conventions;

WHEREAS, ratification by the United States of ILO Conventions 87 and 98 - and the accompanying stipulation that labor laws in the U.S. must be brought into conformity with these Conventions - would require the immediate repeal of Taft-Hartley;

WHEREAS, workers in the U.S. South - the region with the lowest per-capita income in the country - are particularly affected by the lack of trade union rights, working in a sort of domestic free trade zone similar to the free trade zones in Southeast Asia;

WHEREAS, Taft-Hartley has been largely responsible for the low degree of unionization in the South, with Section 14(b) of the Taft-Hartley Act allowing states to legislate the notorious anti-union right-to-work laws;

WHEREAS, there are more than 3 million Mexicans and Central Americans working throughout the deep South in agriculture, poultry and fish processing, landscaping and construction - as the corporations import workers from Mexico and Central America, utilizing the H2A provision of the immigration law, if they cannot get the labor cheaply enough in the South; and

WHEREAS, this increased migration of workers from south of the border has intensified the competition among low-wage workers for jobs and social services, with the differences in language and cultures being exploited by the corporations and the political system to divide and conquer;

THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED, that the national convention of the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement (LCLAA) calls on President Clinton and the U.S. Congress to grant an unconditional amnesty for all undocumented workers;

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that the national LCLAA convention calls on President Clinton and the U.S. Congress to ratify the following ILO Conventions that address the fundamental rights of all workers: (1) Convention 87 (1948) and Convention 11 (1921) that recognize our rights to freedom of association, (2) Convention 98 (1949) that recognizes workers' rights to organize and bargain collectively, (3) Convention 143 (1975) that defends the human rights of all migrant workers. The time has arrived to bring all workers' rights in the United States to the modern standards codified in the Conventions of the International Labor Organization (ILO); and

BE IT FINALLY RESOLVED, that the national LCLAA convention supports and will help promote the national petition drive in support of unconditional amnesty and labor rights for all initiated by the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC/AFL-CIO), the National Coalition for Dignity and Amnesty for Undocumented Immigrants, the Black Workers For Justice (BWFJ), and the North Carolina Public Service Workers Union UE Local 150.

Organize and Defend the Rights of Immigrant Workers

Presentation by David Bacon to the Oregon State AFL-CIO Summer School on August 5 at the University of Oregon in Eugene, Oregon

[Introductory Note: The presentation below was delivered by David Bacon in Eugene, Oregon, on August 5, 2000. Bacon, a longstanding labor journalist, was a panelist at the Immigrants' Rights Workshop of the Open World Conference, which was held last February in San Francisco.]

Last year, one of the most important Mexican labor struggles was fought to prevent the privatization of the electrical system in central Mexico. The Mexican Electrical Workers union mobilized its allies, and collected a million petition signatures in three weeks. If they had failed, thousands would have lost their jobs, their union contract would have been torn apart, and their union itself would have disappeared, or been transformed into a shadow.

This is what has already happened to workers at Mexico's airlines, railroads, telephone system, and in many other industries. In February of last year, it also happened to the copper miners in Cananea, one of Mexico's oldest mines and site of the historic battle which initiated the Mexican Revolution in 1907. Hundreds of miners lost their jobs after the mine was privatized, and their union was virtually destroyed when the threat of military occupation was used to end their strike.

Since there's almost no other work in Cananea, a small mountain town, the jobless miners had to leave. Many of them crossed the border, just fifty miles north, to find work and a new economic future in the United States.

They're not alone.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that almost 100 million people today live outside of the countries in which they were born. They're not just moving from Mexico to the U.S., but from developing countries to developed ones all over the world.

And what do they find when they arrive with their dreams of a better life?

They become part of an immigrant workforce with conditions and wages at the bottom. They're denied the most basic rights - no unemployment insurance, no medical care, no social benefits of any kind.

They have no right to a job. Not only can they be fired at a moment's notice, like most workers, but the very act of working for them is a crime, a violation of the law.

They are denied the right to be a resident of a stable community, to live here at all.

And the irony is that they often wind up working for the same corporations whose operations in their countries of origin are part of the reason why they're here to begin with.

Workers in this country become victims of the same free-trade economy, losing their jobs when their plants close, or when the shrinking tax base which pays for social services leads to job cuts. And when this happens, we are told to find someone to blame. But instead of pointing the finger at the corporations and governments and financial institutions who actually make the decisions, we're told to blame other workers.

Blame the workers in Mexico or China for taking your job.

Blame the immigrant workers in the United States for the same thing.

And as a result, anti-immigrant hysteria has now become an extremely serious problem in all developed countries, as immigrants have become an integral part of the workforce.

Transnational corporations want to have it both ways. They want the right to invest in the developing world, forcing wages to the bottom in the pursuit of profits. And in the developed countries, they seek the workers who have been displaced by high unemployment and falling wages, and exploit them yet again.

In this drive for ever higher profits, corporations are aided by U.S. immigration legislation.

While immigration laws are always presented in the media as a means of controling borders, and keeping people from crossing them, they have always had a much more important function, For the last hundred years, they've been the means of regulating the supply, and consequently the price, of immigrant labor.

No matter how many walls are built on the border, no matter how many troops or National Guardsmen or helicopters patrol it, workers will still cross it looking for a future. There's no more eloquent testimony to this than the fact that 400 women and men -- workers -- died last year in the desert, trying to make the journey from northern Mexico into the U.S. Or that 57 Chinese immigrants starved to death in a truck trailer bringing them across the English Channel into Great Britain.

However, instead of fighting for the rights of these migrant workers, anti-immigrant attitudes dominated our labor movement in the cold war era. It was part of the conservative way of thinking which led U.S. unions to support free trade, U.S. corporate investment, and U.S. foreign policy generally for fifty years.

Anti-immigrant legislation was supported by the AFL-CIO during this era, and the crowning piece of that legislation was Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. This law made the very act of working, of having a job, illegal for undocumented immigrants.

But when working becomes a crime, it becomes very difficult for workers to organize unions, go on strike, and fight for better conditions.

And for the last few years, the effect of this law has been compounded by the efforts of the Clinton administration to enforce immigration law against workers themselves.

Immigration agents now check documents workers must fill out to get a job, and require employers to fire those whose documents are in question. In Nebraska, the Immigration and Naturalization Service checked the whole meatpacking industry - sixty plants with forty thousand workers. 4600 workers were called in to verify their papers, and 3000 of them were driven from the plants. In Washington, 1300 workers were required to reverify their documents, and over 700 fired, in the middle of a Teamster Union organizing drive.

Other agencies, including ones responsible for enforcing fair labor standards and social benefits, like the Department of Labor and Social Security Administration, are being pressed into searching for undocumented immigrants.

And now employers propose programs which would allow workers to remain in the U.S., but only as contract laborers, in conditions in which any protest for higher wages, or any effort to join a union, would lead to deportation.

But the good news is that anti-immigrant sentiment in the U.S. labor movement has never gone unchallenged. And since the election of new AFL-CIO leaders five years ago, U.S. unions have become much more interested in organizing and fighting for the rights of immigrant workers.

In part this is due to our need to survive. Immigrant workers on the bottom are among those who most want and need unions, and are willing to join.

This year, grassroots immigrant rights coalitions and labor councils around the country combined to bring a resolution to the AFL-CIO convention, calling for an end to employers sanctions, for a new amnesty program to legalize workers already here, and for ending the administration's immigration enforcement program directed against workers. Labor here in Lane County can be justly proud of the fact that the Lane County Labor Council was one of those that passed the resolution.

At the AFL-CIO convention in Los Angeles last October, national union leaders spoke for a change in immigration policy. And in February, the executive council adopted a resolution which called for ending sanctions and a new legalization program.

Today unions represent about 13% of the workforce. We have to organize 400,000 workers a year just to stay in the same place. If we want to grow from 13% to 14% -- just 1% -- we have to organize 800,000 workers a year. The executive council just agreed to set a new goal for our labor movement -- one million workers a year.

Last year, the AFL-CIO grew by 460,000 workers, the first net growth since the mid-1950s. This year it's slowed down again - we are past mid-year, and according to Work in Progress, we have yet to reach 100,000 newly-organized workers.

We're in a fight to survive, and to survive we must grow. And to grow, we have to ask an important question - which groups of workers want to join unions? What's the track record?

In Oregon, state labor federation president Tim Nesbitt has proposed that the state set itself a goal of organizing 17,000 new workers. Who are these workers going to be?

Clearly, one group of workers who have been fighting to organize unions are immigrants. In California, a majority of union drives over the last decade have been at least partly based among immigrants. This includes not just campaigns initiated by unions, but many spontaneous strikes and organizing drives initiated by immigrant workers themselves.

This upsurge is partly due to demographics. The workforce is changing in many industries. Immigrant workers make up an increasing percentage of the workforce in building services, healthcare, manufacturing and food processing, construction, and hotel and restaurant. Some industries have always had a largely immigrant workforce - agriculture, garment, electronics and others. All of these industries exist here in Oregon, and in some cases they're very large and important.

These are industries built on exploitation, and the rate of exploitation is getting worse. In Los Angeles' garment industry, for instance, the inflation-adjusted wage level has fallen since 1986, when the immigration reform bill was passed. This also happened in residential construction, where union representation was lost years ago.

And it's not just happening in LA and California. This change is going on everywhere, including Oregon and other states which historically haven't had many Latino or Asian immigrants.

But while immigrants are exploited, they aren't just victims. There's a long history of struggle among immigrant workers. I just interviewed a group of workers who stopped work in a meatpacking plant in St. Paul, Minnesota, sat down on the line, and sent a delegation down the street a couple of blocks to the UFCW hall, to let the union know they were on strike and ready to join.

At the Los Angeles AFL-CIO immigration hearing, a worker testified that after her employer, a Palm Springs hotel, fired workers when they began organizing a union, they struck for three months. And when the NLRB ordered the hotel to return the workers to their jobs, and the hotel refused to rehire the workers who had no papers, they continued their strike for another month to get everyone back in.

Immigrants are not the only workers with a history of struggle like this. Other groups of workers are also pro-union, and courageously stand up for their rights. But there is a track record of self-organization among immigrants - of worker-initiated job actions, and of community support for them.

When we look at which industries and workplaces we want to target for organizing, we need to research more than just the employers. Let's look at the workers, at who wants to join, who's ready to fight and who has some ideas about how to do it.

Immigrant workers are not babies. They don't have to be told what unions are, or even, in many cases, how to organize, despite the fact that they may be unfamiliar with labor laws and rights in the U.S. They have something to offer us besides just a chance to grow.

To survive and organize, we need to change. Finding new traditions can help us do that. In the Philippines, for instance, workers set up tents and live at the plant gate when they go on strike. No police harassment can chase them away. That's just one example of the kind of militancy which enabled Filipinos to organize unions in the Alaska fish canneries and the fields of California and the northwest all through the 1930s.

In Mexico and El Salvador, despite harassment and sometimes bloody repression of labor rights, national law prohibits companies from operating and hiring strikebreakers during a legal strike. That often gives workers from these countries a greater expectation of their labor rights.

This expectation is good for us. It helps us to raise our sights, so that we don't continue to take strikebreaking for granted, and treat it as a normal state of affairs. These cultural expectations place a higher value on labor rights than on private property rights, something that would benefit workers as a whole in this country.

Immigrant communities are usually very supportive of working-class struggles, and workers themselves have a tradition of mutual support. Strikes in the barrio often become struggles of a whole community against a big employer.

But for the labor movement to reach out successfully to immigrant workers, we need organizers and local officers who can relate to their communities.

We need a strategic alliance between unions and immigrant communities. These days we recognize that organizing is not so simple as just going out with authorization cards and leaflets to a plant gate and signing up workers. It's a long-term struggle that requires real organization among workers themselves, a plan for battling the employer to really change conditions in the workplace, and real community support and alliances. Understanding this, Oregon has become a leader in forming chapters of Jobs with Justice and Workers' Rights Boards.

The immigration hearing recently organized by Oregon unions was also a good opportunity to build relationships with organizations in immigrant communities, as were the others which took place around the country.

Immigrant communities are often already well-organized. Among Mexicans and Filipinos, for instance, associations of people from the same town back home are very common. Those town associations played a big role in helping immigrants organize the drywall strike in southern California in 1992-3, when workers, many of whom came from a few towns in central Mexico, shut down residential construction from Santa Barbara to the Mexican border. Those town associations also played a big role in organizing the 100,000-person march against California's Proposition 187 in 1995.

Immigrant rights coalitions are natural allies for the labor movement. Some of the most fundamental rights denied immigrants are their rights as workers.

But we need relationships based on equality and a long-term perspective. It's not enough for unions simply to appeal for community support and help when they have a crisis - a big strike or organizing drive. Unions have to be just as willing to help on issues the community sees as important, including housing, immigration law reform, police brutality, discrimination, schools and others. And in those labor-community coalitions, unions and community organizations need to be equal partners, so it's important for us not to try to set the agenda by ourselves.

There have always been two ways of thinking about immigrants in our labor movement. One has been narrow economism, where unions have sought to restrict the labor supply, making unions a club for a privileged few. These have been times in which unions just defended the interests of their own members, and in which other workers and their concerns were excluded by racism and anti-immigrant sentiment.

In February, the AFL-CIO took a huge step forward toward a very different vision, in which unions are social movements, which try to organize everybody. The AFL-CIO's new position on immigration says that labor is going to fight for the interests of workers as a class - all workers. By challenging corporate power with a larger vision of social justice, this position announces that we intend to fight racism and anti-immigrant hysteria.

The February resolution calls on unions to oppose employer sanctions - a law against workers, not employers. When work becomes illegal, employers have a big weapon to use against any effort to organize unions or fight for better conditions. This new position stands for equal rights for all workers.

The AFL-CIO also calls for a new amnesty, in which undocumented workers can apply for legal status. We need stable communities. Workers who have a stake in the community have a stake in organizing for better conditions. But when immigrants are vulnerable, their second-class status is not only used against them, but against everyone else as well.

Immigrants are not a threat, but a source of strength for the labor movement. But immigration law, as we've seen, can be and often is used against us. Corporations and U.S. policy have historically looked at immigration law as a means of regulating the labor supply, to drive down wages and conditions. Today there are many visa categories which employers use to bring workers to the U.S. as contract laborers, for exactly that purpose. They have programs for high tech and healthcare workers, farm workers, garment workers, and others.

When any worker stands up for better conditions or organizes a union, we all know she or he can be easily fired, immigrant or not. But when a contract worker is fired, he or she not only loses their job, but their ability to stay in the country. That effectively gives the employer the power to deport as well as fire workers, and makes people in these programs desperate and vulnerable.

But that's also why employers are making proposals in many industries for new programs, or for expanding existing ones. In high tech plants, like the unorganized ones in Beaverton, the electronics industry has a long history of discrimination against African-American engineers, and employs hardly any. This is true throughout that industry as a whole, nationwide. Workers of color have been banging on the door to get jobs, but instead of hiring them, and having to raise wages to compete for domestic labor, the companies want to bring workers from other countries as dependent, indentured servants - contract labor.

These industry and employer-based visa programs are all based on the idea that immigration law should be used to supply workers to employers who claim there's a labor shortage. We have to oppose this idea. We're at a unique time, because the change in the AFL-CIO's position has made new things possible, like the discussion of a new legalization program. We should not allow that possibility for real, meaningful change to be sold short, by big corporations who want to use the demand for immigration reform to turn immigrant workers into contract laborers.

We have to decide what it is that we want - what we stand for.

We want equal rights for all workers, immigrant and non-immigrant alike.

We want to ensure especially that all workers have the right to organize, and oppose any immigration proposal that undermines that right.

We want a policy that unites families, rather than dividing them.

We want stable communities, where working people can build political power.

We want unity among workers, white and people of color, immigrant and native born.

But beyond equality is solidarity.

We have a very great advantage in this increasingly internationalized world. Almost 100 million people, just about all of them workers and farmers, are part of a great migrant stream, a human bond which connects the countries of the developed and developing world.

What more natural vehicle for solidarity is there than workers themselves? Who knows more about the working conditions in both halves of the world than someone who has worked in each place? Who can see most clearly the operation of the global economy, and who has a greater stake in changing it?

Who can help us to change our unions, which are overwhelmingly national organizations, accustomed to functioning within national borders, into truly global organizations uniting workers across borders?

Organizing immigrant workers is not a matter of taking pity on the downtrodden. It is a matter of understanding what is necessary for our own survival. If we are serious in wanting to challenge free trade and voracious international capitalism, then we must incorporate migrant workers and fight for their rights, and make our labor movement one which belongs to all of us.

[david bacon - email: dbacon@igc.apc.org - address: 1631 Channing Way, Berkeley, CA 94703 - phone: 510-549- 0291]