Message-Id: <>
Date: Fri, 5 Dec 97 09:02:30 CST
From: (David Bacon)
Article: 23310

Unions and the upsurge of immigrant workers

By David Bacon, 5 December 1997

The labor of undocumented workers pumps tens of billions of dollars into California’s economy, but workers themselves receive only a small percentage of it, a much smaller percentage of the value they produce than that received by workers who are either citizens or legal residents.

According to a UCLA study, undocumented workers contribute approximately 7 percent of the state’s $900 billion gross economic product—$63 billion. California accounts for 43 percent of the nation’s undocumented population, or about 1.4 million people. Each undocumented immigrant therefore contributes about $45,000 to the California economy, including children, the unemployed, and those too old or ill to work. At minimum wage, however, most workers make an annual income of about $8840.

That high rate of exploitation is a source of extra profit for industries dependent on undocumented labor.

These industries include agriculture and food processing, land development (including the residential construction and building services industries), tourism (including the hotel and restaurant industries), garment production and light manufacturing, transportation, retail trade, healthcare and domestic services.

When immigrants are denied rights and social welfare under the impact of anti-immigrant legislation and hysteria, these industries benefit because labor becomes cheaper.

All workers organizing unions, for instance, to win better wages have to consider the possibility of being fired, which happens to 1 of every 10 workers in organizing drives. But undocumented workers also face employer sanctions, which make finding another job much harder and riskier. Sanctions also disqualify workers from unemployment benefits and food stamps, so a fired worker will be forced to take whatever job is available, at whatever wage.

The same problem confronts undocumented workers who consider filing complaints about unpaid wages, unpaid overtime, wages below the minimum, violations of health and safety laws, sexual harassment, and violations of other basic legal protections for workers. In fact, labor standards inspectors from the Department of Labor are required to verify workers’ immigration status in their investigations, and report the undocumented, in essence protecting sweatshop employers.

As a consequence, immigrant wages are already depressed, and getting worse. According to UCLA professor Goetz Wolff, in women’s apparel in Los Angeles, the average hourly wage fell from $6.37 to $5.62 between 1988 and 1993. Some 120,000 people work in LA’s garment sweatshops, almost all immigrants, mostly undocumented.

Wages are also falling in paper recycling, plastics manufacturing, textiles and food processing—all industries with an immigrant, largely undocumented workforce. By contrast, the average wage in aircraft production, employing a mostly-unionized and native- born workforce, is over $20/hour, and rising slightly despite layoffs and recession.

Despite these obstacles, or perhaps because of them, in the last decade in California immigrant workers have been the backbone of strike after strike, in some of the hardest-fought labor struggles since the farm workers’ battles of the late 1960s.

Over 20,000 immigrant workers have walked off their jobs, or participated in organizing campaigns, since 1990. Throughout the southwest, factories and workplaces have become pressure cookers, provoking strikes among drywallers, framers, grape pickers, janitors, garment workers, electronics assemblers, foundry and metal workers, and others. These conflicts are signs of pressure building from below, as the growing dissatisfaction of immigrant workers meets an increasingly hard line taken by employers.

The history of the union struggles of immigrant workers in Los Angeles and Southern California is by-and-large a history of success. According to veteran union organizer Peter Olney, they force unions to discard tired old tactics, and relook at the whole question of what organizing means.

Joel Ochoa, another veteran organizer, says that the immigrant community is looking for ties with labor. People are coming here from Mexico and all over Latin America, with a tradition and culture that gives them a rich repertoire of tactics for fighting the companies.

The Justice for Janitors strategy of the Service Employees International Union, understanding the potential of this immigrant upsurge, has rebuilt building service unions in cities throughout the west and southwest, including Denver, San Jose, Los Angeles, San Diego and elsewhere. When John Sweeney, then head of SEIU, successfully fought his way into the presidency of the AFL-CIO in 1995, he used the LA Justice for Janitors campaign as a symbol of his commitment to organizing immigrants, workers of color, and low-wage workers.

One of the most important of the immigrant rebellions was the yearlong strike by southern California drywallers, who put up the interior walls in new homes. In 1992 and 93, from the Mexican border north to Santa Barbara, an area of 5000 square miles, these mostly-Mexican immigrants were able to stop all home construction. Workers ran their movement democratically, from the bottom up. They defied the police and the Border Patrol, blockading freeways when their car caravans were rousted as they traveled to construction sites.

When the drywallers picketed, their lines often numbered in the hundreds, walking onto construction sites and talking non-striking workers into putting down their tools. In a world where workers and unions have become hamstrung following routine procedures, they had faith in the power of their numbers, in direct action, and in the common culture of their immigrant communities. In 1992, they finally forced building contractors to sign the first agreements covering their work in decades—the first union contracts won by a grassroots organizing effort in the building trades anywhere in the country since the 1930’s.

In this labor upsurge, documented and undocumented workers participate on an equal basis. In unions seeking to build their strength through an alliance with this movement, organizers have to acquire a basic understanding of immigration law. Unions and community allies often distribute business cards which advise workers of their rights if they’re stopped by the Border Patrol. In union meetings, workers ask questions about legal status, not only to get information, but also to test the union to see if it is really committed to defending undocumented as well as legal immigrants.

In this part of the labor movement, the defense of the rights of all immigrants, including the undocumented, has become a survival issue. Employers routinely use the threat of immigration raids to intimidate workers. Employer sanctions have provided them a legally unchallengable way of conducting mass firings when faced with organizing activity. The normal legal remedy of reinstatement and backpay cannot be enforced for the undocumented. This is especially true following the Montero decision in New York City in mid-1997, in which Federal courts held that employers could legally provoke INS raids against union supporters during organizing drives.

Immigrant-based labor struggles have reinforced thinking in the labor movement which sees unions as social movements, as the United Farm Workers was at its height in the 1960s and 70s. In the eyes of many active and progressive unionists, this upsurge contributes new ideas and tactics and an increased sense of militancy. It helps ground unions in local communities, and is making them more democratic. Unions involved in this movement don’t see the changing demographics in the workforce as a cultural threat, but as a source of new traditions and new strength.

Experiences in organizing and representing undocumented immigrants first convinced the two garment worker unions (since merged into the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees) to call for the repeal of employer sanctions in the late 1980s. The California Labor Federation later took the same position. They were followed by the Service Employees, whose past president, John Sweeney, is now president of the AFL-CIO.

Under its old leadership, the AFL-CIO supported employer sanctions during the debate over the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act. But the direction of movement in the AFL-CIO is away from this position, towards defending the undocumented against rising anti-immigrant hysteria. California labor was a strong backer of the campaign against Proposition 187. In many areas of the state, janitors’ and garment workers’ union halls became anti-187 campaign offices. Unions were some of the main organizers of the huge 150,000-strong march of immigrant workers in Los Angeles in the weeks before Proposition 187 passed.

In the short term the AFL-CIO has begun devoting serious resources to organizing drives among immigrant workers. Nevertheless, it has not yet become an active opponent of employer sanctions as a political policy. While Sweeney’s new administration stated its intention of convening an immigration committee of the federation’s executive council to develop a new policy on immigration, that committee has yet to meet. During the 1996 debate over immigration reform in Congress, the federation urged effective control of illegal immigration, including an additional 700 Border Patrol agents. It objected to most of the bill’s provisions, however, including the national ID card, unrestricted immigration raids in the fields, asylum restrictions, and the disqualification of legal immigrants from public benefits.

The position of the AFL-CIO seems caught in the transition from the policies of its old leaders, to those which might be expected from its new ones.

Ultimately, anti-immigrant hysteria, and repressive legislation based on it, cannot be fought in isolation from overall U.S. economic and social policies, both international and domestic.

Rather than supporting increased border enforcement, immigrant advocates in Washington, including labor, must call for an end to U.S. government support for structural adjustment and austerity policies worldwide, especially in countries which are a source of immigration.

It is impossible to fight against the use of the undocumented as scapegoats for the problems of job flight and insecurity without calling for limitations on the ability of transnational corporations to move capital and production at will. Anti-immigrant domestic policies and free-trade policies abroad are interconnected and mutually supportive.

Similarly, fighting for immigrant rights has to be part of a fight to defend and expand social services, for a full employment economy instead of one in which hundred of thousands lose their jobs in corporate downsizing and layoffs. for a shorter workweek, a higher minimum wage, and for increased labor rights, benefiting both immigrant and non-immigrant communities.

The defense of the rights of immigrants is, in fact, part of a broader social struggle over the distribution of wealth, the protection of the rights of all working people and people of color, and the ending of all forms of social discrimination. It is a fight over political power—who holds it and in whose interest it is exercised.