Inside the AFL-CIO
Issued Every Tuesday
Column #23 August 28, 2001

Legal Rights for All Immigrant Workers
Is Organized Labor’s Rallying Cry

By Harry Kelber

Immigrants who work hard, pay taxes and play by the rules deserve the same legal rights as other Americans. That was the message AFL-CIO unions conveyed at rallies and press conferences in more than two dozen cities on Aug. 21.

Organized labor has taken a sharp U-turn in its stance toward undocumented workers. Until recently, most unions viewed “illegal” immigrants as unwelcome competitors who undermined wage standards and working conditions and could be used by employers as strikebreakers.

Labor’s immigration policy changed radically in February 2000 when the AFL-CIO Executive Council “firmly and squarely set out our view that immigrants have played and continue to play an extremely important role in the workplace and society, and that they are entitled to full and fair workplace protections.”

Last month, the Council declared: “As a workers’ movement built by immigrants, we believe the nation should embrace immigrants for the diversity and values they bring, rather than fear them as threats to values or jobs. Hopefully, the debates in town halls, Congress and the media will culminate in prompt and fair changes that benefit us all, and that reflect our values as a people.”

The Council said undocumented workers and their families should be provided permanent legal status through a new legalization program. It also called for full workplace rights for immigrant workers, including the right to organize and protection for whistleblowers.

Three labor leaders who have been particularly active in promoting immigration law reforms are John Wilhelm, president of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees (HERE), who is also chairman of the AFL-CIO’s Immigration Committee; Linda Chavez-Thompson, the federation’s executive vice president, who is of Mexican origin, and Andrew Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union with its large immigrant membership.

The millions of immigrants employed in virtually every industry also constitute an enormous pool of low-wage workers that HERE, SEIU and several other unions would like to organize. If immigrant workers see the labor movement as their ally and advocate, they will be more likely to join.

The more the public knows about immigrants, the more it accepts the idea of extending legal status to undocumented workers. A national telephone survey of 1,000 likely voters on Aug. 5-8 showed 59% in favor and only 34% opposed to a proposal that would “legalize a limited number of undocumented immigrants who can prove they have been living in the United States, working at a job and paying taxes.” The proposal was supported by a majority in every demographic group and both major political parties.

The survey was co-sponsored by the Service Employees, the AFL-CIO’s largest union, and Catholic Healthcare West, which employs more than 40,000 health care workers and operates 48 hospitals in California, Arizona and Nevada. It was conducted by Lake Snell Perry & Associates.

When President Bush meets with Mexican President Vicente Fox on Sept. 4, they will probably announce a joint immigration policy affecting the three million Mexicans who are working illegally in the United States. The Washington Post reported on Aug. 20 that the President is becoming wary about rising expectations for sweeping immigration reform and is now considering piecemeal changes, such as legalizing the rights of students and children of undocumented immigrants who have been in U.S. schools for seven years.

Democrats and Republicans alike now realize that Congress will have to come up with an immigration law that provides opportunities for six million undocumented workers to attain legal status. They must address some difficult questions: Will all undocumented workers be given legal status? If not, how many will be eligible, and what criteria will be used in selecting them? When will the legalizing process begin? How will the new law be administered to ensure that immigrant workers are treated fairly? How will the guestworker program be reformed?

The AFL-CIO Executive Council has called for the reform of the guestworker system, declaring: “The upshot of every guestworker program in the United States to date has been to further depress wages for all workers, foreign and U.S.-born, to cause greater exploitation and to reduce overall employment opportunities.”

Unions are now emerging as champions of undocumented workers. They are building and supporting dozens of coalitions across the country that represent immigrant, ethnic, religious, civil rights and community organizations.

The struggle for immigrant rights has become a moral crusade in the best traditions of the labor movement. The AFL-CIO has the political bargaining power to negotiate with congressional Republicans and Democrats for fair and meaningful immigration law reforms.

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