A Sensible Partnership
Labor unions made a strong showing in Washington D.C. today, rallying alongside immigrant rights advocates to push Congress to act on immigration reform. While some unions, like the United Farm Workers of America, have been supporters of immigrant rights for decades, the relationship between these two constituencies has not always been so pleasant. Unfortunately, the economic situation in this country -- with corporate profits at an all time high while wages stagnate -- has pitted workers against other workers. Immigrant workers have, at times, been the unfortunate scapegoats for an economy that makes attaining the American dream an unattainable goal for most workers. One understandable reason for a new strengthened partnership is increasing union ranks at a time of historically low membership. According to the Urban Institute, immigrants are 11 percent of all U.S. residents, but 14 percent of all workers and 20 percent of low-wage workers. This growing sector of the working population is vastly underrepresented in union membership.
But there is more to the story. In the 1990s, some local labor unions were active supporters of immigration reform. However, a major turning point came in 2000 when the AFL-CIO formally adopted a pro-immigrant platform after years of internal bickering on the issue. A little over a year ago, a group of unions left the AFL-CIO umbrella to create a new federation of seven labor unions called Change to Win, led by SEIU and UNITE-HERE. These unions are at the forefront of organizing immigrant workers. Other labor unions are climbing on board as well.
AFL-CIO representatives involved in the union's recent partnership with worker centers to push for rights for day laborers, view this new direction as driven, not by a goal of increased membership, but rather to further the union's political goals such as taking the guest worker proposals off the table, exposing practices of unscrupulous employers and uniting all workers. The AFL-CIO openly opposes any guest worker program, calling such programs a "license for the exploitation of immigrant workers." They support full legalization for all undocumented immigrants living in the Unites States. The International Brotherhood of Teamsters put out an official statement in March supporting earned legalization for undocumented workers. Although not all unions and their coalitions agree on everything regarding immigrant workers, the importance of this population to their future achievements is clear.
The unions seem to have it right. When undocumented workers live in constant fear of deportation, unscrupulous employers can take advantage of them. It is this inability to exercise full workplace rights that creates the two-tiered labor system we have today. The current immigration system has created a perpetual underclass of immigrant workers and threatens to push down wages for all workers. Furthermore, employers take advantage of undocumented workers' precarious position by using immigration enforcement to stymie union growth. One study mentioned in DMI's report Principles for an Immigration Policy to Strengthen and Expand the American Middle Class illustrates how employers have used knowledge of a worker's immigration status to fire workers who attempt to organize a union.
Congress should pay attention to the powerful partnership between immigrant workers and organized labor that pushed for comprehensive immigration reform today in Washington.