AFL-CIO Backs Amnesty for Undocumented Workers

Give me your tired,

your poor….

Send these, the

homeless, tempest-tossed

to me, I lift my

lamp beside the golden door!

-Inscribed on the Statue of Liberty




In February, the AFL-CIO Executive Council unanimously adopted a resolution urging the end of sanctions against employers who hire undocumented workers, as mandated by the so-called Immigration Reform and Control Act. The labor federation’s action is a dramatic turnaround, seeing that it backed the passage of that law in 1986.

The union officials also now call for amnesty for an estimated six million immigrants, and declare that legal status should be granted to 350,000 immigrants denied amnesty under the 1986 law, as well as 500,000 Central Americans, Haitians, and Liberians denied refugee status during the past two decades.

Further, the “AFL-CIO continues to support the full restoration of benefits that were unfairly taken away through federal legislation in 1996, causing tremendous harm to immigrant families.”

“Current efforts to improve immigration enforcement,” the resolution said, “while failing to stop the flow of undocumented people into the United States, have resulted in a system that causes discrimination and leaves unpunished unscrupulous employers who exploit undocumented workers, thus denying labor rights for all workers.”

The 1986 law was intended to block undocumented workers from getting a job, by requiring employers to verify a worker’s status by demanding identification, such as birth certificates and social security cards.

Nevertheless, undocumented workers did find employment. However, when they tried to protect themselves from unfair working conditions, some bosses sought their deportation

The federation declared it favors a new “policy to reduce undocumented immigration and prevent employer abuse. Any new policy must meet the following principles: (1) it must seek to prevent employer discrimination against people who look or sound foreign; (2) it must allow workers to pursue legal remedies, including supporting a union, regardless of immigration status; and (3) it must avoid unfairly targeting immigrant workers of a particular nationality.”

The federation’s turnaround partly is the result of the changing ethnic makeup of the membership of its many diverse unions. Across the nation, the building trades, the industrial unions and the service unions increasingly have a multi-national identity. While not common yet, some unions now provide translators for membership meetings, and translations of contracts.

The change of view is also driven by bosses who fire or turn in to the federal immigration agency undocumented workers attempting to organize unions. Recently, six hotel workers in Minneapolis voted for a union, and then were arrested after their boss called in immigration agents. Even though the workers, supported by their union, won a $72,000 settlement, the government still intends to deport them.

The AFL-CIO’s policy change is a big step in the right direction. Whatever the motives for changing their minds, the federation’s leaders have objectively given workers’ solidarity a big boost. Solidarity that stops at the city limits, the state line, or the national border is a caricature of the real thing; and no less so when labor unions call themselves “internationals.”

When unions are not guardians of workers’ solidarity, there can be no reasonable hope for justice in the workplace, nor in society at large. That insight was at the heart of American industrial workers’ stunning victories over entrenched financial power during the Great Depression. But somewhere along the line, even in the industrial unions, workers’ solidarity was more often sung about at Labor Day picnics, than experienced first-hand.

Not everyone will cheer the AFL-CIO’s resolve to stand-up for the undocumented worker. For instance, The New York Times (Feb. 22) says the union’s new proposal is “hasty” and “should be rejected … because it is also unfair to unskilled workers already in the United States.”

According to The Times, the gap “between the wages of high school dropouts and all other workers” will, in part, continue to widen due to competition from unskilled undocumented workers.

Yes, that’s probably true, unless the unskilled workers are organized and mobilized-that is, unionized to stand up and fight for a larger share of the wealth they produce. In that case, The Times need not shed crocodile tears for the unskilled workers. For with organization the workers will be in a position to duplicate the heroic achievements of the 1930s unskilled rubber workers, steel workers, auto workers, and the like whose battles and victories still hold forth the promise of fundamental social and political change.

Unfortunately, the AFL-CIO resolution also reflects the union bureaucracy’s continuing attempts to forge partnerships with the employer class: “Labor and business should work together to design cooperative mechanisms that allow law-abiding employers to satisfy legitimate needs for new workers …without compromising the rights and opportunities of workers already here.”

They mean that the AFL-CIO won’t squawk about new immigrants, if, one, the bosses can make a case that they need them in order to compete with other bosses, and two, that the bosses get the government to take more effective steps, even harsher steps, to keep undocumented workers from crossing the borders.

Clearly, that position has no merit. That’s partly because the AFL-CIO can’t count on the bosses to keep the agreement. After all, the AFL-CIO holds that the 1986 law was undermined by “unscrupulous employers.” Not to mention that the bosses tore up the post-war so-called “social pact” with the labor bureaucracy.

More important, the notion that, in this instance, the unions and the bosses should join together against needy workers in other lands disregards the urgent need to build cross-border solidarity in order to take on the multi-national corporations, as proclaimed in Seattle at the anti-WTO demonstrations.

Even though America is a settler nation, mainly populated by wave after wave of immigrants, the AFL-CIO tops seem to have forgotten why other workers leave their homelands and often their loved ones for a chance at a healthier, longer, and more prosperous life.

If they gave thought to their origins and that of their members, they surely should conclude that only a struggle for a better life for workers everywhere can reduce poverty-driven immigration.

The more promising course for the AFL-CIO to take is to aid the organization of all workers so that they can stand side by side with American workers in a common defense of their right to decent life. For example, the Teamsters could use their resources to promote the organization of Mexican truckers, rather than cutting political deals with the White House that keep Mexican drivers from working hand in hand with American drivers.

The United Auto Workers Union and the United Steelworkers Union could ignite a worldwide fight to win shorter workweeks with no cuts in pay for all steel and auto workers and to remove from their members’ backs the burden of the two industries’ worldwide excess capacity. Every worker on a picket line knows that together they stand, but if divided they fall.

For all it’s worth, the AFL-CIO’s resolution would be much better with a dose of that picket-line common sense.

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