Organized labor slow to defend the rights of immigrants

Sept. 2018 Immigrant AFL 8-15 (John)
About 2000 East Coast trade-union members marched in Philadelphia for immigrant rights on Aug. 15 (John Leslie / Socialist Action)


Trump’s reactionary immigration policies have created a climate of fear in immigrant communities. Deportations, workplace raids, and hate crimes are on the rise as ICE, police, and far-right vigilantes target immigrant workers and their families. Naturalized citizens are now the object of administration reviews of their citizenship status, based on the expansion of a policy originally put into place under Obama. Under Trump, families and communities are being ripped apart.

Trump’s rhetoric against the foreign born, and calls to “build the wall,” have reached a fever pitch as the midterm elections loom. The point of Trump’s campaign is to energize his base while enforcing a sense of terror to silence immigrant workers and their supporters.

Trump and his allies are currently working overtime to politicize the rape and murder of Molly Tibbetts, an Iowa college student, by a man who is allegedly an undocumented farmworker. Molly’s family has called for Trump and company to stop using her memory for political gain.

The number of workplace raids has doubled under Trump. During the George W. Bush years, large workplace raids hit meatpacking, agriculture, and other employers. While Obama is known for deporting a record 2.5 million immigrant workers during his tenure, the number of large-scale raids was smaller. Since Trump took office, the number of ICE raids have doubled. ICE has announced its intent to quadruple the number of workplace raids compared to the Obama years.

Liberals and their allies in the labor bureaucracy have concentrated mostly on appeals to vote for Democrats in the November midterm elections alongside some mass mobilizations. These demonstrations have mainly been aimed at getting out the vote for the Democrats.

Union leaders, like AFL-CIO top Richard Trumka, have denounced family separation and the enforcement policies of the administration, but actions speak louder than words. While there are examples of working-class resistance to the ICE raids and immigrant bashing, the response of the unions as a whole has been slow. Tech workers, at Google, Microsoft, Amazon, and other firms have taken stands against their employers’ cooperation with ICE. Airline flight crews have refused to serve on flights carrying children separated from their families.

Immigrants, both documented and undocumented, are part of the U.S. working class. In some sectors, unions are organizing immigrant workers. Hospitality workers, organized by UNITE-HERE, are a shining example of how the union movement could gain members and renewed militancy. The Painters’ Union has also made strides in organizing immigrant painters and drywall finishers.

Building trades unions often repeat the “they’re stealing our jobs” myth, while the housing sector, where many of the workers are immigrants, is left largely unorganized by these same unions. An aggressive organizing drive, aimed at housing construction workers, would help strengthen the economic and political position of all of the construction unions.

A lesson could be learned from the 1992 drywallers’ strike in Southern California. Hundreds of sheet rockers built a movement to demand fair treatment, wage increases, and health benefits. Eventually, the drywall installers joined the Carpenters’ Union, which ended up signing more than 50 employers. In the process, the drywallers defied la migra and waged an inspiring struggle against the bosses. This fight also forced the Carpenters’ Union, at least for a time, to organize Mexican workers in the housing sector.

On Aug. 15, a labor-based march for “Liberty & Justice For All: Labor United To Free The Children” was held in Philadelphia. It was a missed opportunity; the turnout of about 2000 fell far short of the organizers’ expectations. While many unions endorsed, and some labor bureaucrats showed up to speak, the unions generally failed to mobilize their ranks. The notable exceptions were UNITE HERE, which brought members from all over the Eastern Seaboard, the Laborers (LIUNA 332 and 57), and the Painters (IUPAT).

The march and rally was endorsed by the Building Trades Council, the AFL-CIO, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT), SEIU, Teamsters, community, and faith-based organizations. The most visible local teachers’ presence was the Working Educators rank-and-file caucus of the PFT.

Trump’s attack on immigrant workers and communities is part of the larger ruling-class offensive against working-class people. The terror campaign against undocumented immigrants weakens all of the U.S. working class. The unions must recognize that the undocumented are a component part of the U.S. working class and act accordingly. An all-out defense of the rights of immigrants is central to a broader working class fightback against union busting, austerity, and concessions.

One example of what could be done is the Rapid Response Network built by pro-labor forces in Western Massachusetts.  The Pioneer Valley Workers Center has created a democratically run network to mobilize the community against ICE raids. Organizing and mobilization are important, but as long as the union movement is subordinated to the Democrats, we will be fighting with one hand tied behind our backs.

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