LABOR'S GREAT OPPORTUNITY
By Dick Meister
U.S. unions could very well be poised for growth as great -- or greater --
than that of their boom days of the 1930s and their formative years at the
turn of the century.
Just as then, organizers are targeting immigrant workers, then as now the
fastest growing and most abused segment of the workforce.
There are millions of them, more than at any time in history -- many here
legally, many here illegally as undocumented workers. The immigrants work
in virtually every industry, most notably in agriculture, construction and
garment manufacturing, in hospitals, hotels and restaurants, meat processing
plants and laundries, as janitors in those and a wide variety of other
industries, and as domestics, gardeners and child care workers.
Theirs are generally essential but poorly paid jobs with few fringe
benefits, often dangerous and often what AFL-CIO official Linda
Chavez-Thompson calls "the hottest, stinkiest, dirtiest, lowest paying jobs
there are." What's more, the immigrants' legal rights "are routinely
Undocumented workers face the worst treatment, but many legal immigrants
also aren't treated much better than were the notoriously exploited
immigrants in the factories that once dominated the economy.
Thanks to lax enforcement by state and federal authorities, many of the
immigrants' employers openly violate the laws guaranteeing workers a minimum
wage, the opportunity to vote for union representation and such other basic
rights as safe working conditions.
Workers who complain of violations, demand better conditions or support
union organizing campaigns risk being fired or otherwise disciplined. The
undocumented face the added threat of being reported to the government for
deportation to their poverty-stricken countries where work under any
conditions is scarce. Most dare not even report employer violence done
against them or any other mistreatment, including sexual harassment.
Many workers here legally also dare not complain or demand their legal
rights, lest they be replaced by more compliant undocumented workers.
Unions nevertheless have begun organizing the immigrant workers, legal and
undocumented alike, and so far winning union contracts for thousands of
them. The unions, which now represent less than 15 percent of the country's
workers, have been driven by a great need to expand. Given the steady
growth of the workforce, they will have to sign up more than 400,000 new
members per year just to keep even.
"Labor made its greatest gains when it organized immigrant workers, and we
intend to build on that tradition," promises John Wilhelm, president of the
Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union and head of the AFL-CIO's
Task Force on Immigration Policy.
Immigrants, in any case, will continue pouring into the country for at least
the next few years, primarily from Mexico and Central America. Unions will
need to recruit them not only to increase membership numbers and re-energize
the labor movement, but also to keep current members from having to compete
with masses of highly exploited non-union workers.
New organizing campaigns are only a part of labor's drive to unionize
immigrant workers. The AFL-CIO also is putting its considerable political
clout behind legislation to grant legal status to more than five million of
the immigrants who are here illegally.
For many years the labor federation adamantly opposed illegal immigrants,
arguing that they took jobs away from U.S. workers and enabled employers to
cut back the workers' pay, benefits and working conditions. It supported the
current law calling for sanctions against employers who hire undocumented
But the AFL-CIO came to realize that undocumented immigrants are here to
stay and that the rarely enforced sanctions simply allow employers to
threaten to disclose to immigration authorities the illegal status of
workers demanding better treatment.
The AFL-CIO knows that if the undocumented workers are not unionized, they
will continue undercutting other workers, but that unionizing them will be
very difficult unless they are granted the legal rights and protections
granted others -- above all the right to unionize.
It's also clear, as the AFL-CIO notes, that although the undocumented
workers hold vital jobs, "pay taxes, support their families and contribute
to their communities," their lack of such rights forces them "to live and
work in fear of harassment, deportation and abuse." They are not even
eligible for the unemployment and welfare benefits, health care, education
and other public services they help finance.
Corporate employer lobbyists and their congressional allies are attempting
to counter the AFL-CIO legislation legalizing the immigrants with bills that
would create new "guest worker" programs that would subject them to even
greater exploitation than they already suffer. The bills would allow
employers to hire as many immigrants as they wished and at pay and under
conditions they alone would set. The immigrants could remain in the country
only as long as the employer who hired them wanted them here. They could not
It would amount to what the AFL-CIO calls "little more than the involuntary
servitude that is outlawed in the Constitution."
Immigrant workers undoubtedly would much prefer the AFL-CIO's approach and,
given the chance, eagerly opt for unionization. Labor's challenge, its
greatest opportunity for badly needed growth, for revitalization, is to
guarantee immigrants that choice.
Copyright Dick Meister, a freelance columnist in San Francisco who has
covered labor issues for four decades as a reporter, editor and commentator.