20,000 Rally for Immigrant Workers’ Rights

by Charles Walker

At long last, the AFL-CIO has done an about-face concerning immigrants’ rights. At its February executive meeting it adopted a resolution supporting amnesty for undocumented workers. It now says that it opposes sanctions against employers who hire undocumented  workers, and it’s calling for new laws to provide on-the-job protections for immigrant workers.

Previously, the AFL-CIO was a major backer of 1986 legislation that bans firms from hiring undocumented workers. But after a while, the federation complained that the bosses weren’t  obeying the law, and undocumented workers were getting jobs.

If that wasn’t bad enough for the union tops, when they tried to organize undocumented workers, bosses often would call on the immigration authorities to deport the workers. Obviously, the AFL-CIO had to choose between a kind of “domestic protectionism,” and smaller unions, or win the fight to organize immigrants.

Seeing that as many as 5 to 6 million immigrant workers are estimated to be in the U.S., it’s no wonder that some observers liken the AFL-CIO’s choices to the choices unions faced in the 1930s: Organize workers into craft unions, a proven failure during the Depression, or into industrial unions and really grow.

Recently, the AFL-CIO convened regional hearings which heard testimony from immigrant workers detailing their hardships. The hearings established beyond all doubt that the 1986 law imperils the job security of any undocumented worker who dares to complain about abuse, job hazards, and sweat-shop wages. The Los Angeles hearing attracted by far the largest turnout as an estimated 20,000 attendees packed a sports arena, and filled the surrounding sidewalks. “Immigrants from Peru, Mexico, Thailand, Korea, and numerous other countries filled the arena waving their home country flags and American flags. Many said they were illegal immigrants,” reported the Associated Press June 10.

AFL-CIO Vice President Linda Chavez-Thompson told the crowd, “Time after time we see employers try to divide us from our sisters and brothers. They try to pit  immigrants against nonimmigrants, documented against undocumented, and try to drive down the wages and working conditions of all.”

The AFL-CIO’s new stance on immigrants’ rights deserves all workers’ support. But at the same time, workers need to organize to push the top labor officials to stop viewing workers outside the U.S. borders as competitors, rather than allies. For as the Associated Press reports, “The AFL-CIO still objects to increasing the number of immigrants allowed to work in the country legally.”

“People Are Dying”

Of course it’s too much to expect the labor tops to really embrace radical labor’s war-cry, “Workers of the World Unite!” Still, with the increasing proportion of  immigrants in the work force, it might be less difficult now than in the past to push and shove the labor officialdom in that direction. For starters, workers could add their voices to the voice of an immigrant at the Los Angeles rally who said that she wants still more from the labor leaders. “We shouldn't have to have papers. People are coming in every day, and dying trying to. Shouldn't they be included in the amnesty?” (quoted in the Militant, June 26).

She’s not exaggerating. “Along the 2,000-mile US-Mexico border, 356 Mexicans lost their lives last year attempting to cross, according to figures compiled by the Mexican Consulate” (Immigration News Briefs, April). And the Clinton/Gore administration’s Operation Gatekeeper “is driving border crossers away from the San Diego area into the more remote and dangerous mountain and desert areas to the east.” Amnesty International has declared that Operation Gatekeeper is “a human rights abuse”, saying it "maximizes the physical risks, thereby ensuring that hundreds of migrants would die" (San Diego Union Tribune, April 18 and 21).

Gatekeeper Plus Vigilantes

Operation Gatekeeper has involved the building of massive, triple-layer fences (shades of the Berlin Wall) along the border between San Diego and its cross-border neighbor city of Tijuana, Mexico, a major urban area where border crossing had been frequent and did not endanger people’s lives.

The resulting increased number of border crossers, in southeast Arizona for example, has been seized on by racist vigilantes as a cover to wage a paramilitary battle against undocumented workers fleeing maquiladora wages and working conditions, or worse.

A Tucson union and immigrant rights activist, George Shriver, has written that “a group of Cochise County [Arizona] ranchers ... have waged a vigilante crusade against unarmed, undocumented workers crossing the border... The official position of local county sheriffs and some county officials, as well as the former head of the Tucson-area Border Patrol is sympathy for the vigilante ranchers. These vigilantes therefore have received implicit permission to carry out their violent armed arrests, shooting, terrorizing, and using hate language. These are home-grown, ‘good ole boy’ U.S. paramilitaries who provoke conflict, hate, and terror.”

Certainly, the day that the AFL-CIO convenes mass hearings to end the official and unofficial war against immigrants fleeing poverty can’t come soon enough.

June 16, 2000