David Bacon Stories & Photographs
Why Labor Needs to Organize and Defend the Rights of Immigrant Workers
by David Bacon

BERKELEY (9/1/00) - Last year, one of the most important Mexican labor struggles was fought to prevent the privatization of the electrical system in central Mexico. The Mexican Electrical Workers union mobilized its allies, and collected a million petition signatures in three weeks. If they had failed, thousands would have lost their jobs, their union contract would have been torn apart, and their union itself would have disappeared, or been transformed into a shadow.

This is what has already happened to workers at Mexico's airlines, railroads, telephone system, and in many other industries. In February of last year, it also happened to the copper miners in Cananea, one of Mexico's oldest mines and site of the historic battle which initiated the Mexican Revolution in 1907. Hundreds of miners lost their jobs after the mine was privatized, and their union was virtually destroyed when the threat of military occupation was used to end their strike.

Since there's almost no other work in Cananea, a small mountain town, the jobless miners had to leave. Many of them crossed the border, just fifty miles north, to find work and a new economic future in the United States.

They're not alone.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that almost 100 million people today live outside of the countries in which they were born. They're not just moving from Mexico to the U.S., but from developing countries to developed ones all over the world.

And what do they find when they arrive with their dreams of a better life?

They become part of an immigrant workforce with conditions and wages at the bottom. They're denied the most basic rights - no unemployment insurance, no medical care, no social benefits of any kind.

They have no right to a job. Not only can they be fired at a moment's notice, like most workers, but the very act of working for them is a crime, a violation of the law.

They are denied the right to be a resident of a stable community, to live here at all.

And the irony is that they often wind up working for the same corporations whose operations in their countries of origin are part of the reason why they're here to begin with.

Workers in this country become victims of the same free-trade economy, losing their jobs when their plants close, or when the shrinking tax base which pays for social services leads to job cuts. And when this happens, we are told to find someone to blame. But instead of pointing the finger at the corporations and governments and financial institutions who actually make the decisions, we're told to blame other workers.

Blame the workers in Mexico or China for taking our jobs.

Blame the immigrant workers in the United States for the same thing.

And as a result, anti-immigrant hysteria has now become an extremely serious problem in all developed countries, as immigrants have become an integral part of the workforce.

Transnational corporations want to have it both ways. They want the right to invest in the developing world, forcing wages to the bottom in the pursuit of profits. And in the developed countries, they seek the workers who have been displaced by high unemployment and falling wages, and exploit them yet again.

In this drive for ever higher profits, corporations are aided by U.S. immigration legislation.

While immigration laws are always presented in Congress and the media as a means of controling borders, and keeping people from crossing them, they have always had a much more important function. For the last hundred years, they've been the means of regulating the supply, and consequently the price, of immigrant labor.

No matter how many walls are built on the border, no matter how many troops or National Guardsmen or helicopters patrol it, workers will still cross it looking for a future. There's no more eloquent testimony to this than the fact that almost 400 women and men -- workers -- died in the last three years in the desert, trying to make the journey from northern Mexico intothe U.S. Or that 57 Chinese immigrants died of thirst, heat and starvation in a truck trailer bringing them across the English Channel into Great Britain.

Instead of fighting for the rights of these migrant workers, anti-immigrant attitudes dominated our labor movement in the cold war era. Hostility towards immigrants was part of anti-communist, business unionism -- the conservative way of thinking which led U.S. unions to support free trade, U.S. corporate investment abroad, and U.S. foreign policy generally for fifty years.

Anti-immigrant legislation was supported by the AFL-CIO during this era. The crowning piece of that legislation was the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, a law made the very act of working, of having a job, illegal for undocumented immigrants.

But when working becomes a crime, it becomes very difficult for workers to organize unions, go on strike, and fight for better conditions. And for the last few years, the effect of this law has been compounded by the efforts by the Clinton administration to enforce immigration law against workers themselves.

Immigration agents now check documents workers must fill out to get a job, and require employers to fire those whose documents are in question. In Nebraska last year, the Immigration and Naturalization Service checked the whole meatpacking industry - sixty plants with forty thousand workers. Some 4600 workers were called in to verify their papers, and 3000 of them were driven from the factories. In Washington, 1300 workers were required to reverify their documents, and over 700 fired, in the middle of a Teamster Union organizing drive. The impact on the union effort was disastrous.

Other agencies, including ones responsible for enforcing fair labor standards and social benefits, like the Department of Labor and Social Security Administration, are being pressed into searching for undocumented immigrants.

And now employers propose programs which would allow workers to remain in the U.S., but only as contract laborers, in conditions in which any protest for higher wages, or any effort to join a union, would lead to deportation.

But anti-immigrant sentiment in the U.S. labor movement has never gone unchallenged. And since the election of new AFL-CIO leaders five years ago, U.S. unions have become much more interested in organizing and fighting for the rights of immigrant workers.

In part this is due to our need to survive. Immigrant workers on the bottom are among those who most want and need unions, and are willing to join.

This year, grassroots immigrant rights coalitions and labor councils around the country combined to bring a resolution to the AFL-CIO convention, calling for an end to employers sanctions, for a new amnesty program to legalize workers already here, and for ending the administration's immigration enforcement program directed against workers.

At the AFL-CIO convention in Los Angeles last October, national union leaders spoke for a change in immigration policy. And in February, the executive council adopted a resolution which called for ending sanctions and a new legalization program.

Today unions represent about 13% of the U.S. workforce. We have to organize 400,000 workers a year just to stay in the same place. If we want to grow from 13% to 14% -- just 1% -- we have to organize 800,000 workers a year. The executive council just agreed to set a new goal for organizing -- one million workers a year.

Last year, the AFL-CIO grew by 460,000 workers, the first net growth since the mid-1950s. This year it's slowed down again - just past mid-year, according to Work in Progress, unions have yet to reach 100,000 newly-organized workers.

We're in a fight to survive, and to survive we must grow. And to grow, we have to ask an important question - which groups of workers want to join unions? What's the track record? If labor intends to organize a million workers a year, who are these workers going to be?

Clearly, one group of workers who have been fighting to organize unions are immigrants. In California, a majority of union drives over the last decade have been at least partly based among immigrants. This includes not just campaigns initiated by unions, but many spontaneous strikes and organizing drives initiated by immigrant workers themselves.

This upsurge is partly due to demographics. The workforce is changing in many industries. Immigrant workers make up an increasing percentage of the workforce in building services, healthcare, manufacturing and food processing, construction, and hotel and restaurant. Some industries have always had a largely immigrant workforce - agriculture, garment, electronics and others. All of these industries exist here in Oregon, and in some cases they're very large and important.

These are industries built on high levels of exploitation, and the rate of exploitation is getting worse. In Los Angeles' garment industry, for instance, the inflation-adjusted wage level has fallen since 1986, when the immigration reform bill was passed. This also happened in residential construction, where union representation was lost years ago.

And it's not just happening in Los Angeles and California. This change is going on everywhere, including states which historically haven't had many Latino or Asian immigrants.

But while immigrants are exploited, they aren't just victims. There's a long history of struggle among immigrant workers. Workers this summer stopped work in a meakpacking plant in St. Paul, Minnesota, and sent a delegation down the street a couple of blocks to the United Food and Commercial Workers hall, to let the union know they were on strike and ready to join.

At the Los Angeles AFL-CIO immigration hearing in June, a worker testified that after her employer, a Palm Springs hotel, fired workers when they began organizing a union, they struck for three months. And when the NLRB ordered the hotel to return the workers to their jobs, and the hotel refused to rehire the workers who had no papers, they continued their strike for another month to get everyone back in.

Immigrants are not the only workers with this kind of history of struggle. Other groups of workers are also pro-union, and courageously stand up for their rights. But there is a track record of self-organization among immigrants - of worker-initiated job actions, and of community support for them.

When unions decide which industries and workplaces they want to target for organizing drives, they need to research more than just the employers. Look at the workers -- who wants to join, who's ready to fight and who has some ideas about how to do it.

Immigrant workers don't have to be told what unions are, or even, in many cases, how to organize, despite the fact that they may be unfamiliar with labor laws and rights in the U.S. And they have something to offer labor besides just a chance to grow.

To survive and organize, unions need to change. Finding new traditions can help. In the Philippines, for instance, workers set up tents and live at the plant gate when they go on strike. No police harassment can chase them away. That's just one example of the kind of militance which enabled Filipinos to organize unions in the Alaska fish canneries and the fields of California and the northwest all through the 1930s.

In Mexico and El Salvador, despite harassment and sometimes bloody repression of labor rights, national law prohibits companies from operating and hiring strikebreakers during a legal strike. That often gives workers from these countries a greater expectation of their labor rights when they arrive in the U.S.

This expectation is good for us. It helps workers in this country to raise their sights, so that we don't continue to take strikebreaking for granted, and treat it as a normal state of affairs. These cultural expectations place a higher value on labor rights than on private property rights, a realization that would benefit workers as a whole.

Immigrant communities are usually very supportive of working-class struggles, and workers themselves have a tradition of mutual support. Strikes in the barrio often become struggles of a whole community against a big employer.

But for the labor movement to reach out successfully to immigrant workers, it needs organizers and local officers who can relate to immigrant communities.

o Unions need to speak the languages of immigrant workers -- hiring people with those language skills, and finding and developing leadership among members who have them as well. To understand what's going on in their unions, immigrants need meetings and materials in languages other than English.

o Unions need officers and staff who themselves come from immigrant communities. That requires a program of affirmative action, in which unions develop leadership, not just of immigrants, but of people of color generally, including African-Americans and other citizen minorities. When immigrants and people of color look at unions, they need to see people like themselves, to feel they will be welcome, and will find among the union's staff and officers people who understand their problems.

o Unions have to have a presence in the community, sometimes even a physical presence. Garment worker unions for the last decade, for instance, have organized storefront "centers for garment worker justice," in immigrant communities, offering everything from help with wage and hour complaints to English and citizenship classes, designed to build bridges to unorganized workers.

A community presence means being active on community issues. Molders Local 164 (Tom Mooney's old local in northern California) sued the Immigration and Naturalization Service to stop immigration raids in factories in the mid-1980s. As a result, the union gained a reputation in the local immigrant community which led to a number of organizing drives.

Local 6 of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union took the same approach. The union fought an immigration raid at the Mediacopy plant in San Leandro and on the recycling lines at Waste Management, Inc. It helped immigrant workers at another local factory, Rubberstampede, after they started a strike on their own against sweatshop conditions.

Gaining a reputation as a union willing to defend immigrant workers has had similar results for many other locals as well. When workers get angry at their boss, or get tired of wages and conditions at the bottom, they know where to go.

o In Woodburn, Oregon, the state's farmworkers union PCUN has built worker housing, run strikes, organized an immigration project with almost 2000 cases, and maintained an associate member program in which workers pay a voluntary $8/month. This has given PCUN real roots in the immigrant farmworker community over many years.

o After the first immigration legalization program took effect in 1986, the AFL-CIO in Los Angeles set up the California Immigrant Workers Association, and created four regional centers to help immigrants with their legalization applications. Over 20,000 people used the centers, which eventually contributed to the wave of immigrant-based labor organizing in LA, which is still going on today. When the AFL-CIO and other allies succeed in getting Congress to pass another legalization program, unions need to be ready to help immigrants with the process, and use it to build real ties with immigrant communities.

These days most unions recognize that organizing is not so simple as going out to the plant gate with authorization cards and leaflets, hoping to sign up workers. Organizing requires long-term struggles based on real organization among workers themselves, a plan for battling the employer to actually change conditions in the workplace, and real community support and alliances.

In mounting these campaigns among immigrant workers, unions require a strategic alliance with immigrant communities. That alliance has to extend beyond support for individual campaigns. Around the country, this understanding is leading local chapters of Jobs with Justice to set up Workers' Rights Boards, which exist to defend workplace rights on a permanent basis.

The series of immigration hearings held nationally by the AFL-CIO was also a good opportunity to build more permanent relationships with organizations in immigrant communities.

Immigrant communities are often already well-organized. Among Mexicans and Filipinos, for instance, associations of people from the same town back home are very common. Those town associations played a big role in helping immigrants organize the drywall strike in southern California in 1992-3, when workers, many of whom came from a few towns in central Mexico, shut down residential construction from Santa Barbara to the Mexican border. Those town associations also played a big role in organizing the 100,000-person march against California's Proposition 187 in 1995.

Immigrant rights coalitions are natural allies for the labor movement. Some of the most fundamental rights denied immigrants are their rights as workers.

But union-community alliances need to be based on equality and a long-term perspective. It's not enough for unions simply to appeal for community support and help when they have a crisis - a big strike or organizing drive. Unions have to be just as willing to help on issues the community sees as important, including housing, immigration law reform, police brutality, discrimination, schools and others.

Two opposing ways of thinking about immigrants have always contested within the U.S. labor movement. One has been a narrow economism. Following this ideology, unions have sought to restrict the labor supply, making themselves clubs for a privileged few. These unions have limited the defense of workers to the interests of their own members, while other workers and their concerns were excluded by racism and anti-immigrant sentiment.

In February, the AFL-CIO took a huge step away from this point of view, and moved toward a very different vision, in which unions are social movments trying to organize everybody. The AFL-CIO's new position on immigration is based on the idea that labor should fight for the interests of workers as a class - all workers. By challenging corporate power with a larger vision of social justice, this position announces that we intend to fight racism and anti-immigrant hysteria.

The February resolution calls on unions to oppose employer sanctions - a law against workers, not employers. When work becomes illegal, employers have a big weapon to use against any effort to organize unions or fight for better conditions. This new position stands for equal rights for all workers.

The AFL-CIO also calls for a new amnesty, in which undocumented workers can apply for legal status. Labor as a whole has in interest in fighting for stable communities. Workers who have a stake in their community have a stake in organizing for better conditions. But when immigrants are vulnerable, their second-class status is not only used against them, but against other workers else as well.

Immigrants are not a threat. They are a source of strength for the labor movement.

But immigration law can be, and often is, used against workers and unions. Corporations and U.S. policy have historically looked at immigration law as a means of regulating the labor supply, to drive down wages and conditions. Today there are many visa categories which employers use to bring workers to the U.S. as contract laborers, for exactly that purpose. There are programs for high tech and healthcare workers, farm workers, garment workers, and others.

When any worker stands up for better conditions or organizes a union, we all know she or he can be easily fired, immigrant or not. But when when a contract worker is fired, he or she not only loses their job, but their ability to stay in the country. That effectively gives an employer the power to deport as well as fire workers, and makes people in these visa programs desperate and vulnerable.

That's why employers are now making proposals in many industries for new programs, or for expanding existing ones. In giant high tech plants, like the unorganized ones in Silicon Valley, the electronics industry has a long history of discrimination against African-American engineers, and employs very few. This is true throughout that industry as a whole, nationwide. Workers of color have been banging on the door to get access to those jobs, but instead of hiring them, and raising wages to compete for domestic labor, the companies want to bring contract workers from other countries as dependent, indentured servants.

These industry and employer-based visa programs are all based on the idea that immigration law should be used to supply workers to employers who claim there's a labor shortage. Unions have a big stake in opposing this idea. The change in the AFL-CIO's position has made possible for the first time in 15 years the discussion of a new legalization program. But that possibility for real, meaningful change shouldn't be sold short, by big corporations, using the demand for immigration reform to turn immigrant workers into contract laborers.

Unions need a broad program for immigration reform based on defending immigrant rights. That should include

* a policy of equal rights for all workers, immigrant and non-immigrant alike.

* reforms ensuring that all workers have the right to organize, opposing any immigration proposal that undermines that right.

* a policy that unites families, rather than dividing them.

* a legalization program that allows immigrants to be members of stable communities, where working people can build political power.

* reforms which foster unity among workers - white people and people of color, immigrants and native born.

But beyond equality is solidarity.

Working people have a great advantage in this increasingly internationalized world. Almost 100 million people, almost all of them workers and farmers, are part of a great migrant stream, a human bond which connects the countries of the developed and developing world.

What more natural vehicle for solidarity is there than workers themselves? Who knows more about the working conditions in both halves of the world than someone who has worked in each place? Who can see most clearly the operation of the global economy, and who has a greater stake in changing it?

Who can help us to change our unions, which are overwhelmingly national organizations, accustomed to functioning within national borders, into truly global organizations uniting workers across borders?

Organizing immigrant workers is necessary, not because we take pity on the downtrodden, but because we understand what is necessary for our own survival. If we are serious in wanting to challenge free trade and voracious international capitalism, we must incorporate migrant workers and fight for their rights, and make our labor movement one which belongs to all of us.

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photographs and stories by David Bacon © 1990-

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