The Other Town Halls
Labor Unions Sell Members on Immigration Reform
New America Media, News Report, Elena Shore Posted: Aug 17, 2009
Traducción al español
SAN FRANCISCO -- As U.S. senators hold town hall meetings across the country to sell Americans on health care reform, another series of town hall meetings is taking place. The stakes are just as high and tensions run just as deep.
The issue is immigration reform. Representatives of the two largest national labor organizations in the country, the AFL-CIO and Change to Win, are trying to sell their local union members on a joint statement calling for immigration reform. But not everyone is buying it.
They made the hardest sell in San Francisco.
“It was the Bay Area that formed LION (the Labor Immigrant Organizers Network) that helped change labor’s position on immigration,” announced Sanjay Garla of AFSCME at an August 10 meeting at the Plumbers’ Hall. Ten years later, some local union members see the new resolution as a step backward on the most crucial issues they have fought against: employer sanctions and guest worker programs.
The joint AFL-CIO-CTW statement calls for no new guest worker programs, stressed Esther Lopez, the director of civil rights and community action for UFCW International, part of the Change to Win labor federation.
“Future employment-based visas should be determined by an independent commission using relevant labor market data and workers would have permanent visas. This would eliminate guest workers,” Lopez said. “There would be no expansion of guest worker programs.”
But not everyone believed it.
“At our local, our members took a really strong stand against guest worker programs,” Maria Guillén, a member of SEIU 1021, said at the meeting. “We took that message to the international convention and they did not accept it. So I’m a little skeptical that Change to Win is moving toward this.”
Critics say the statement itself is contradictory.
“This is smoke and mirrors,” said David Bacon, who had helped found the LION.
Though the statement ends by saying that the United States “should not adopt a new ‘indentured’ or ‘guest worker’ initiative,” it also calls for “allocating employment visas—both temporary and permanent” that are determined by an independent commission.
“You must work to stay. That’s a guest worker program,” said Bacon. “That’s what we tried to get rid of in ’64,” he said, with the end of the Bracero Program.
The other stumbling block for many union members is the issue of employer sanctions for hiring someone without proper work authorization. LION organized the opposition to employer sanctions 10 years ago and got the AFL-CIO to reverse its position. “The AFL-CIO and Change to Win got together recently to work out this common statement. But the basis of bringing them together is abandoning what we won in ’99,” said Bacon.
But Ana Avendaño, director of immigration policy for the AFL-CIO, emphasized the importance of being pragmatic. Immigration reform, she said, would be more difficult to achieve than labor law or health care reform.
“Tactical, swift immigration reform followed by immediate enforcement of labor standards is not realistic,” she said, noting that Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), who is expected to introduce a bill after Labor Day, has a more enforcement-minded approach than did Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass). “Our advocacy is framed around this reality,” she said. “It doesn’t mean we’re compromising.”
Unions are responding to the reality that immigration is seen as a cure for labor shortages, said Bacon. “But when there is a labor shortage,” he said, “a good union raises wages to attract more employees. Here, we have unions preparing to do what employers want them to do.”
“It’s not that the jobs are so horrible that [American] workers aren’t willing to do them,” said Wei-Ling Huber, president of Local 2850 of Unite HERE who represents workers in the hotel industry. “It’s that the wages and benefits are so low. Guest workers will be used in the same way immigrant workers are being used now.”
Lopez of UFCW International says her union didn’t have any other option. “ICE was raiding our plants. We didn’t have a choice. Our union had to stand up against it.”
“When we first started this,” she said, “what we heard from the Hill was that no immigration reform could move forward unless labor came together.” But the fear is if national and local unions aren’t able to get on the same page, they will be sending two different messages to Capitol Hill. “What a terrible mistake if we have that,” said Lopez. She has been traveling the country trying to convince local unions to support the national position.
“I sit in those meetings and there are 200 white men looking at me and you can see it in their body language: Here comes the Mexicana,” said Lopez, describing town hall meetings with local unions in Ohio and Kentucky.
“There are real reasons for [their] anxiety,” Lopez noted. “Stagnant wages, soaring health care costs, retirement is more elusive than ever. We have to acknowledge that with U.S.-born workers, labor laws have not been enforced.”
But while the AFL-CIO and Change to Win have successfully united on a statement for immigration reform, the fight ahead will be to convince the locals across the country. San Francisco was just one stop.
“We want to make sure that people who are in the room when those deals get made are aware of what’s happening on the ground with workers.” said Wei-Ling Huber. “We know that we have to work together and we have to fight for immigration reform.”
“I’m not gonna lie,” Lopez said. “It’s not easy. But we have to have this debate.”
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