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AFL-CIO backs amnesty, labor rights for undocumented workers

By Mary Owen

In a landmark policy change hailed in immigrant communities from coast to coast, on Feb. 16 the AFL-CIO Executive Council unanimously called for amnesty for some 6 million undocumented workers and their families in the United States--and called on Congress to repeal a 1986 law that has victimized these immigrants.

The resolution also calls for whistleblower protection for undocumented immigrants who report labor-law violations. It calls for job-training programs for immigrants and opposes expanding the guest-worker policy--the super-exploitative "bracero" program.

"With this resolution, the AFL-CIO proudly stands on the side of immigrant workers," said Linda Chavez-Thompson, executive vice president of the 13-million-member AFL-CIO.

The resolution commits the federation to push for new immigration laws that would protect undocumented workers from firing or deportation if they try to unionize or complain to the government about violations of labor laws, including minimum wage and safety requirements. The AFL-CIO will hold four forums across the United States, including one in Los Angeles on May 10, to hear testimony from immigrants and consider legislative strategies.

"The present system doesn't work and is used as a weapon against workers," said John Wilhelm, chair of the federation's Committee on Immigration Policy and president of the Hotel and Restaurant Employees union.

The AFL-CIO is expected to advocate new laws to replace the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act. That law was supposed to sanction employers for hiring undocumented workers. But in practice, as immigrant-rights activists warned the AFL-CIO at the time, IRCA only served to drive undocumented workers further into the exploitative underground economy.

Crucial to organizing

This AFL-CIO policy change was brought about by a number of factors: steady changes in the composition of the work force, a new turn to organizing that brought labor face-to-face with anti-worker Immigration and Naturalization Service raids and deportations, and mounting pressure from Latino, Asian and other immigrant-rights activists within the union movement for labor to take a stand in defense of undocumented workers.

"We in the labor movement have to put ourselves in a leadership position on immigrant rights," said Farm Workers President Arturo Rodriguez. "This is a way to help low-wage immigrant workers."

With unemployment at its lowest rate in 30 years, a wave of undocumented workers is filling many service and manufacturing jobs across the United States. They work as janitors and meat cutters, in hotels and restaurants, on farms and in garment factories, and at countless other work places. As unions have begun organizing these immigrant workers, they repeatedly run up against bosses who react by using the workers' undocumented status to intimidate and fire them, or have them deported.

The case of nine Mexicana Holiday Inn workers in Minneapolis showed the need for a policy change. These workers--all women--face deportation after organizing a union and winning $72,000 in back pay from the National Labor Relations Board and the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission.

"That really brought to the forefront what the problem was," said Service Employees Vice President Eliseo Medina, an early proponent of the new policy. "That showed in a very stark way what the situation is today, and helped bring a sense of urgency to the matter."

With the changes in immigration law the AFL-CIO is now supporting, immigrant workers would be freer to fight for their rights and strengthen the ranks of labor.

Unfortunately, the AFL-CIO fell short of full support for the estimated 275,000 undocumented immigrants who enter this country every year. By calling on the federal government to maintain efforts to keep them out, the federation objectively sided with the brutal border patrol. These thugs are hated by the poor immigrants who make their way here at great personal risk to seek work--many of them fleeing the results of U.S. imperialism's economic, political and military policies abroad.

Nevertheless, undocumented workers will continue to arrive from all parts of the globe. And as those who came before them gain amnesty, continue to organize and raise their voices in the house of labor, the AFL-CIO policy will have to change as well.

This article is copyright under a Creative Commons License.
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