From Mexico to New York Labor Joins the Struggle

September 25, 2007

About 10 million current U.S. residents were born in Mexico, and a great many of them regularly send money home, paying a kind of informal, voluntary income tax to their homeland. The Bank of Mexico estimates that remittances over the course of 2004 amounted to $16.6 billion dollars, up 24% over 2003. Of course the money goes where the senders want it to go: to their families, their communities, their regions of origin. For many localities in Mexico, remittances amount to a source of income greater than any other, public or private. And in some cases, recipients put these private remittances to public use: improving local services, repairing local infrastructure. At the same time that the formal workforce is shrinking and many Mexicans are losing formal-sector health and pension benefits, remittances are strengthening local health clinics, both public and private.

Remittances within the country have a long history in Mexico. Members of rural families have long sought temporary work in nearby cities, men typically in construction and women as live-in domestic servants in order to supplement always-precarious rural incomes. Money earned in urban employment usually allowed for workers to regularly send their modest savings back home to close-knit extended families with the understanding that future generations would continue the tradition. But that was when the rural communities had a stronger economic base, before traditional agriculture was undercut by imports from the subsidized, industrialized agriculture of developed countries. Rural communities now need much more outside support. And the insecure, low-paying jobs now available in those same nearby cities, which are flooded with rural migrants willing to work hard and cheap, makes saving all but impossible.

Young workers still feel a strong commitment to their home communities. Only now, they are bypassing the insecure, poverty-level jobs of Mexico City, Puebla and Guadalajara, and heading straight for the better-paying, though still insecure jobs of Los Angeles, Chicago and New York. And though most find their way into the lowest income strata of the U.S. economy, last year they earned enough to have sent home record-level help to their families.

Once in a city like New York, the new migrants get on the opportunity line behind the city’s older, more established immigrant and ethnic communities, taking low-paying jobs, crowding into small apartments, starting new families and learning how to navigate “the system.” Most remain informal employees and very few belong to labor unions. Almost by definition, unions spend most of their time and effort among the organized and organizable in the formal economy. The organization and advocacy for the unorganized, informal and excluded has thus been left to “popular” organizations and community groups.

Navigating the system in New York is no easy task. In their search for decent housing, schooling and other necessities, virtually all the city’s working class immigrant communities have had to go through an arduous learning process, sometimes with a little help from relatives who had come before, sometimes on their own. Over the years a number of popular movements, advocacy groups and self-help organizations have emerged to help immigrant communities through the process.

There are three key struggles of the Mexican immigrant community in the United States, says Hector Figueroa, the secretary/treasurer of Local 32BJ of the combative Service Employees International Union (SEIU). These are the struggles for legalization, greater community power and influence, and on-the-job rights and benefits. Figueroa’s local, which organizes “property-service” workers—security guards, cleaners, porters, doorpersons and building superintendents—has put significant resources into all three struggles. So have some other unions, especially in New York and Los Angeles, who tend to organize at the bottom of the economic ladder.

Legal immigrants, who tend to remain in the same place for a long time, even keeping the same job, Figueroa tells me, are easier to organize. Formal low-paying, yet stable, jobs tend to be held by these more stable immigrant groups. Maintenance workers in New York’s “Class A” commercial buildings, for example, though some 40% Latino, include very few of the recently arrived Mexicans. Workers in the much less lucrative “Class C” real estate have, over the past few years, been heavily Mexican. And in New York, says Figueroa, many Mexicans do “route work,” meaning they clean several buildings, restaurants and/or supermarkets in the same working day, frequently in the employ of a cleaning subcontractor. As the work’s stability, reward and prestige decline, more recent immigrants typically fill the job.

A few months ago I stopped in at Public School 173 in Manhattan’s predominantly Latino neighborhood of Washington Heights to speak with Figueroa. He was attending a meeting in the school, not as part of a union organizing drive, but to discuss local community grievances and what citizens could do about them.

The meeting was organized by a labor-based group called the New York Civic Participation Project (NYCPP), which was formed to reach out to the traditionally excluded. NYCPP organizes working class immigrant communities to engage in civic participation at the neighborhood and citywide level in New York City. Through this engagement the Project strives to empower immigrant communities so they can participate more fully in the city’s political and civic institutions.

The Project has its offices on the 23rd floor of the 32BJ building in lower Manhattan and now has four full-time staff members. Three New York trade-union locals and two community organizations working for immigrant rights in working-class immigrant communities created NYCPP with the help of a $200,000 grant from the AFL-CIO start-up fund. The founding members are SEIU Local 32BJ, District Council 37 of the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), Local 100 of the Hotel and Restaurant Employees (HERE), a Brooklyn-based community group called Make the Road by Walking and the National Employment Law Project.

According to one of its organizing brochures, the NYCPP aims to: “1) Bring together like-minded unions, community groups, advocates and elected officials to create a pro-worker platform in New York City that incorporates immigrants; 2) Support organizing rights and economic justice for immigrant workers; 3) Encourage union members to be leaders and agents of change in their community.” Over the past year, NYCPP has established community-based worker centers in Washington Heights, the Bushwick section of Brooklyn, the South Bronx and four communities in Queens.

The Project’s director is Gouri Sadhwani, a young immigrant from Shilong, India. “We came together three years ago when we realized there was very little ‘base-building’ in the city,” she tells me in her office in the 32BJ building. “The city is very dense with organizations,” she continues, “but there is little connection between the policy advocates and the people. The last elections showed us how little we engage the base around working-class issues. This led us to a project promoting civic participation and community activism, to combine, in a way, union and community organizing.”

“The membership varies with the union and neighborhood composition,” she says. “We work with whatever concerns the members. They identify the issues. There was a dilapidated building next to an elementary school in the Bronx, for example. The members thought it was a dangerous site but could not contact the owners. We showed them how to trace the ownership of the building. They did so and lodged a complaint. The owners immediately responded because of the union presence. In two days they had it all clean.”

The coalition is not immune to racial and ethnic divisions already present in the city. “Of the three unions involved in the project,” says Sadhwani, “two of us, 32BJ and Local 100 of the Hotel Workers, are made up largely of Latino immigrants. DC 37 of AFSCME, on the other hand, is heavily African-American. There’s lots of tension in this city between African-Americans and new immigrants and also between older immigrants and new immigrants. It’s not that the new immigrants are taking the jobs the long-time residents would normally get, but the race factor is always there. We have to work on the immigrant rights agenda without sacrificing the civil rights agenda.”

The question of citizenship is key here. The meeting at the school in Washington Heights was one of many called to help residents of informal, excluded neighborhoods present an organized response to city officials on matters of housing, access to health care, schooling, drug addiction and other community concerns. This kind of labor activity is a far cry from the “business unionism” common throughout the Americas. Local 32BJ is clearly aligning itself with the poor who belong to no union—who, in many cases, have no formal employment. This community-based organizing, acknowledges 32BJ’s Figueroa, has its limits. It doesn’t change wages, benefits or grievance procedures. “In that sense, he says, “there is still a need for these workers to be represented vis-à-vis their employer.”

According to the demographers at Mexico’s National Population Council, some 400,000 Mexicans leave for the United States each year, and of the 10 million Mexico-born individuals now living north of the border, over half are living as undocumented immigrants. There are now just over 200,000 Mexicans legally living in New York City, and perhaps another 100,000 who live in the city without the required legal documents.

High on the list of political goals of the Mexican-American community is some form of legalization, which many hope for as the result of a potential deal between Presidents Vicente Fox and George W. Bush. Many, like Mexico’s conservative President Fox, support Bush’s employer-driven, guest worker plan as “half-a-loaf” worth accepting. The plan would allow migrant workers to remain in the country while they are needed and vouched for by a specific employer. Figueroa sees it as not half-a-loaf at all, but as a major step backward for undocumented immigrants because of its reliance on the “goodwill” and perceived need of the employer.

There are somewhere between eight and 12 million undocumented immigrants in the United States, of whom the great majority are working or looking for work. These are the foreign workers Bush says the U.S. economy needs. Spurred by their own lack of economic security, they are willing to work hard and cheap, taking those jobs “U.S. citizens are not filling.” At least 1.2 million work in agriculture, mostly for transnational producers; a million or so work in restaurants; over half a million work in construction, and nearly as many in private households. Many work off the books, receiving virtually no benefits and earning considerably less than a U.S. poverty wage, though enough for their families to purchase their basic needs with remittances sent home to countries often much poorer than Mexico.

The presence of so many undocumented immigrants in the U.S. labor force is testimony to the decades-old drive to cheapen the U.S. cost of labor. U.S. manufacturers are moving plants to low-wage countries and squeezing ever more output from fewer workers at home. As a consequence, according to virtually all measures, U.S. income distribution is more unequal today than at any time since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

It is in this context that Bush wants to reform immigration policy. Migrants do many of the hard, low-paying jobs that can’t be sent abroad—on the land, in the stores, in the private households. Bush’s proposed reform would grant three-year work visas to undocumented immigrants if they can show they have jobs and if their employers certify that no U.S. workers can be found to perform the work. The work visas would be renewable on a once-every-three-years basis, and the immigrants would always be dependent on the goodwill of their employers.

To apply for permanent residency, immigrants would have to return to their country of origin. Employers, on the other hand, would be able to import new workers on the same temporary basis to work at jobs they could not fill with U.S. workers—or with disgruntled immigrant workers. Business groups, of course, are enthusiastic about the plan, which, at bottom, is an employer-empowerment plan that undermines the power of organized labor.

Throughout the Americas, those who can broadly be considered members of the working class are faced with a wedge between the organized and the unorganized; the formal and the informal; the included and the excluded. This is as true in Mexico as it is in New York City. And migrants from one place to the other frequently carry their “informality” with them.

In Mexico, the federal government’s National Employment Survey (ENE) shows a labor force of 43.6 million, of whom 15.4 million (36.5%) are covered by labor regulations and eligible for federal health, housing and retirement benefits. These are the members of the “formal” labor force. ENE reports that of all Mexican workers, agricultural laborers are the least likely to have formal benefit coverage. Of Mexico’s seven million agricultural workers, just under 400,000 are covered by Social Security benefits, about 5.6% of the total. At the other end of the “formality” spectrum are the nine million workers employed by large firms (firms with over 100 employees). Some eight million of these workers, over 90%, are covered.

The chance that a worker is formally employed declines with the size of her workplace, and reaches rock bottom at the level of “micro” enterprises (defined by the ENE as firms with 15 or fewer employees in industry; five or fewer in commerce and services). In the microenterprises, the chances of formal protection by Mexican labor law declines to 7%. Only 1.2 million out of a total of 16.5 million microsector workers enjoy health benefits and labor regulations.

The response of the excluded, aside from forming some interesting cooperative experiments, has been to leave the country. These are the migrants—still informal and excluded, but now better organized—with whom the NYCPP has decided to work. It’s an important step forward for the U.S. labor movement.

About the Author
Fred Rosen is co- editor of NACLA Report on the Americas. When he is not working at NACLA, he is based in Mexico City.

Tags: New York, US latinos, Mexico, US immigration, labor, unions, NYCPP

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