U.S. Labor Unions and New Immigrants

Most U.S. labor unions agree on what to do about the some 12 million undocumented immigrants now living in the United States: Legalize their status. But sharp disagreements remain on the question of new immigrants, and the fault line lies mostly between unions in the Change to Win (CTW) coalition and the AFL-CIO.

Sarah Garland

Most U.S. labor unions agree on what to do about the some 12 million undocumented immigrants now living in the United States: Legalize their status. But sharp disagreements remain on the question of new immigrants, and the fault line lies mostly between unions in the Change to Win (CTW) coalition and the AFL-CIO.

Two of CTW’s most prominent unions—SEIU (the service workers’ union) and UNITE HERE (garment and hospitality workers)—both support the guest-worker program proposed in the Secure America and Orderly Immigration Act, a bill co-sponsored by senators John McCain and Ted Kennedy.

Thomas Snyder, UNITE HERE’s policy director, says the main reason for his union’s enthusiasm is that the term guest worker—which implies that the workers would be deported if they organized a union or would be chained to one employer—is actually a misnomer for the plan it endorses.

“That word guest worker is a loaded word, and some people intentionally try to confuse what’s going on,” Snyder says. In fact, he says, the program the UNITE HERE leadership envisions would give immigrant workers a chance to eventually apply for permanent residency, protect their right to join a union, and allow them to change employers if they chose.

“In our view, that is not a guest worker,” Snyder says. “You’re not a guest; a guest means you come, you leave.”

As the son of a bracero, Eliseo Medina, executive vice president of SEIU, says he speaks from experience when he says guest-worker programs, in their current form, are detrimental. Medina calls the program that SEIU and UNITE HERE support an “earned-citizenship program.”

“Those that want to stay, they should be able to stay,” he says. SEIU also supports dismantling employer sanctions, which penalize employers for knowingly hiring an undocumented immigrant—a cause it shares with the AFL-CIO camp.

The United Farm Workers, another CTW union and the one most identified with undocumented immigrants, also supports the guest-worker program and other Kennedy-McCain provisions. But the UFW is aware of the plan’s potential flaws, says Marc Grossman, the union’s communications director.

“The biggest problem with guest workers is [that] the enforcement of the protection of those workers has always been very lax,” he says. “A guest worker has no real recourse.”

But that’s where unions can step in to file grievances to protect their rights, he says, and the choice to support the plan reflects the UFW’s focus on pragmatism over idealism.

In contrast, the United Food and Commercial Workers (as well as the Teamsters) has stood apart from its CTW co-members, strongly opposing guest-worker programs of any kind. “No matter how many protections get written into a temporary-worker program,” wrote UFCW president Joseph Hansen in an editorial, “the approach inherently provides employers with the opportunity to abuse and exploit workers, especially in low-wage jobs.”

The UFCW came to prominence last December when about 10,000 of its members from five of the six Swift & Company meatpacking plants were arrested during Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids (13,000 were arrested in all).

Instead, says UFCW spokeswoman Jill Cashen, the union has long supported a broad legalization of undocumented workers. But beyond that, the union has not set out a detailed policy position or taken a stand on specific immigration reform bills, she says. The legalization that UFCW endorses would ideally take into account future immigration flows, she said, but she isn’t more specific than that: “Our public policy has always been broader,” she says.

Whereas CTW unions have taken public positions on the guest-worker issue, the more mainstream AFL-CIO unions have largely avoided the question, including those whose trades are seeing a rising number of immigrants. Some are even reluctant to go on the record. (The United Union of Roofers, for example, declined to comment for this article.)

The AFL-CIO’s central office has published a list of priorities on immigration. Among them is reforming the largely ineffectual employer sanctions system with a new effort to penalize employers that “recruit workers from abroad for economic gain.” But the AFL-CIO document largely focuses on legalizing undocumented people already here and reforming the family reunification system, leaving the question about how to deal with future immigration flows largely unanswered.

The federation’s position is that guest-worker programs should be “reformed, but not expanded,” and John Sweeney, the AFL-CIO president, has publicly condemned guest-worker programs, saying current proposals would “undermine the U.S. labor market.”

Sean O’Ryan, an assistant to the general president of the plumbers’ union, says the construction unions’ immigration task force, of which he is a member, is slowly coming around to the idea that future immigration flows are something it must address, and soon. But so far, he says, the plumbers have yet to develop a national policy or create a unified minority-recruitment effort for its apprenticeship programs, one of the main ways that workers enter the specialized trades.

“We the construction unions have to really get our heads around this reality. The only reason people pour across the border in such large numbers is because there are jobs to be filled,” he says. “The unions have no choice.”

He notes that in 20 years, many of his union’s locals could be 100% Latino.


Sarah Garland is an education reporter for The New York Sun.
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