Directory of this site
For the best viewing result
TRIM your browser
Are foreign workers a threat to domestic workers?
CHICAGO, Sunday, June 4, 2000
The national leadership of organized labor, which for years has warily viewed immigrant workers as a threat to hard-won union jobs and wages, today told the most vulnerable members of America's work force--the undocumented alien workers--that it cares more about union cards than green cards.
In an unusual forum, top AFL-CIO officials called for new laws that would criminalize employer exploitation of undocumented workers and grant amnesty and permanent residency to working immigrants who are in the country illegally.
The union leaders' assertions were in sharp contrast to positions the federation had held since the mid-1980s, when it pushed for federal sanctions against employers who hire illegal immigrants and openly expressed concerns about immigrant workers poaching jobs and driving up unemployment.
Linda Chavez-Thompson, AFL-CIO executive vice president, said the trade union umbrella organization underwent a dramatic change when its executive council decided in February that "we are on the side of working people everywhere," whether they came to this country 400 years ago on slave ships, 100 years ago through Ellis Island in New York Harbor or a year ago across the Mexican order.
"We need strong criminal penalties against employers who trample on immigrant workers' rights, and we need a new amnesty program to provide legal status to all who contribute to their community," Chavez-Thompson declared to the applause of union members.
Later, in an interview, she conceded that labor leaders have "a lot of educating to do" among many rank-and-file members to overcome the lingering bias against immigrant workers. But she said most trade unionists are proud of the movement's tradition throughout American history of welcoming immigrants and are inclined toward outrage when they hear stories of social injustices.
Besides, she said, if immigrant workers suddenly disappeared, they would leave behind 5 million to 6 million of the "hottest, stinkiest, dirtiest, lowest-paying jobs there are--jobs that most American workers would not want anyway."
In an effort to stoke the union members' sense of social justice, the AFL-CIO presented a dozen Midwest immigrant workers at today's forum in a Plumbers Union hall here, the third in a series of such nationwide gatherings aimed at burnishing labor's image among immigrants. The federation recently increased its organizing efforts among workers such as janitors, hotel maids, laundry workers and other service employees.
Eliseo Chavez, an undocumented Chicago day laborer who said he recently crossed from Mexico, described how some job brokers demand that immigrants work eight hours under one name and then another eight hours under another name, so the employer can avoid having to pay overtime. He also said that workers injured on the job are denied workers' compensation and are threatened with dismissal if they complain.
"Amnesty is very important, whether you are here two weeks or 10 years, because if you don't have documents you are exploited," Chavez said.
Similar exploitation was described by Alejandro Zepeda, a laundry worker here who said that he and his co-workers live in constant fear of the Immigration and Naturalization Service and that their employer uses that fear to exploit them. Zepeda said that if the employer discovers an employee's Social Security number is invalid, he sometimes will fire the employee and then rehire him or her at the minimum wage and with no benefits to circumvent years of seniority.
Carmen Najera, an immigrant worker at the same laundry, said she lives with the constant threat of sexual harassment by supervisors and is too afraid of being turned over to the INS to complain. "They see us as easy prey because we are undocumented and don't speak English," Najera said through an interpreter.
Throughout the forum, AFL-CIO leaders stressed that abandoning immigrant workers to employer exploitation would be turning labor's back to human rights, which in the long run would undermine all working people.
"This is not an immigrant issue; it's a civil rights issue," Gloria T. Johnson, president of the Coalition of Labor Union Women, told the cheering crowd of 500 unionists and community organizers. "The same strategy is used by employers against African Americans, those of different sexual orientation and women.
"As we fight in our communities, we should reach out to all of these groups and bring them into the fight for the rights of all workers," she added.
Joe Hansen, secretary-treasurer of the 1.4-million-member United Food and Commercial Workers Union, said that U.S. immigration policy has been "privatized" to allow employers to "import, exploit and, in effect, deport immigrant workers at will."
Hansen said that, like the Polish, Italian and other European immigrants who poured into Chicago a century ago to work in the packing plants, immigrants from Asia and Latin America are working the processing lines of the packing industry across the country.
"The solution to the problems of immigrant workers today is the same as a hundred years ago: organize, organize, organize," Hansen said.
A similar theme was sounded by Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez (D-Ill.), who said the labor movement is on the "threshold of incredible change" but that the change is part of an old struggle. That struggle, he said, is "the same struggle the Irish can tell you about in the 1860s in Chicago's slaughterhouses . . . that the Polish and the Italians can tell you about, too.
"What they always try to do is divide us," Gutierrez added. "But we are coming together . . . and we will protect the working rights of all men and women, regardless of their immigration status."
© 2000 The Washington Post Company
Directory Revised August 20, 2000 Page had been Hosted By
Copyleft1997-2000 Doron A. Tal - anyhow my rights were lost... ... דורון א. טל - זכויותי ממילא אבודות