Everyone deserves a voice on the job, the freedom to choose union representation and the promise of equal treatment at work. However, discrimination in the workplace and anti-union tactics against organizing efforts continues to plague our country even after years of gaining major legislative victories and mobilizing workers in our communities.
It’s a shame and a crime that in the year 2003, workers – mostly Hispanic women – like those employed at Cintas, the largest laundry rental supplier in the U.S., face constant employer interference, harassment and the threat of losing their jobs as they stand up to improve their wages, health insurance benefits and working conditions through unionization.
Hotel workers often fare no better. In many hospitality chains across this country, immigrants turn to the industry for an opportunity to improve their economic situation and the lives of their families. Many of them, working in markets with low union density, endure some of the lowest paid jobs with little or no benefits while working under the constant fear of deportation. I should also note that immigration factors into the construction industry with its own challenges of day labor.
Many of us tend to forget that we are a nation built on the blood, sweat and tears of immigrant labor. All of us, with the exception of Native Americans, have roots in other countries. Our grandparents and other relatives most likely struggled against workplace discrimination as they were turned away from jobs based on their ethnic background, religious affiliation, race and even gender.
The Labor Movement has stood up for these workers’ civil rights time and again, and was often at the forefront of legislative initiatives to gain workplace advances including defending the National Labor Relations Act, the Civil Rights Act and the Family Leave Act, just to name a few. Obviously, unions and their members could not have achieved this alone. They needed help from close allies, people of faith, and other activists who share our common goal of social justice.
Today, we find ourselves once again turning to these groups to demand fairness for all immigrant workers. Currently there are close to 30 million immigrants living in the United States, the most in our country’s history. These people work hard in jobs we all depend on, such as janitors, waitresses, nursing home aides and more. They pay taxes and contribute to our communities. However, too often, unscrupulous employers exploit these workers and treat them as second-class citizens and even as “slave” labor.
The only way to combat this type of unfair treatment is to provide legal status for undocumented immigrants so that it will make it harder for employers to intimidate all workers who demand fair pay and the freedom to join a union.
We all win when immigrants join unions, because they fight to lift the standards for better wages and benefits in our communities. Their organizing efforts, in essence, increase the bargaining power of our unionized members, strengthen the industries where they work and boost our economy overall. They also add to our political ability to promote a working family agenda, especially as we currently face an anti-union administration and Congress in Washington, D.C.
With that said, I would encourage everyone to participate in the upcoming AFL-CIO Freedom Bus Ride this fall. This national event, modeled after the Civil Rights Freedom Rides of the 1960s, will bring hundreds of thousands of union members and activists from all over the country to demand legislation directed at ensuring the citizenship and equal treatment for immigrant workers. We will raise our voices to enact penalties for employers who seek to violate labor laws based on a worker’s immigration status, and address the backlog of people waiting to legally join their close relatives in our country.
The Labor Movement has always held firm to the motto that an injury to one is an injury to all. This is our chance to protect the rights of our fellow workers, improve the working conditions of our members, and ensure respect, dignity and social justice for all people. We must remember that we live in a country that must let freedom ring for all, not just a privileged few. Our Freedom Ride will show our nation and the world that unions once again did our part to lead the way. Please make plans to join us and help support the rights of immigrants everywhere.
Tim Leahy is secretary-treasurer of the Chicago Federation of Labor, www.cflonline.org. The above Labor Day message originally appeared in the CFL’s Federation News and is reprinted by permission of the author.