NEW YORK - The AFL-CIO, the nation's largest labor federation, signed groundbreaking partnership agreements here May 10 with the National Domestic Workers Alliance and the National Guestworkers Alliance. The two groups represent immigrant workers who have traditionally been left out of the mainstream labor movement in the United States.
The agreements establish, for the first time, a framework within which unions and non-traditional workers' rights organizations will campaign together to organize and win rights for excluded workers.
"We are signing these partnership agreements because we can't rely on the law alone if we want to fight for the inclusion of all workers," said AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka.
"Guest workers" are immigrants who come to the United States with visas that allow them to work for a particular company. Businesses apply for the right to hire them based on their alleged inability to find enough U.S. workers to fill job openings.
The progras result in a form of indentured servitude with workers owing most of their wages as payment for transport to the U.S. and for housing. Guest workers have no rights on the job because employers can fire them at will, resulting in deportation to their country of origin.
The new union partnership with groups representing the guest workers and the domestic workers was announced at the opening of a three-day Excluded Workers Congress here.
"We have to work together and take collective action," Trumka said. "We extend our hand to all the organizations of the Excluded Workers Congress and workers around the world who are part of this struggle in partnership and solidarity."
Among the participants in the conference were Indian guest workers who, after Hurricane Katrina, worked along the Gulf Coast as virtual modern-day slaves.
"Starting today, guest workers and U.S. workers will work together to transform workplaces across the United States," said Saket Soni, the New Orleans director of the National Guestworkers Alliance. "This shows how serious we all are about our intention to extend the right to organize to all workers around the globe, regardless of where they were born."
Barbara Young, a nanny who became a national organizer with the Domestic Workers Alliance, said she was "proud to fight with our union brothers and sisters to defend and expand the right to organize and win justice for immigrants."
Young said that she and others like her who clean homes and care for children and seniors "make all other work possible. Why shouldn't we have rights, respect and recognition?"
The agreements signed this week were not the first efforts by the labor movement to reach out to organizations of immigrant workers. In 2006 the AFL-CIO signed an agreement with the National Day Laborer Organizing Network and, in the same year, brought the New York Taxi Workers' Alliance into the New York City Central Labor Council.
Unions have increasingly recognized the importance of organizing the service industries where minority and immigrant workers predominate. The jobs are not easily outsourced and provide a reservoir of members that can boost union membership.
Trumka said that falling enrollment in unions can only really be reversed if "we bring under the union umbrella single moms, new immigrants, African Americans, Latinos and young people."
"The leaders of these organizations really represent the future of the labor movement," said Ana Avendano, director of the immigrant worker program at the AFL-CIO. "They're young and they're for the large part workers of color. They're serving as a model of leadership for the labor unions. They bring a new energy, new creativity, and new ways of thinking in terms of organizing and talking to workers."
Membership in some unions has actually increased rather than decreased in recent years and where this has happened, Latino workers are the reason. Latinos are now 13 percent of the workforce as a whole, but one-fifth of service workers and almost one-third of laborers, according to government figures. In the meatpacking industry they hold 75 percent of the jobs.
"Immigrants are the best hope for the labor movement," said Eliseo Medina, secretary treasurer of the Service Employees International Union and an immigrant himself. "Fresh blood will always make your body stronger."
Unions in industries with many Latino workers have pushed not just to organize those workers but to fight for their civil rights, including helping them become citizens and register to vote. SEIU has been active in this respect, having conducted massive voter registration efforts in Latino communities.
Image: AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka speaks at meeting of organizations. Photo via Guest Worker Alliance.