AFL-CIO launches campaign for immigration reform

WASHINGTON – The AFL-CIO is launching a presidential style mass nationwide campaign, with worksite visits, leafleting and more, for comprehensive immigration reform, emphasizing citizenship and worker rights for the nation’s 11 million undocumented workers.  

The fed’s drive, with a heavy education component and aid from allies, will also feature mass rallies in 14 cities.  The first was Feb. 6 in Raleigh, N.C., to be followed by Las Vegas on Feb. 11 and events in – among others – New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Portland, Ore., St. Paul, Minn., Seattle, Miami and Phoenix.

The Feb. 7 announcement by federation President Richard Trumka and Maria Elena Durazo, chair of the AFL-CIO Immigration Committee and Executive Secretary-Treasurer of the L.A. County Federation of Labor, comes after Trumka and other leaders of progressive groups discussed immigration with Democratic President Barack Obama in an Oval Office meeting on Feb. 5.

At that session, Obama outlined his immigration plan which, unlike ideas floating around Capitol Hill, explicitly calls for worker rights for the undocumented – a point that benefits all workers, Trumka told the later telephone press conference.

“To create a roadmap to citizenship” for the undocumented “is critical for all working people,” he said.

But the undocumented workers need citizenship and its legal protection for basic reasons, he added.  “Often, the first reason (those) workers band together” against employers “is not for better wages, but for getting them to pay wages at all.”

Trumka emphasized citizenship for undocumented workers is key to reform.  Citizenship would bring workers’ rights, including the right to organize, which the undocumented now lack.  He said citizenship would benefit not just those workers – by ending their exploitation – but all workers, as firms often threaten to hire the undocumented to drive down wages and working conditions for everyone else. 

And he said the unions’ drive would use facts and all methods – including radio ads – to repel and refute Right Wing radio talkers who claim that the only reason unions want legalization of the undocumented is to gain more members.

Besides the right wing talkers, the federation and Obama also face resistance from many congressional Republicans, though others – realizing they got clobbered by a 3-to-1 margin among Hispanic-named voters last fall – have shifted position.

The GOP right-wing-run House Judiciary Committee, for example, made clear its opposition to citizenship at a Tuesday hearing.  Its majority also doesn’t want comprehensive reform.  And the Republicans trotted out an AFGE sector leader – the president of the union’s immigration agents – to testify against it.

To overcome the opposition, Durazo said the fed would reach out to other allies for its mass nationwide campaign, just as her federation has in successful organizing drives among Latino workers and voters in Los Angeles.  “It’ll not just be rah-rah, but a mass education effort,” she added.

And Trumka said the fed is working closely with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce on the one area of immigration where the two groups strongly disagreed in the past: Guest workers. 

He flatly added that the AFL-CIO opposes past guest worker programs that brought in millions of workers, mostly in farms, with no protections and a lot of exploitation.  Such “bracero” programs are unacceptable, Trumka said.

Instead, the fed and the Chamber – the nation’s top business lobby – are working on creating a non-partisan panel that would judge employer needs, industry by industry and sector by sector, for temporary workers.  Firms would have to advertise for U.S. applicants before they could seek to import temporary workers from abroad, he said.

There would not be “guesstimates” or arbitrarily set worker caps, Trumka added.  Instead “the panel would say, ‘OK, you need 8,250 workers here,'” and then lay out paths for recruiting them.  Other details are still being hashed out, he explained.

But the key point for labor, Trumka and Durazo kept returning to, was eventual citizenship and legal status for the 11 million undocumented.  They did not, however, address the question of the countless hurdles – including strong border protections, a reliable electronic verification system of workers’ status and the hoops the undocumented would have to jump through to become citizens.

“We’ll be better” as a country “when they’re Americans in every way,” Durazo said. Right now they are, “except on paper.”

Photo: L.A. Fed Executive Secretary-Treasurer María Elena Durazo speaks to Dreams, carwasheros, and community allies gathered to celebrate the start of the Deferred Action process for Dreamers. AFL-CIO Latino Facebook page


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but a holy terror when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.