According to organizer Maria Jimenez, the scene looked like an old-fashioned pep rally for Flag Day in Houston as the Wood Forest High School marching band warmed up the crowd in the huge Electrical Workers Union Local 716 hall, June 14. Two hundred people were kicking off the organizing activities for Houston’s contingent of the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride.

Inspired by the Freedom Riders of the civil rights movement, people will fill buses in 12 major U.S. cities in late September and head out across the country, stopping at more than 80 locales to build support for legalization, family re-unification, and protection of worker rights on the job without regard to legal status. They will head to Washington, D.C., for two days of lobbying and then join a massive rally in Flushing Meadow, N.Y., on Oct. 4.

The speakers list at the Houston rally, reflecting the broad coalition organizers are aiming for, included Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), Rep. Gene Green (D-Texas), Southern Christian Leadership Conference co-founder Rev. Joseph Lowery, Harris county AFL-CIO officials, Latino immigrants rights groups, the Houston Catholic Diocese, Houston City Council members, and representatives of the city’s Nigerian community, the nation’s largest.

The predominantly Mexican immigrant rights group, the Association for Residency and Citizenship for America (ARCA), presented a chorus of 20 children, all U.S. born, who recited the Pledge of Allegiance in honor of their parents who are undocumented or residents seeking citizenship.

Richard Shaw, secretary-treasurer of the Harris County AFL-CIO Council, feels that immigrant rights are so important for the Houston labor movement that he’s going on the bus himself.

“We have taken the position in our council that we cannot have a subset of workers who are exploited and abused,” Shaw told the World. “From a practical viewpoint, labor’s new members are coming from these groups, not unlike 100 years ago.”

Shaw said his council and its affiliates have been working on immigrant issues for the past four years, including support for the Sheet Metal Workers Union’s work among Vietnamese immigrants in light manufacturing and other campaigns.

In a unique program, the Harris County Labor Council has joined with the EEOC, Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, the Houston Diocese, OSHA, and the Mexican Consulate to form the Justice and Equality in the Workplace Program. The program processes complaints from workers, especially on wage andhour and discrimination issues, through appropriate agencies without asking for green cards. Outreach efforts include a billboard near the Mexican consulate with a phone number for aggrieved workers to call.

The building trades unions are seeking the enforcement of the prevailing wage by public entities, according to Shaw. Prevailing wage policies insure the payment of a government established wage rate on publicly financed projects based on average wages for that locality. Since a large percentage of Houston’s construction workers are immigrants, prevailing wage is a powerful tool to fight discrimination in wage rates and to bring up wages, Shaw said.

While the majority of those on the Houston bus will come from the city’s immigrant communities, labor, faith-based and student groups will also participate. Jose Rodriguez, from the Federation of Labor Youth, is a 21-year-old sophomore from University of Houston who wants to go because “it’s about workers who are long-exploited standing up for their human rights.”

A July 19 fundraiser sponsored by Labor Council for Latin American Advancement (LCLAA) dramatizes the urgency of the immigrants’ fight for legalization. Freedom riders will only keep one half the proceeds – the remainder will go to the families of the 18 immigrants who died while locked in a sweltering truck trailer on May 18.

Organizers hope to have all riders lined up by mid-August, said Jimenez, in time for the group to be presented at the annual Harris County AFL-CIO Labor Day event.

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