Labor returns to its roots: Bringing immigrants out of the shadows

WASHINGTON – Declaring “the voices against immigration are colored by bigotry – and there’s no soft way to say that,” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka launched a federation-wide drive for activists to counter it with education: Educating the undocumented on how to legalize themselves.

Trumka’s speech here on Mar. 31 kicked off the two and a half day Adalante – We Rise – conference and the campaign by the same name.  The D.C. conference is training 200 activists on how to help the undocumented workers gather needed proof of residence in the U.S., so they can register for work permits and eventual legal status here.

The activists will then return to their home unions and locals and train others in the massive effort, Adalante organizers said.

The campaign is needed to help the estimated four to five million undocumented adult workers in the U.S. who currently toil in the economic shadows, Trumka and other participants said.  Under President Obama’s executive order of last November, they could register with officials and avoid deportations, except for those with criminal records.

The order is on hold, as a result of a conservative Texas federal judge’s decision.  And the Democratic president’s foes – the right wing, the anti-Hispanic forces, and many congressional Republicans – are trying to overturn his executive order.

But in the meantime, unions are taking the lead in helping the threatened adults.  And the AFL-CIO called the conference to both launch the federation-wide campaign and to have the pro-worker activists trade ideas and best practices.

Our goals are “to build and share our understanding of what immigration implementation means for the labor movement, to generate a field plan for that and to create a national network with community and pro-immigrant groups” to carry out the registration drive, the conference chair said.

Some unions are already taking the lead in aiding the undocumented – as well as aiding Hispanic-named workers and Asian workers, documented or not, within their ranks.  Asian-named workers, like Hispanic-named workers, often suffer from being labeled undocumented.

That’s what Roofers Local 11 in Chicago is doing, since its membership is now 45 – 50 percent Hispanic-named, Business Agent Jeff Eppenstein told Trumka during the Q&A after the speech.  His local hired Reuben Barbarossa, a Spanish-speaking organizer, to reach out to Spanish-speaking building trades workers, especially on the city’s South Side.

Maria Dominguez, a first-grade blingual teacher from Austin, Texas, told Trumka that “I benefited” from a prior Obama initiative: DACA, the decision to grant 2-year renewable work permits to young people who attend or graduate college or serve in the military, but who were brought to the U.S. as little children, undocumented.

Obama’s new initiative and the AFL-CIO drive to help people register under it “will help a lot of families like mine,” Rodriguez said.  “My mother was an undocumented single parent who raised four kids.”

Hearing Rodriguez’ story, and how she has used her education here to teach others in need, Trumka replied: “We all benefited.”

Trumka also noted that organized labor’s new push to help the undocumented workers register and become legal is, in a way, a return to its roots.  Earlier immigrants, then from Southern and Eastern Europe – such as his father and grandfather – comprised a large share of union members, he pointed out.

In those days, his own union, the Mine Workers, “printed its journal in 13 different languages,” Trumka said.  “We turned our union halls into places of citizenship.”

And bringing the undocumented workers into the regular economy will benefit all workers, Trumka and delegates agreed.  That’s the reason for the initiative, to help those workers enter into the regular workforce.

U.S. immigration policy is “a broken system that drives wages down for everyone,” native and undocumented, regardless of occupation, he said to one Laborers delegate. And Trumka urged them not to give up on lobbying lawmakers to pass comprehensive immigration reform, including a path to eventual citizenship.  In the last Congress, the then-Democratic-run Senate approved comprehensive reform, including a 13-year trek to citizenship for the undocumented, on a bipartisan vote. The GOP leaders of the House refused to even bring the measure up. 

A “key piece of the raising wages agenda is a workable pathway to citizenship” for the undocumented workers, he said. This year, the GOP-run Congress is considering piecemeal measures, starting with increased border security – as the right demands mass deportations.  Deportation and its consequences of split families and orphaned children is “indefensible, it’s wrenching and it’s wrong,” Trumka declared.  Citizenship is not on the GOP agenda.

“There are fights coming up” over immigration reform, “but don’t let anyone tell you you can’t do it,” Trumka said of passing a comprehensive overhaul.  The activists agreed.

“We are getting people out of the shadows and taking away the greatest tool of employer retaliation” against organizing drives, namely calling in immigration enforcement agents when workers stand up for themselves, Angie Wei of the California Labor Federation said during the Q&A.  “And we are opening up our halls so they (the workers) can say: ‘The union helped me get out of the shadows.'”

Photo: Jacquelyn Martin/AP


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 tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.