Labor steps up its crusade for undocumented workers

WASHINGTON – Unionists, Latinos, undocumented workers and their allies stepped up their crusade for workplace rights for the undocumented, with a May 18 press conference highlighting what should have been a chance for millions to file for legal status.

Instead, thanks to a federal judge’s injunction in Texas, which the Obama administration is appealing, the first day of filing, May 19, will be marked by marches and demonstrations nationwide for legalization.

And it will be marked by unions stepping up their efforts to teach and coach the estimated seven million undocumented workers on how to gather the proper documents and prepare to seek the right to stay in the U.S.

“We are going to ensure workers are ready to apply for it” – legal status – “and to fight for it,” said United Food and Commercial Workers Executive Vice President Esther Lopez.

The press conference, hosted by the AFL-CIO, comes as the administration fights several Republican-dominated states – with Texas in the lead – over the executive order by President Barack Obama last November setting up a legal status program for undocumented adults (DAPA). The states are contesting his right to do that.

The judge, without ruling on the merits of the program, said Obama didn’t follow needed federal procedures for publishing such rules and inviting comments. His injunction followed. AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Tefere Gebre called it “a bump in the road.”

The advocates for the workers, including members of the Ironworkers, Unite Here and Bricklayers President Jim Boland – who chairs the AFL-CIO’s Immigration Committee – all stressed that helping regularize the status of the seven million undocumented workers would help all workers.

“How can we protect our own people when we see 20 percent of our (construction) workforce being deported?” Boland asked. The situation is even worse in specific states, he noted: Half of Texas’ construction workers are undocumented, and both vulnerable to deportation and afraid to stand up for their rights, including the right to organize.

“And is it any wonder we see large-scale wage theft” among the undocumented, added Boland, himself an Irish immigrant to the U.S. years ago. “The only ones benefiting from this are abusive employers. We say enough is enough.”

“When anybody is vulnerable at the workplace, everybody is vulnerable,” declared Salvador Sarmiento of the National Day Laborers Organizing Network.

Obama’s executive order, as well as comprehensive immigration reform, “remains in limbo,” said Lopez, whose union includes tens of thousands of Latinos in the nation’s grocery stores and meat and poultry processing plants, among other enterprises.

“To the politicians who did that, shame on you for breaking families apart. Shame on you for the racism and the ideology that is getting in the way of good public policy,” she said.

Last year, a bipartisan Senate majority approved comprehensive immigration reform, including a 13-year path to legalization for the seven million undocumented workers and the four million undocumented youth. They’re now legally in the U.S. under another Obama program, DACA, covering those in school or in the military. The GOP opposes that, too.

But while the Senate approved comprehensive immigration reform, the House GOP leadership, catering to its nativist and anti-Latino lawmakers – and their constituents – deep-sixed the measure, never even allowing a committee hearing, or a vote.

“What’s been deferred is our dream” of becoming citizens and contributing to the U.S., said worker Carlos Castillo. “They’ve been halted because of politics.”

The immigration impasse in D.C. leads Latinos and their advocates to work state by state to both pressure lawmakers and to demand interim measures to help the undocumented, such as getting them the rights to hold drivers licenses, Gebre, an immigrant, said. He explained Latinos and other immigrants are a big part of “the future of the labor movement.”

But businesses are also a problem, as they both exploit the undocumented workers, through wage theft and threats of deportation, while using their presence as leverage against other workers and their rights, the speakers said.

“We know what they think of us, how little they pay us and how little they value our labor. We have no voice on the job,” said David Benitez, an Ironworker and an El Salvadoran who immigrated to the U.S. a decade ago. Benitez and dozens of colleagues have been forced to strike a D.C. area construction firm over job safety and health issues – everything from dehydration to company pressure on workers not to report on-the-job injuries.

Other speakers noted that despite Obama’s promises to deport only people with criminal records, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Service has stepped up its cooperation with local police forces in roundups of workers nationwide – but by another name.

Lopez warned the rising Latino population would hold politicians accountable in 2016. Latinos are the nation’s largest minority group, and GOP nominee Mitt Romney’s anti-Latino, anti-immigrant stands in 2012 led to a 71 percent-27 percent Obama rout among Latino voters.

“We have questions for the candidates: Will they support DACA and DAPA? Will they oppose an enforcement-only solution? And will they support comprehensive immigration reform?” she said.

Photo: Wrongly classifying workers as independent contractors gets around laws like workers’ compensation and family and medical leave. It’s costing Texas construction workers millions, according to the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 520 in Austin. Workers Defense Project.




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. El galardonado periodista Mark Gruenberg es el director de la oficina de People's World en Washington, D.C. También es editor del servicio de noticias sindicales Press Associates Inc. (PAI).