Time for unity
Labor defense crucial for immigrant workers
Linda Averill
volume 38
issue 3
June 2017
Feb. 16, 2017 — Defiant Chicagoans take part in a Day Without Immigrants rally. Photo: Antonio Perez and Phil Velasquez / Chicago Tribune

In the lead up to May Day 2017, cities around the U.S. predicted a repeat of the historic 2006 “day-without-an-immigrant.” That anticipation was well-founded, based on the power and potential of immigrant labor to damn near shut this country down. Last January, the New York Taxi Drivers Alliance, 94 percent immigrant, went on a political strike against President Trump’s travel ban. In February, immigrants walked off jobs by the thousands, furious over the rise in abuse and bigotry that Trump’s rhetoric has fueled.

At nearly 20 percent of the labor force, immigrants are among the lowest paid and most exploited. Daily, they confront wage theft, racism, and outrageous job conditions with little, if any, protection under labor law. No wonder immigrants are fired up, fed up, and in motion.

Patience Malaba, an immigrant from Zimbabwe, and organizer with Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 6 in Seattle, is helping security guards organize at Amazon, the majority of them immigrant and Muslim. When she leads her favorite chant, “When we fight, we win!” she means it.

Malaba is helping Andinasir Elmi, a guard who spoke out on May Day about the anti-labor practices of his employer, a subcontractor for Amazon. On May 2, he was “disappeared” from the work schedule. So with Malaba, Elmi and co-workers confronted his bosses at Security Industry Specialists. Plans are underway for an escalating campaign to resist not only the retaliation, but the refusal to raise wages and halt religious persecution. Their instinct to push back exemplifies immigrant workers’ leadership in building a militant labor movement to win justice for all working people. The urgent question is whether unions will step up to the plate, stand in solidarity with immigrant workers under attack, and throw their still-considerable weight behind this rising movement for fairness.

Solidarity wanted. Since 2001, many unions started supporting immigrant rights, a step forward from the “Hire America/Buy America” jingoism of earlier years. But far too often it’s a hollow platitude, not a full-throttle reorientation. With Trump in office, some unions are catering to their more conservative, chauvinistic-thinking members, abandoning support for immigrant rights entirely, or treating it like an issue that can be outsourced to immigrant workers centers or non-profit groups. By caving to this reaction instead of educating members about the vital role immigrant workers play in labor, leaders betray unions and the entire working class.

This trend was evident in the months leading up to May Day, when many officials refused to follow the lead of immigrant workers calling for a general strike

In Puget Sound, the M.L. King County Labor Council started a committee in competition with the Latino-led coalition that has been organizing the May Day march in Seattle for 18 years. From all appearances, labor leaders planned to have a May Day event that focused more on “labor” and less on immigrants, as though the two are exclusive, and not inextricably linked. Fortunately, this was nipped in the bud. Labor officials were persuaded to scrap their divisive plan, thanks to intervention from union rank-and-filers, including Freedom Socialist Party members and the militant caucus Organized Workers for Labor Solidarity.

In Los Angeles, the main Labor Federation and Latino organizations traditionally organize separate events, weakening both efforts. Yet progress was made this year, partly through the intervention of radicals including FSP, to feature speakers who could cross-fertilize the marches and issues.

The immigrant-led national call for a May Day General Strike was refreshing, especially as unions retreat, under the threat of “right to work” laws. May Day was a golden opportunity to strengthen a labor-immigrant alliance and turn the tables on the bosses, as workers in France and Brazil are trying to do.

Instead, when resolutions for the general strike were presented, leaders in many unions used no-strike clauses to exempt themselves. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka issued a strong call of support on May Day for immigrant workers, but was silent beforehand. By failing to mobilize unions for May Day, non-union migrant workers were left more vulnerable to retaliation from bosses, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and bigots — and many stayed home as a result.

Yet some unions are blazing a path for the future. SEIU United Service Workers West, which is building alliances between Latino and African American workers, publicized its membership’s decision to support the general strike. The Library Guild in Los Angeles offered to pay the wages of members who took May Day off and lost pay. In Chicago, 1,000 teachers and students walked out of high schools to protest attacks on immigrants and public education. Other bright spots abound.

Where’s the Left? Progress was made in creating labor-immigrant unity, because migrant-led unions, radicals and socialists played a pivotal role. In Seattle, a resolution from Washington Federation of State Employees Local 304, initiated by FSP leader Steve Hoffman, supported the movement for a general strike with demands that put defense of immigrants at the top. It also spurred discussion in at least twenty unions and labor bodies along the West Coast, from Office and Professional Employees International Union to Carpenters. Militant teachers, including International Socialist Organization members, promoted a resolution to support a general strike within the Seattle Education Association. Union leaders squelched that idea by demanding a 75 percent majority strike vote, but teachers who want a fighting union gained strength by forcing the debate.

These examples are a refreshing contrast to other tendencies on the Left, which is to either ignore labor leaders entirely, or go along with their conservatism. When the Labor Council in Seattle set up its competition with the main Immigrant Rights coalition, Socialist Alternative leader Kshama Sawant retreated from her public call for a general strike and supported the council’s timid organizing. To her credit and the Labor Council’s, the competing meeting was rescheduled when criticism was raised, and Seattle City Councilor Sawant encouraged city officials to provide a May Day of Conscience where city workers could walk off their jobs.

Stand up, push back! Recently, the National Union of Healthcare Workers passed a resolution to become a sanctuary for foreign-born workers facing threats of deportation. If immigrant workers know their backs are protected by unions, they will feel safer to stand up and find ways to unionize themselves. The fact is, from New York taxi drivers to berry pickers in Washington state, immigrants are organizing regardless of retaliation and labor-law barriers. But imagine the boost this accelerating trend could get from radicals in the labor movement, through caucuses, shop floor committees, and rank-and-file groups, pushing unions and labor bodies to stand in solidarity.

Divide and conquer is the main way that corporate America keeps its profit engines stoked. Likewise, labor can stop this engine cold by the power of unions solidarizing with immigrant workers, who are organizing like gang busters and shaking up the labor movement. When unions embrace their migrant leadership and mobilize the ranks for all the issues impacting the working class, the concessions and bleeding of labor will stop.

Este artículo en español / This article in Spanish

More labor stories in this issue:

Labor Weather Report: A glance at how some workers and their unions are faring in the class struggle.

Pay equity: back-to-back wins for female athletes

A cruelly missed opportunity: Black and white workers after the Civil War