Efforts by employers and the INS to regulate the supply of immigrant labor are certain to be met with fierce opposition from unions, however. Many have begun to see immigrant workers as the key to their survival, convincing them that the century-old hostility toward immigrants by part of the labor movement must be reversed.
In late September, the Labor Center at UCLA and the county Federation of Labor brought together unions involved in immigrant-based campaigns and autonomous organizations of immigrant workers themselves.
Miguel Contreras, federation secretary-treasurer, says labor has an enormous stake in immigrants as the base of the L.A. economy shifts. “We used to have one local alone in Burbank with 30,000 members,” he recalls, referring to Lockheed. “Now there are none. Bethlehem’s gone. The tire industry is gone.” In their place, he says, are hundreds of smaller shops on the Alameda Corridor, where 500,000 workers, almost all immigrants, are employed in nonunion jobs.
“If we‘re going to organize L.A.,” he declares, “we have to organize immigrants.”
To do that, unions must oppose current immigration-law enforcement, according to labor activists. “We cannot continue to accept employer sanctions,” urges Jose de Paz, who staffed L.A. labor’s pioneer effort to organize immigrant workers, the California Immigrant Workers Association.
The AFL-CIO supported employer sanctions at the time the immigration law was adopted in 1986.
“It‘s sad that in 1999 we’re still thinking about our position on this,” laments union leader Vazquez. “We have to look at the future clearly, and see what‘s coming.”
Vazquez and de Paz now articulate the mainstream position in the most active unions. Labor councils throughout the country, including those in Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York and the Silicon Valley, have circulated a resolution calling for repealing sanctions. They’re supported by the Service Employees, Laborers, UNITE, the UFW and other international unions.
The AFL-CIO plans to conduct town-hall hearings in four cities throughout the country following its convention in Los Angeles this week, to hear testimony from immigrant workers whose rights were violated by the use of immigration law.
The testimony they present is likely to reflect the experience of Dolores Alcala. Like most immigrants, she expresses a mixture of gratitude to the U.S. for affording her economic opportunity and anger over her exploitation. Alcala was only 11 years old when she went to work in the green-onion fields in the Mexicali Valley, just below the border. She left for the other side when she was 15.
“I was afraid to come here, especially by myself, but my need was stronger,” she remembers. “My family went hungry all the time, and I just needed to eat. My mom and dad are still back there.”
In Los Angeles, she found a job in a garment sweatshop. “What I didn‘t expect was so much discrimination, so much abuse, especially in the factory,” she says. She holds both her boss and the law responsible.
“We all have a right to work and eat,” she says. “Immigration law is just trampling on all of us.”