By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
The Palm Canyon scenario is not an anomaly -- immigrants represent a section of the work force with a long track record of labor activism. Defending their right to organize clearly benefits unions. ”Every period of significant growth in the labor movement was fueled by organizing activity among immigrant workers,“ Wilhelm says. ”We’re a labor movement of immigrants, and we always have been.“
Last February, the AFL-CIO executive council adopted a resolution calling for immigration amnesty for the country‘s 6 million undocumented, and the repeal of employer sanctions. The federation also organized a series of hearings to expose the violation of immigrant workers’ rights. The last hearing, in Los Angeles in June, drew 20,000 people, who filled the Sports Arena and spilled over into the streets outside.
The hearings were backed up by marches around the country. In January, the Labor Immigrant Organizing Network organized a march of 5,000 people through Oakland‘s Latino Fruitvale neighborhood -- the third labor-backed immigrant-rights march in Northern California in a year, following ones in San Jose and Sacramento.
Given the outpouring of labor support for reform, many immigrant activists assumed that the AFL-CIO’s change in position would result in a major campaign for amnesty and for repealing sanctions. Yet no bill was introduced into Congress last year calling for this. Instead, in April, Henry Cisneros, past secretary of housing and urban development, proposed that unions and immigrant communities support expansion of the H-IB program, which supplies contract labor to high-tech industry. In return, he suggested, Congress could be persuaded to pass proposals to end discrimination against Central American and Haitian refugees, to gain fair treatment for late applicants for the last immigration amnesty, and other reforms.
Cisneros‘ prediction was wrong. The Republican majority in Congress was ultimately able to pass H-IB without those amendments (the vote in the House was unanimous, and only Ernest Hollings dissented in the Senate). No campaign was mounted against H-IB expansion by unions or civil rights groups.
”I don’t think the H-IB strategy was the right one,“ says Eliseo Medina, executive vice president of the Service Employees International Union and a leading immigration strategist. ”High-tech was only interested in its own issue, and had no desire to link it to any broader program. We also tried to pass a more limited set of reforms, and in the end, we got a minor amnesty, which may affect 600,000 to 800,000 people.“
The administration pledged support to these more limited goals, and for presidential candidate Al Gore, the absence in Congress of a broad amnesty bill repealing sanctions was good news. He didn‘t have to open himself up to a Republican attack by supporting such a proposal, or lose the Latino vote in states like California by opposing it.
With the Bush administration in office, the political terrain is changing quickly. In January, Texas Senator Phil Gramm, the most anti-immigrant voice in Congress, flew to Mexico City to meet new Mexican President Vicente Fox, a former Coca-Cola executive with close links to major Mexican and U.S. corporations. On his return, Gramm announced that he and Fox had discussed a vast expansion of bracero contract-labor programs. ”We have got a lot of people interested in this issue and believe the time has come to stop sweeping this under the rug,“ Gramm told reporters. ”It is delusional not to recognize that illegal aliens already hold millions of jobs in the United States with the implicit permission of governments at every level, as well as companies and communities.“
President Bush’s visit to Fox last month also led to flowery proclamations of their mutual interest in protecting immigrants. Under the rhetoric, however, the two administrations will probably be able to agree on only one significant change in U.S. immigration law: an expansion of contract labor. Bush is likely to hail such programs as a way of legalizing Mexican immigrants in the U.S., hoping the claim will buy Latino votes in coming elections. At the same time, contract labor gives large sections of U.S. industry (his main campaign contributors) what they want: immigrant workers at guaranteed low wages.
Bush opposes a real immigration amnesty, which is anathema to most Republicans. Fox does support amnesty for the undocumented. But contract-labor programs would also allow it to appear that he‘s pushing opportunities for legal immigration.
U.S. agribusiness has long sought expansion of its existing guest-worker program. At the end of the last congressional session, agribusiness persuaded farm-worker unions to agree to an arrangement that would have set up a legalization program for undocumented farm laborers, in exchange for relaxation of wage and housing requirements for growers using the guest-worker program. The Republican right wing, opposing any amnesty at all, killed the proposal at the last moment. But guest-worker expansion in agriculture is sure to resurface in Congress.
In the Midwest, meatpackers want contract labor, and Nebraska Governor Mike Johanns has endorsed the idea. ”We’re going to have a big fight this year,“ union leader Medina predicts. ”The Republicans think that a stolen presidency gives them a free hand, and Gramm‘s new bracero program is going to be front and center on their agenda. I think they’ll introduce a comprehensive bill. Even nursing-home employers want guest workers now.“