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
Opposition from unions and the Latino and AsianPacific Islander communities to guest-worker programs stems from the historical record of the old bracero program, under which growers brought contract farm workers from Mexico during the 1940s and ‘50s. Cesar Chavez was able to begin organizing the United Farm Workers only when workers became free of the contract-labor system. While guaranteed labor rights on paper, so-called guest workers depend on the continuation of a job to remain in the country. Employers therefore not only have the power to fire workers who protest bad conditions and organize, but in effect to deport them as well.
The official position of the AFL-CIO opposes the expansion of existing programs, and calls for labor protections for guest workers. But that position is likely to harden. ”I don’t think it‘s possible to have labor protections for contract workers,“ says Wilhelm, who heads the federation’s immigration committee. ”To think the law will protect people whose right to stay in the country ends with their job is not living in the real world.“
While fighting guest-worker schemes, labor is preparing to introduce its own program. ”We‘re also going to put forward a comprehensive agenda, which will include legalization, repeal of employer sanctions, and workplace protections regardless of legal status,“ Medina says. At the immigration march in Oakland, the new president of the Laborers International Union, Terence O’Sullivan (also a member of the AFL-CIO immigration committee), announced support for five general proposals, including a broad legalization program, repeal of employer sanctions, opposition to contract labor, and protection for the right to organize. A fifth point, especially important to Asian-American immigrants, calls for increased ability to reunite families in the U.S.
Illinois Congressman Luis Gutierrez introduced one bill at the end of January to end discrimination against Central American and Haitian refugees, and another at the beginning of February to move the immigration-registry date closer to 2001, allowing those immigrants who arrived before to normalize their status. No bill repealing sanctions or containing the other program points has been introduced yet, however.
Despite Republican control of both the White House and Congress, labor strategists think real reform is possible. ”There is a coalition out there which can win,“ Medina emphasizes. ”We need immigrant communities to unite. We have to strengthen labor support, and we need churches, especially the Catholic Church, which has historically been the most active. Even some sectors of business will support us.“
Wilhelm says, ”We‘re going to go to all members of Congress and ask them to sign on. If we can get the Democrats, and part of the Republicans, we can make a great law. If not, this will be our opportunity to punish those who oppose it on a national level, the way Pete Wilson and the Republicans were punished in California.“
He compares the potential impact of the immigrant vote to that of African-Americans. ”The Democratic Party can rely on the votes of African-Americans today because some people in it supported the African-American freedom movement. Those who didn’t are still paying the price. It‘s going to be the same with the votes of immigrants.“
While immigrant-rights advocates have traditionally seen immigration as a civil rights issue, not all parts of the civil rights movement do so. In part, this is due to the way the U.S. economy pits workers against each other. In Silicon Valley, African-American and Latino engineers have waged a protracted effort to break down discriminatory barriers in high-tech hiring. In the debate over HI-B, civil rights groups pointed out that increasing the number of contract-labor visas makes it more difficult to open up jobs for engineers of color, in an industry where the percentage of African-American and Latino engineers is very low.
In Los Angeles, the wave of immigrants that has provided the votes now changing its political landscape, and that has become the backbone of union-organizing drives among janitors and hotel workers, also displaced an earlier generation of African-American workers in those same industries. ”Twenty years ago, our union was heavily reliant on black workers, many of whom were leaders of our locals,“ Wilhelm says. ”Today, hotels and janitorial contractors no longer hire them. The work force should fairly reflect the community. It’s not responsible to support the rights of immigrant workers and not support people who‘ve paid their dues, and I don’t mean union dues.“ L.A.‘s Local 11 is going to the hotels this year to ask them to address the matter. If they don’t, the union plans to organize a campaign to force the issue.
Republican support for bracero programs may actually clarify the immigration debate. Republicans, the AFL-CIO and immigrant-rights activists all agree on one thing: The choice to be made is not over what will or won‘t stop people from coming across the border, but over their status in the U.S.
Migrant Rights International, based in Switzerland, estimates that 150 million people in the world live outside their countries of birth. Neoliberal economic reforms, and the transfer of enormous wealth from developing to developed countries, make survival impossible for millions of people. Many cope by migrating to countries with greater employment possibilities and higher standards of living.