Viva la Union

In an aging strip mall in Worthington, Minnesota, just down the way from a gravestone shop and the local Wal-Mart, the withering U.S. labor movement is showing signs of life.

The Local 1161 office of the United Food and Commercial Workers’ union is frenetic with the energy of people under siege. It’s been three days since U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) rounded up 230 people at the Swift & Company meatpacking plant — the lifeblood of this community of 11,000 — in a six-state raid billed as ICE’s largest workplace action. The agency nabbed nearly 1,300 workers nationwide on December 12, suspecting most of immigration violations but loudly trumpeting the ‘large scale identity theft scheme’ of a few dozen who may have used false or stolen documents to get a spot on the line.

Here in Worthington, the union, churches, and the community are dealing with the raid’s human fallout. Children have been left without parents, families are scared to leave their homes for fear of arrest, family members are unsure of how to pick up the much-needed paychecks of detained loved ones.

At the Local 1161 office, activists pace the floor, hands clutching cell phones and fliers. A young man who runs the kitchen at a nearby diner unloads groceries bought with the money his manager told him to take from the register. The local’s president roots through a makeshift food bank in search of baby formula and diapers. Dazed workers stream in the door.

They represent the needs of the most vulnerable segment of the U.S. workforce — the undocumented immigrants who, we are now told, are stealing not only our jobs, but our identities, too. One man wants to know if it’s safe for his sister to go back to work. Another waits to meet with a volunteer attorney in the back room. Another sits quietly, his 3-year-old daughter squirming in his lap, and asks about a leave of absence to look after his girls now that their mother has been deported to Mexico. His union agent, Darin Rehnelt, dials the plant’s human resources department for perhaps the hundredth time this week.

Mariano Espinoza, who heads the Minnesota Immigrant Freedom Network, a St. Paul-based advocacy group coordinating many of the efforts here, leans in a doorway and observes the scene. A browned newspaper clipping hangs on the wall, declaring, in Spanish, ‘The union has changed with the times.’ This place is unique, Espinoza says: It’s an example of a union embracing an immigrant community and defending it with fervor. Rehnelt puts it a different way. ‘We just represent workers,’ he says. ‘If they work there, we represent them.’

From shop floors to Washington headquarters, unions are waking up to the immigrant workers in their midst, promoting their cause and tapping their numbers for strength. This shift marks a radical turnabout from the 1980s, when the old guard AFL-CIO lobbied for companies to be penalized for employing illegal immigrants, and blue-collar workers and union stewards alike shunned them as usurpers sinking wages.

In recent years, immigrants have shed the yoke of infiltrator and donned the cape of tenacious underdog, revitalizing an anemic labor movement struggling to maintain its relevance. Immigrants have provided the backbone for high-profile successes such as the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Justice for Janitors campaign, which ensures fair wages and benefits for the workers who clean up after corporate America.

Outside the union fold, immigrants are at the forefront of new strategies to protect workers, most notably the ‘worker centers’ multiplying across the country. Leaving behind labor’s primary tool of collective bargaining (and the legal strictures that accompany it), these organizations are focusing on servicing immigrant communities. They educate workers about their rights, provide language training and educational opportunities, give legal assistance, go to bat for workers seeking back wages or fair pay, and push public policy reform — all within an organization that places a premium on developing leaders and ensuring that all members’ voices are heard. In a sign of the groups’ growing import, the AFL-CIO announced strategic partnerships last year with two worker center networks, the National Day Laborer Organizing Network and Interfaith Worker Justice.

Immigrants have made such gains despite uniquely high barriers — language, culture, the threat of deportation — and especially exploitive conditions. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, foreign-born workers not only earn less than the native born, they’re also more likely to die or be injured on the job.

‘Hazards that most Americans think we got rid of in the 1920s are routine for immigrant workers,’ says Jennifer Gordon, associate professor of law at Fordham University and the author of Suburban Sweatshops: The Fight for Immigrant Rights (Harvard University Press, 2005). And companies get away with it. Though undocumented immigrants are entitled to the same workplace health and safety protections as all workers, they often fear that they’ll lose their jobs or be tipped off to immigration officials if they complain or report injuries. What’s more, explains Gordon, since the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2002 ruling in Hoffman Plastic Compound, Inc. v. National Labor Relations Board, companies can act with impunity against undocumented immigrants trying to shore up their rights by supporting a union drive. Unlike other workers, illegal immigrants fired for union organizing are not protected by the National Labor Relations Act’s guarantees of reinstatement or back pay — the two major disincentives for union busting.

The exploitation of immigrants, particularly undocumented ones, offers an alarming glimpse of how companies would structure employment if they were unfettered by worker protections. It is a world that U.S. citizens seem oddly blind to, despite imploding pensions, diminishing benefits, increasing productivity demands, and an onslaught of government and corporate policies that defang what little power unions have left. Ironically, even when native workers recognize the erosion of their hard-won rights, they tend to view immigrants as culprits rather than fellow (and worse-off) victims. It’s a decades-old story, updated for the latest wave of immigrants: Latinos, Asians, and other newcomers who are willing to work for next to nothing have wrecked the American dream of a lifelong job that will pay for retirement and send the kids to college.

In her new book, L.A. Story: Immigrant Workers and the Future of the U.S. Labor Movement (Russell Sage Foundation, 2006), Ruth Milkman goes a long way toward debunking that myth. Milkman, director of the Institute of Industrial Relations at UCLA, shows how deregulation and employer attacks on unions in the 1970s and 1980s degraded wages, benefits, and working conditions in four Los Angeles sectors: building cleaning, garment work, residential construction, and port trucking. In this well-researched analysis, immigrants didn’t flood these sectors with cheap labor and drive native workers out; they filled the void left by native workers who found decent-wage work elsewhere. Immigrants eventually filled the void in union ranks as well, providing the numbers and sacrifices necessary to turn Los Angeles from organized labor’s lost cause into its revitalizing engine.

Progressives in particular would do well to wise up to immigrants’ potential. As Roberto Lovato points out on the political website (Dec. 22, 2006), his cohorts are botching their chance to engage the fastest-growing part of the population — and the part that knows how to mobilize. Just look, he says, at the marches last spring, when Latino immigrants effectively euthanized proposed federal anti-immigration legislation by turning out the biggest simultaneous protests this country has ever seen.

‘Rather than embrace the movimiento as an extension of the Midwestern immigrant history that gave us the eight-hour work day, the end of child labor, and other industrial-age victories at the heart of the progressive movement,’ Lovato writes, ‘too many of my progressive friends responded to the immigrant rights movement with limited curiosity, while remaining in front of their computer screens besotted by the spectacular achievements of digital age electoral politics that largely define progressivism today.’

Some unions, like Local 1161 in Worthington, have started to catch on, and it’s time that the rest of Americans did, too. That will mean communities and unions recognizing the plight of immigrant workers as the plight of neighbors and coworkers. And it will no doubt take new models for a labor movement of the 21st century. As Mariano Espinoza points out, fewer than 10 percent of private sector workers are represented by unions. Even with unions and worker centers stepping up to the plate, it’s just not enough to give all workers a fair shake. ‘We need a new formula,’ he says.

New formulas are in the works. Janice Fine, assistant professor at Rutgers University School of Management and Labor Relations and an activist who has worked extensively on worker centers, wants to see a reimagination of the craft guild, her idea being that a union would follow an employee from job to job, providing benefits, training, and services. Stephen Lerner, the mastermind behind the SEIU Justice for Janitors campaign, thinks it’s time for unions to follow the multinationals and go global. The ideas are out there: Unions are talking about them, and immigrants are talking about them. It’s time that we listen, for all our sakes.

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