If you knew there was something exerting a downward pressure on working conditions for Americans, wouldn’t you want to do something about it?
Well, there is. And labor unions have been working hard to fix it.
They have been recruiting and organizing illegal immigrants. It is important that these workers be organized, because if they can be taken advantage of and mistreated, so can you. This is the message labor unions in America have been getting out for years now.
An undocumented workforce that’s too afraid to bargain for better working conditions is a boon to big business in this country, according to Teamsters President James Hoffa. When illegal immigrants can’t organize, all workers face downward pressure on their wages. He urges Congress to create a path for legalization for illegal immigrants.
The AFL-CIO agrees. The organization began formal ties with an association of day laborers several years ago, with hopes of taking pressure off wages paid to local union members. Change to Win, a coalition of unions that splintered off from the AFL-CIO in 2005, organizes illegal immigrants as well.
One of its affiliated unions is the Laborers International Union of North America (LIUNA), which has been organizing construction workers for over a century. The group believes that immigration reform must:
Protect all workers, whether immigrant or not, with the same strong labor laws, including prevailing wage protections, so that employers cannot use a worker’s status as an excuse to drive down wages and working conditions for all workers.
If you think this is going over well with rank-and-file union members, you can forget it. LIUNA spokespeople admit that a lot of their members don’t like the idea of having illegal immigrants in the union. But union leaders say they have to do what’s necessary to keep the wage floor up. That effects everybody working in America.
Last summer AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka addressed this issue. In a speech he gave in Cleveland, he spoke about the history of immigrant labor in America and about some of the complaints lodged against the immigrant forebears of many union members.
And yet today I hear from working people who should know better, some in my own family – that those immigrants are taking our jobs, ruining our country. Haven’t we been here before?
When I hear that kind of talk, I want to say, did an immigrant move your plant overseas? Did an immigrant take away your pension? Or cut your health care? Did an immigrant destroy American workers’ right to organize? Or crash the financial system? Did immigrant workers write the trade laws that have done so much harm to Ohio?
In discussing the need for what people refer to as comprehensive immigration reform, Trumka talks about what lies at the heart of our failed immigration policy.
Too many U.S. employers actually like the current state of the immigration system – a system where immigrants are both plentiful and undocumented – afraid and available.
The current system provides employers with an endless supply of socially and legally powerless cheap labor, he says.
This is what is driving down working conditions and wages for all American workers, the unions are telling us. Until we get some meaningful immigration reform in this country, these people need to be organized.
What the unions seem to be saying, in summary, is: Look, folks, we didn’t create this immigration mess. But like everybody else, we’ve got to address it and deal with it. We’re here to organize and advocate on behalf of workers. All workers. We’ve got to look out for illegal immigrants in the workforce because it’s the only way, under the circumstances, we can look out for you.
Are there any takers?