Nation | Elections

How The Labor Movement Did A 180 On Immigration

NPR | Feb. 5, 2013 3:36 p.m.

Contributed By:

Don Gonyea

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka leaves after meeting with President Barack Obama on Tuesday to discuss immigration reform, economy and deficit reduction.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka leaves after meeting with President Barack Obama on Tuesday to discuss immigration reform, economy and deficit reduction.

Alex Wong, Getty Images

The AFL-CIO has been one of the fiercest proponents of rewriting U.S. immigration policy in recent years. But it wasn’t long ago that unions viewed illegal workers in the U.S. as a threat and fought against proposals that would lead to citizenship.

Then 13 years ago the AFL-CIO abruptly reversed that policy and joined the call for greater rights for illegal immigrants.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka recently referenced the labor movement’s history with immigration law changes in a YouTube message to members. Labor begins a big push this week to build momentum for comprehensive changes to immigration law. The topic, Trumka said, “hasn’t always been an easy one for our movement.”

To say immigration hasn’t been an easy topic for labor is an understatement. For decades, labor saw illegal workers as the enemy. The AFL-CIO wanted them kept out — period. It felt an expansion of the available pool of workers bad for unions. The low wages undocumented immigrants earned made it even worse. This was still the labor federation’s official position for decades and through the 1990s, says labor analyst Harley Shaiken.

“This was a time where labor had gone through decades of being buffeted, sometimes being slammed by forces of globalization. So the fear was ‘How do we preserve what we found so hard with such sacrifice to get in the first place?’” says Shaiken.

Shaiken says labor’s response was predictable: to circle the wagons. “But that’s not a tenable position,” says Shaiken. “That just results in further shrinkage.”

That position changed abruptly in 2000 when the executive council of the AFL-CIO voted to reverse itself, calling for undocumented immigrants to be granted citizenship. It was the result of years of internal pressure from unions representing service workers, a large number of whom were Latino. At the time, Ana Avendano was with the United Food and Commercial Workers. She said unions like hers argued that existing immigration policy allowed employers to take advantage of such workers. It was a union-busting tool.

“More and more unions and other work organizations on the ground started to recognize that the way the immigration law was structured was actually a union-busting tool. It was another way for employers to just strip workers of their rights,” says Avendano. “In other words, whenever a worker complained about their wages about sexual harassment or tried to form a union, all the employer had to do was call Immigration and they could deport away their problem.”

Avendano is now with the AFL-CIO. She says that day in 2000 was historic because the organization recognized the struggles of illegal workers, making their cause the AFL-CIO’s cause. Louis DeSipio, a professor of Chicano/Latino Studies at the University of California, Irvine, says the AFL-CIO had its eye on potential new members and that the move was a recognition of changing national and union demographics.

“The fastest growing unions have been the service sector unions and those are overwhelmingly made up of immigrants and family members of immigrants,” says DeSipio. “So for unions to represent their membership, they have to be sensitive to the family concerns that drive support for legalization.”

Prior to 2000, both parties were divided on immigration. Democrats had ethnic interest groups on one side and unions on the other. While Republicans were divided between social conservatives and business interests, the union shift united Democrats and gave labor more clout. For Republicans, the internal fight over immigration continues. This has put the Democrats well ahead of the GOP on this issue at a time when Latino voters are growing in numbers and power.

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