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February 02, 2005

Organizing the so-called "unorganizeable"

Unions always need to do more outreach to immigrants and communities of color. That's a given. But it drives me a bit nuts when I see a flat statement from writers like Laura Wildman at TAPPED who states that the problem is unions are ignoring immigrants: "undocumented workers, for example, who are viewed suspiciously at best by unions, and those who work below the radar in industries and areas that unions either are too inflexible to reach or haven't considered."

"Suspiciously"? Unions are organizing immigrants in large numbers and the AFL-CIO has come out strongly for legalization of undocumented immigrants in the US. Read the main AFL-CIO page on immigration for a taste of unions' pro-immigrant views. (Which is notably more pro-immigrant that TAPPED itself was a couple of years ago when it had posts condemning Richard's Gephardt's legalization legislation and saying Democrats shouldn't "pander to special interest groups like La Raza.")

Sarah cites Jennifer Gordon's work on organizing undocumented workers outside unions. Jennifer (who is a friend) has done outstanding work, but she would be the first to acknowledge the limits of what can be done using the methods she documented, if nothing else because the funding from foundations for such work is uncertain. The worker centers that Laura mentions do good work, but they are not a substitute for the work that unions are fighting to do every day.

Unions organize undocumented workers continually. They have to, because they are in so many of the workplaces they are now organizing, from restaurants to construction sites to janitorial companies. And they are delivering higher wages and better health care to tens of thousands of undocumented workers every day-- often getting them benefits from the union that they don't qualify for from the public sector. Back in 1994, for example, when California progressives promoted a single payer health care initiative, many of the unions like SEIU attacked it because it didn't offer health care for undocumented immigrants and actually would have cut-off the benefits those immigrants were receiving under union health care plans.

There is plenty to criticize about the union leaderships, but that criticism has to start with the recognition that on a host of issues, including outreach to immigrants, they are far ahead of the rest of the progressive movement nine times out of ten. As I mentioned just yesterday, 5000 janitors in northern New Jersey just got a 24% raise plus free health care benefits -- and you'd better believe that a large number are undocumented.

It's just frustrating to hear progressives at places like TAPPED engaging in the cliche that unions are "suspicious" of immigrant workers or are ignoring their concerns. In the more than fifteen years I've been around the labor movement, I can't think of an issue that people I know have obsessed about more than how to organize such workers. Again, there are some union leaders that aren't perfect on the issue, but the top leadership of the AFL and most of its individual union leaders are incredibly committed to doing this organizing. They face structural and legal barriers beyond belief in doing so, but they are still out fighting every day.

Posted by Nathan at February 2, 2005 06:53 PM