The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx

United States:
The AFL-CIO and Immigrant Workers

May 11, 1996

After the AFL-CIO convention last October chose a new leadership team led by John J. Sweeney, Richard Trumka and Linda Chavez Thompson, they held a rally in the heart of New York City’s heavily immigrant garment center. The rally’s purpose was to underline the AFL-CIO’s first priority: massive new organizing activities.

The leaders of AFL-CIO recognize that it is a question of survival. The unions are in long term decline. Last year the unions lost another 388,000 members, bringing their percentage of the work force down from 15.5% to 14.9%. Unionization of private non agricultural industries, what used to be the main base of the unions, has fallen to just over 10%, or close to single digits.

The rally was also to show that the AFL-CIO intends to organize low wage industries, like garment, which are worked heavily by immigrants, including those without documents. In some parts of the country, like California, immigrant labor constitutes an important, and growing part of the work force, both in industry and services. And most are not in unions.

The AFL-CIO Discovers the Need to Organize Immigrant Workers

This turn by the AFL-CIO is not exactly new. Labor officials have been discussing it for two decades.

Up until about 20 years ago, union apparatuses considered immigrants, especially undocumented immigrants, to be scabs and union busters, an instrument of the unions decline. The immigrant wave had provided the employers with a seemingly endless supply of cheap labor which the employers set into competition with unionized labor.

The unions’ response to this onslaught was to try to limit the competition for jobs by trying to keep the immigrants out. They wanted to keep them out of the country, and so they called on the government to step up its border patrols. They tried to keep them off the job, thus pushing for employer sanctions against hiring undocumented workers. Some unions, like the construction crafts, were not above calling the INS on undocumented workers at work sites. Even the union most famous for having been built by recent immigrants, a symbol of the fight against racism and discrimination against Chicanos, Cesar Chavez’s United Farm Workers, sometimes called the INS on undocumented immigrants who were being brought into the fields to break strikes.

Obviously, this strategy of exclusion was a disaster. It played right into the employers’ hands. The unions actually aided the employers in turning the workers against each other, who blamed each other for taking each others’ jobs. And the workers, immigrant and non immigrant alike, paid the price. The number of low wage, non union jobs increased. Meanwhile for union workers, there were plant closings, outsourcing, etc. Indicative of what was happening was the change in the construction industry: in the 1940s, 80% of the construction trades were unionized; by the 1990s, it was down to 20%.

By 1975, a handful of unions, like the ILGWU, which were based in industries where the work force was increasingly dominated by this new wave of immigrants, documented and undocumented, had begun to raise the problem of organizing immigrant workers. The ILGWU set up a separate division of their union for immigrants. Other unions slowly began to follow suit.

The turn by the AFL-CIO was slow and tentative. This can be shown by the evolution of its positions on immigrant legislation. In 1975, the AFL-CIO opposed the idea of an amnesty for undocumented immigrants. In other words, they were wholly restrictionist. By the 1980s, the AFL-CIO had come around to supporting amnesty, but only coupled with sanctions on employers who continue to hire undocumented immigrants. The AFL-CIO helped write the 1986 immigration law. They presented employer sanctions as a tool to discipline employers, when in fact it was aimed at immigrant workers. Their position at the time was: legalize some immigrants but not too many, and don’t let them take too many jobs.

In the late 1980s, the AFL-CIO finally concluded that supporting employer sanctions may have been a mistake. Sanctions were just another excuse to discriminate against some workers. And that meant first of all, against any immigrant worker suspected of being a union militant. By 1990, the AFL-CIO was calling for more humane enforcement of sanctions. By 1993 the AFL-CIO went further and Sweeney called for repeal of employer sanctions.

Thus the AFL-CIO was forced, step by step, to change what it said. By the late 1980s Sweeney was arguing, "SEIU is organizing a new wave of immigrants... For them and for us, it’s a matter of survival ... To defend themselves, these immigrant workers must form unions... That’s true for the rest of us, too. To defend ourselves, SEIU must bring the new immigrants in the industries we represent into the union. Otherwise, we cannot defend ourselves against the employers’ demand for lower wages."

AFL-CIO Efforts So Far

The first barrier the unions had to hurdle was the fact that they were cut off from immigrant workers of course, due mainly to their own policy. First, they had to make contact at the most basic level. In 1987, the California AFL-CIO created CIWA (California Immigrant Workers Association). CIWA was set up right after Congress had passed IRCA, the immigration reform. IRCA granted amnesty to undocumented immigrants who could prove that they had been in the country since 1982. So CIWA provided help to those workers to apply for the amnesty program, as well as classes in English and U.S. history, which they needed to gain permanent residency status, a green card. They also offered cheaper health insurance, as well as a union credit card. In this way, the unions gained some contacts and culled organizing leads.

In 1988, Sweeney’s union, the SEIU (Service Employee International Union) began the Justice for Janitors campaign in 10 cities. This campaign was somewhat more ambitious than what union organizers had been doing previously. They decided to forego the usual slow, legalistic procedures of the NLRA, shop by shop, that had netted the unions fewer and fewer union recognition victories and new members. Instead they decided to try to organize an entire sector through strikes and demonstrations and bring it under one master contract. In most of the cities, the janitors are immigrants and many are women.

The SEIU’s biggest success was in Los Angeles, where the janitors are mainly from Mexico and Central America, and a high proportion are undocumented. The workers carried out several hard strikes, and their demonstrations sometimes clashed with the police. Eight thousand workers were unionized, and the unionization rate of janitors working in the high rises went from 30 to 90%. Altogether, including in the rest of the cities, the SEIU says the campaign has gained about 35,000 members.

The SEIU and AFL-CIO held up the Justice for Janitors campaign as the exemplary organizing campaign, and no doubt it helped secure Sweeney’s reputation in his run for the presidency of the AFL-CIO.

But at the same time that this campaign was going on, there were a couple of other strikes in Los Angeles, which showed that immigrant workers could win unions by organizing strikes on their own.

In 1991, 1,200 foundry workers at American Racing Wheel went out on a three day wildcat over speed up. The strike ended after management conceded a five percent wage increase. Only after the strike did the IAM come in to sign the workers up.

A year later 4,000 non union drywallers, all from Mexico and many undocumented, walked off the job in six counties in southern California over pay cuts. They set up flying squadrons, closed down work sites and spread the strike. Mass arrests by police and raids by the INS did not stop them. The strike lasted over five months until 20 building contractors ceded to the workers and agreed to a contract. The contractors restored pay to what it had been. The workers also won health benefits and union recognition. Said Miguel Caballero, the legal director of CIWA, "It was a historic event. It was the first time you had this large group of Mexican immigrants looking over their economic situation, deciding on their own without a union to walk off the job, and pull the union and the other institutions with them. It gives a big boost to the people in the labor movement, who are arguing for more organizing."

These two strikes, along with the Justice for Janitors campaign, have now encouraged 10 unions to come up with a more ambitious plan, which they call LAMAP, the Los Angeles Manufacturing Action Project. LAMAP’s goal is to organize L.A.’s Alameda corridor, a dense 21 mile strip of factories and warehouses that is one of the largest industrial concentrations in the country. Most of the workforce is immigrant. The plan is to once again forego the shop by shop NLRB procedures, in favor of organizing the workers on an industry by industry basis. This plan was announced in the fall of 1994 and is still in its initial stages.

Unions That Fight for Low Wages

Thus, the AFL-CIO began to court the very immigrant workers whom it used to oppose and blame. But this positive change in one aspect of the AFL-CIO policy does not mean a change in its basic and more general stance. On the contrary, the AFL-CIO remains bureaucratic, willing to go along with the U.S. bosses and bourgeoisie and to rely on class collaboration rather than on the class struggle. It is this stance that is responsible not only for the deteriorating conditions that the working class faces, but for the decline of the unions themselves and their inability to organize larger sections of workers, immigrants or native born.

Thus, the AFL-CIO has imposed concessions on recently unionized immigrant workers, just as it has on the rest of the unionized work force. The janitors in L.A. found that out the hard way.

In the spring of 1995, after the janitors had won union recognition, the SEIU announced that it had achieved what promised to be a historic breakthrough: a master contract covering the whole industry in L.A. In fact, this six year contract turned out to keep wages extremely low, with only small benefit gains. For most janitors, who had fought hard and risked a lot, this contract was a betrayal. So the janitors tried to exercise their democratic rights in their new union by voting out the local union officials a few months later. At that point the SEIU International stepped in and put the local under its receivership. This was the great Justice for Janitors victory that the SEIU and AFL-CIO officials have not stopped boasting about.

What would encourage workers in the low paying sweatshops, foundries, plastic molding plants and nursing homes which the unions are now trying to organize, if unions give them no hope of a real change in conditions and pay? What is the point of joining a union if it means the bosses just impose the same low wages as before, which is what happened to the janitors?

In a city like Los Angeles, with its millions of unorganized workers, the unions are still organizing only 4,000 or 5,000 new members a year. Certainly the time period weighs on the unions’ efforts to organize. But what part is played in this dismal result by the unions’ own bureaucratic and class collaborationist policies ?

Different Messages to Different Workers

AFL-CIO officials have said some fine things over the last years about how immigrants should not be scapegoated. Of course, if they are to have any chance of organizing some of these workers, they have to say it.

But this does not mean that they have abandoned their old policy of playing on the chauvinistic or corporatist prejudices of their own members. In many different ways, the AFL-CIO continues to tell workers that foreigners are taking jobs. The AFL-CIO continues to call on the U.S. government to beef up the Border Patrol to exclude more immigrants from coming into the country. The union officials repeat the same old lie that, as officials from a Massachusetts iron workers local said, "cheap" foreign labor inside this country is taking "American" jobs (the AFL-CIO News, March 25, 1996).

And the AFL-CIO’s most important political plank remains opposition to imports from Japan, Mexico, and opposition to the NAFTA and GATT Treaties. Without let up, they repeat the same message about stopping imports and saving jobs. As we have seen for years, this pressure has little impact on the policy of the U.S. bourgeoisie, which does what it thinks is suitable for its own interests and profits. But the rhetoric does increase the anti foreign, anti immigrant feelings of one part of the U.S. working class, and it pits native born U.S. workers against their brothers and sisters who have only recently arrived in this country.

With immigrant workers, the AFL-CIO claims it is fighting for unity. But with other workers, the AFL-CIO continues to cultivate the worst prejudices and divisions. This is not how immigrant rights can be defended against the growing wave of anti immigrant attacks and the increasing divisions inside the working class, nor is it the way to prepare the other workers to defend themselves.

This duplicitous policy weighed on the unions’ campaign against California’s Proposition 187 in 1994. Officially the AFL-CIO came out in opposition to the proposition. Of course, they had to. Prop 187 was an attack against the immigrant workers whom the unions were trying to win over and organize. It was also an attack against others now in unions, like teachers and health care workers, since they would be required to become an extension of the INS, turning in students or patients who don’t have documents, thereby excluding a major part of the population from the services they provide and accelerating their own layoffs. Some AFL-CIO unions which represented a high proportion of recent immigrants or public service workers demonstrated against the proposition. But the rest of the AFL-CIO structure sat on the sidelines. It did little or nothing to fight against the very prejudices and lies that it had helped instill, nor did it try to mobilize any opposition to it.

Not surprisingly, Prop 187 won by a landslide. And it got plenty of support from workers, including unionized workers. The AFL-CIO bears a heavy responsibility for preparing those workers to go for the bait, fall into the trap laid by their class enemies. It also is responsible for betraying the immigrant workers whom it claims to represent.

The AFL-CIO officialdom was, at most, going through the motions, just like they do when it comes to the interests of the rest of the workers they represent. But it is not the way to either lead the kind of fight that would allow immigrant workers to organize unions, nor for immigrants to defend themselves against the growing anti immigrant attacks.

The Need for a Class Policy

The fight for even the most minimal rights for immigrant workers the right to a union and to a decent job, the right not to be attacked just for being born in another country are all connected. And the only way they can be won is through a massive class fight. Not only has the union bureaucracy proven itself unable to carry out such a fight; by what it has done, it stands in the way. Even when it claims to be in favor of organizing all the sections of the working class together, it still reinforces the divisions and imposes concessions. This is the consequence of a narrow trade unionist perspective, which accepts capitalism and the exploitation and subjugation of the working class for profit.