“Illegals” of the World Unite?

That’s a very important thing for us to understand right now, because it affects the kinds of proposals around immigration reform we support. There’s a part of the book that tells the story of the last few years. It tries to connect this systemic analysis of the global economy, displacement, migration and criminalization with the actual on-the-ground proposals that get made in Congress and what attitude unions and immigrant rights organizations have to them.

The book is making an argument here. It’s saying that if our goal is justice for working people, especially for migrants, first of all we have to look at the production of migration just as much as we look at U.S. immigration policy. If we look at the way the whole system functions, we can propose alternatives that will actually correspond to the reality that exists, and will have the effect of promoting equality and a better standard of living and less competition among workers, and social and political rights for people. That’s why, at the end of the book, we talk about what some of those alternatives are.

The Labor Movement’s Stand

ATC: Where do you see the current labor movement in relation to the struggle for immigrant rights?

DB: In 1986, the AFL-CIO supported employer sanctions because it was part of a certain Cold War nativist set of politics that dominated especially the leadership of the labor movement at that time. The argument for employer sanctions in the ’86 bill was that if people can’t work, they’ll leave.

This was an “us and them” argument. The labor movement belongs to us, “us” being native-born people in the United States or people who have some right to be here, and “them” being migrants. There were people in the labor movement, myself among them, who argued and fought against that position at the time. And we lost.

Afterwards, we spent a long time fighting to change the position of the AFL-CIO, and actually the book tells that story too. We were trying to convince the labor movement to reject employer sanctions, to call for their repeal, as well as to call for the legalization of people who were here without papers, and the protection of family unification and other kind of progressive ideas. But the heart of it was employer sanctions.

Ultimately, in 1999, the AFL-CIO had a convention in Los Angeles and we had accumulated enough strength by that time that we were able to win the debate and force the adoption of a new position that called for the repeal of employer sanctions. And that was a big, big victory.

The reason why the labor movement changed its position was partly self-interest. We convinced unions that immigrant workers were some of the people out there who most want to organize and who need unions the most, and that in order to do that we have to remove the law that makes it a crime for people to work, because it gets used against those workers whenever they try to organize.

Also there was a human rights argument that these are violations of the fundamental rights of workers. We have a right to support our families and we need to protect and defend workers, rather than getting on the side of the government or the employers in trying to remove people from their jobs.

The other thing that helped us was that unions had been organizing immigrant workers, and some of those workers have become leaders in different unions in the labor movement. So we had a different voice at a much higher level in 1999 than we did 13 years earlier, and we won that debate.

But I think the reality was that we were not able to take that position and popularize it and make it the property of the rank and file of the labor movement in union after union after union. There were some unions in which there was strong support for that position, and some unions in which we never really convinced people. So that’s one problem that we’ve had since then. There are some unions that have become much more active in opposing what we won.

Now, for instance, there are calls, especially in the building trades on a national level, saying that we should support again the idea of what is called work authorization, which is essentially saying that if people don’t have legal status they shouldn’t be able to work, and therefore they should be fired or not be allowed to get jobs to begin with – in other words, returning to the employer sanctions position of 1986.

Then there was another set of unions that fought very hard for the change of position in 1999, and afterwards began to get sucked into an alliance with employers in support of these comprehensive immigration bills in Washington. Basically they were arguing that the only way to get legalization for undocumented people was to agree with employers that they could have guest worker programs, and agree with the enforcement lobby to accept increased enforcement of sanctions.

I think that happened partly because, although the change in position in 1999 was sort of a bottom-up movement, the way in which unions go about their legislative work in Washington isn’t necessarily under the control of rank-and-file union members. So it was very difficult to oppose those moves from down below.

So we had a split over the last three years in which there were some unions, the AFL-CIO, that continued to support the position that we had won in 1999, and argued against guest worker programs and employer sanctions. And then there were some of the unions that broke off to form the Change to Win federation that supported those comprehensive immigration reform bills.

Currently there is a huge debate over the change that we made in 1999, but also over the relationship that we should have with Congress and the Obama administration, and what’s winnable. The question is whether our strategy should be based on what we can win in Congress this year, or whether we should have a longer range movement-building strategy that seeks a much more radical political program, but would take longer to achieve.

ATC: You put forward an alternative vision in the book, the formula “Blacks plus immigrants plus unions equals power,” that would challenge the compromise tendencies of the labor movement.

DB: Absolutely. The compromise position – these comprehensive immigration bills – is the result of a certain political alliance: big employers, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and so forth; the enforcement lobby, which has gotten stronger in the last few years, especially in Washington; and also Democratic party lobbyists, working for organizations like the National Immigration Forum in Washington. And they crafted these positions. That’s why they work the way they do – they represent that set of interests.

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