Immigrant Workers and the Split in the AFL-CIO

by Andrew Pollack


On July 18, the week before the AFL-CIO split convention, John Wilhelm resigned as head of the Federation’s Immigration Committee. Wilhelm, president of the hospitality industry division of UNITE HERE, led the Committee at a time when the Federation changed its long-standing opposition to the rights of the undocumented. In his resignation letter to Federation head John Sweeney, Wilhelm underlined the importance of that change and the new-found unity behind it, and continued: “By that same hard work, the Immigration Committee led the labor movement in the critically important job of finding the right path to protect immigrant workers after 9/11, including the historic Immigration Workers Freedom Ride in 2003, which united the labor movement with immigrant advocates, the religious community, and community organizations.”

But Wilhelm then complained that “sadly, you and the AFL-CIO staff took control of the AFL-CIO’s immigration work. That work suffers from the 16th Street focus.” He claimed that Sweeney had sent out memos and statements, canceled meetings, and taken other actions without Committee involvement.

(In his Internet blog, reporting on the dispute, Jonathan Tasini pointed out that Wilhelm’s letter paralleled similar criticisms by Firefighters President Harold Schaitberger when he resigned two months ago as head of the Federation’s Public Affairs Committee, claiming a similar lack of consultation—yet Schaitberger is a Sweeney supporter.)

The Las Vegas Sun quoted Wilhelm as saying that Sweeney “appears threatened by the committee, which is made up of a dozen or so ranking union leaders across the country. ‘The bureaucracy in Washington has always felt uncomfortable with the fact that the immigration committee was a real committee of real union leaders,’” said Wilhelm.

Sweeney’s Response

In his response the next day Sweeney paid tribute to Wilhelm’s efforts in helping to bring about “historic change in the labor movement’s approach to immigrant workers,” but he slammed UNITE HERE for allegedly having “unilaterally abandoned its support for [protective] standards” without consultation, “prompting objections from almost every other AFL-CIO affiliate and prevented a consensus from forming around early drafts of the McCain-Kennedy immigration reform legislation.” Sweeney contrasts this to Wilhelm’s earlier stance when he, and the Committee under him, had “called for the reform—not expansion—of temporary worker programs and for strong wage and other worker protections.” Sweeney even claimed three of UNITE HERE’s Change to Win partners—the UFCW, Laborers, and Teamsters—objected to the former’s “abandoning prevailing wage standards and allowing for expanded temporary worker program without effective labor protections.” What’s worse, complained Sweeney, is that Wilhelm’s obstinacy forced their great mutual friend Ted Kennedy to step in to ask Sweeney to put a halt to Wilhelm’s obstruction to his bill. Unfortunately, continues Sweeney, Wilhelm sabotaged those discussions and continued his “acquiescence to the corporate demands of the Republican sponsors of the bill,” making it difficult to secure meaningful protections in the final form of the [Kennedy-McCain] bill.” Sweeney claims that hundreds of labor, Latino, immigrants rights, and faith-based organizations are united in an effort to strengthen the bill by adding labor protections.

Since Wilhelm didn’t respond to Sweeney, the truth of the details of Sweeney’s allegations aren’t clear. But leaving that aside for the moment, let’s look at the bill Sweeney is so concerned about.

In a June 1 letter by Sweeney to AFL-CIO affiliates he claims it would provide legal status and an opportunity to work for 12 million workers, and pledges to expand its labor protections. Following his cover letter is a five-page letter from Ana Avendano-Denier, Director of the Immigrant Worker Program—which consists of exhaustive detail on the horrendously anti-immigrant nature of the bill (without characterizing it that way, of course). She starts by calling the bill “an important legislative accomplishment” because it is bipartisan and because it contains a way for the undocumented to earn permanent legal status. Then she gets to the real meat. The bill, she says:

  • could result in employers firing millions of workers using its documentation requirement—and then rehiring some of them at starting wages;
  • would let employers escape from back taxes owed for current immigrant employees;
  • would force workers to endure exploitative conditions because they must prove they have job waiting in order to get entry into the U.S, and this would put them at the whim of recruiters who sell them such jobs;
  • puts workers at the whim of employers, because a gap of 45 days unemployment means deportation, and employers will use that fear to harshly exploit them;
  • creates incentives for employers to hire from countries other than from where the undocumented mostly come—meaning the latter will continue to come without documents;
  • sets up a meaningless administrative process under the Department of Labor for labor protections; and
  • requires employer sponsorship for green cards, withholding of which will be used to kill organizing efforts.

In short, the bill contains the worst features of the bracero program of the mid-20th century, and of Bush’s recent “guest worker” proposal. (See David Bacon’s “Talking Points on Guest Workers” for a good overview.)

In 2003, Charles Walker wrote in Socialist Action about an earlier example of labor support for a guest worker program, in this case that of the United Farm Workers, which had broken with its longstanding opposition to such programs by supporting a bill allowing up to 500,000 undocumented farmworkers to potentially gain temporary U.S. residency and maybe even become eligible for permanent residency, leading to citizenship. Walker reminded readers that legal status doesn’t provide protection or resolve discrimination in federal and state labor laws—and that the bill might actually weaken the fight for immigrant rights for more than 6,000,000 migrants, ignored by the law’s provisions.

Walker speculated that the UFW might have switched its position because even though the growers would now find it easier to import a surplus labor supply to keep wages and benefits depressed, and thus to fight unionization, “[p]erhaps the union’s allies in the Democratic Party, including Sen. Ted Kennedy, refuse to help them further on this issue or have told the union that the growers can’t be resisted, and the union should settle for what the growers are willing to offer—that is, political support for the legalization of undocumented migrants currently in the agricultural workforce.”

The impact of NAFTA may have also played a role, said Walker: “…changes in the guest-worker law will not lessen the economic pressures stemming in part from cheap U.S. agricultural exports that are driving desperate small landholders off their plots and across the U.S. border, in a life and death search for the bare necessities of life.”

The same causes—i.e., the pressures of NAFTA and the arm-twisting from “friends of labor” in Congress—may now be behind labor support on both sides of the AFL-CIO split for broader guest worker programs and immigration “reform.” But ironically, in the years before this change, there had occurred an even bigger—and positive—shift in labor’s approach toward immigrant workers.

Labor’s Policy Shift

For decades the Federation had refused to support the rights of undocumented workers, ignoring the role of early waves of immigrants with and without papers in building its core unions, including in heavy industry, instead yielding to the wishes of the most conservative, craft unions. Its dramatic reversal in 1999 was part of the broader Sweeney-era reforms, stemming from the same objective pressures—but suffering from the same bureaucratic limitations.

The Federation had supported the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, which created new tools for bosses to use documentation requirements to threaten rebellious undocumented workers (the tools were called “employer sanctions” but with workers paying the real price). As David Bacon explains in his report on the 1999 AFL-CIO convention (“The AFL-CIO reverses course on immigration,” David Bacon, October 17, 1999), in the years since IRCA’s passage immigrant workers nonetheless showed heroic willingness to fight back: immigrant janitors, drywallers, carpenters, harbor truckers, garment workers, factory hands, and tortilla drivers all organized and struck—including, most notably, the widely-publicized strikes and sitdowns of SEIU-organized janitors who faced down police beatings in Los Angeles in 1989. Day laborers, domestics, and gardeners even built independent organizations without the protection of the law or union support.

These heroic efforts came despite raids by La Migra, including some where dozens or even hundreds of workers were fired in the middle of organizing drives. This included workers in packing houses, asbestos removal and other industries where unions like the Teamsters and Laborers had gained important toeholds in organizing nonunion sectors of what had previously been well-organized industries, and where employers had tried to evade unions by opening up new, immigrant-staffed subsidiaries or brand new companies.

Recognizing the new demographic realities of the workforce and seeing these struggles, local unions and central labor councils began passing resolutions calling for the repeal of employer sanctions. And finally Sweeney and the Federation’s “International” union heads saw the light—realizing as well that the impact of IRCA, and the prior decades of ignoring the ever-growing immigrant workforce, were threatening gains in their own core sectors. Even in the building trades there was a growing recognition that the booming unorganized, mostly immigrant, workforce required a new approach. What’s more, sectors with the most immigrants looked to be the easiest pickings for boosting declining membership rolls.

At the 1999 convention many tales were told of organizing drives broken and even existing unions crushed by employer and INS intimidation and firings. This included workers who had been in the country for decades, paying taxes, raising families, sending their kids to school. Wilhelm himself pointed out that despite IRCA’s claim that it would reduce immigration, there were now tens of millions of immigrant workers in meatpacking, manufacturing, healthcare, and construction. Miguel Contreras, secretary of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, explained that in place of huge locals like that of the Machinists with 30,000 members at a now-closed Lockheed defense plant, there were hundreds of smaller manufacturing shops in the region with 760,000 workers, almost all immigrants in non-union jobs.

Bacon reported that Frank Hurt, president of the Bakery, Confectionary, and Tobacco Workers, “who had chaired the committee in 1986 which recommended supporting IRCA, admitted the immigration law and enforcement policies had not protected workers’ rights. Instead, they arm employers with additional weapons, he said, often wielded with governmental complicity...They pit worker against worker, ally against friend, driving wedges between us when we should stand united.”

Bacon added that it was the Democratic Clinton administration that was making worker victimization the focus of immigration law enforcement, quoting INS Regional Director Mark Reed threatening to “clean up one industry and turn the [jobs] magnet down a bit...and then go on to another industry, and another, and another.” What’s more, Reed said the raids (dubbed “Operation Vanguard”) would dry up the supply of undocumented workers to the point where a guest worker program would be inevitable.

The Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride

In addition to formal policy statements adopted at the convention recognizing the rights of the undocumented, and the new impetus given to organizing drives, the most visible fruit of the Federation’s new approach was the 2003 Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride, spearheaded by Wilhelm’s Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees union (later merged with UNITE). The themes of the Ride included the right of immigrant workers to gain legal status, to have a clear road to citizenship, to reunite their families, to be free to form unions without regard to legal status, and to enjoy full civil rights protection.

Starting in 10 major cities in every corner of the country, their buses converged in October 2003 on Washington, D.C., New Jersey, and New York, where tens of thousands rallied. The Freedom Riders, who were both documented and undocumented, built new alliances along the way between immigrant workers and Black workers, students and community groups, and at more than 100 stops along the way held rallies and other events with workers seeking to organize.

The Ride did not just include workers from sectors or unions most commonly thought of as heavily immigrant—and not just from those unions that split this year from the Federation. The latter’s report on the Ride interviewed a Trinidadian from the Operating Engineers in New York and a Taiwanese involved in organizing Chinese newspaper workers into the Communications Workers of America, as well as highlighting struggles of sheet-metal workers in Syracuse, asbestos workers and parking attendants in D.C., janitors in New Jersey, hotel workers in New York, and many others.

In promoting the Ride the Federation even took on to a certain extent the post-9/11 anti-immigrant hysteria, pointing out the illogic and injustice in victimization of immigrants, and quoting Arab-American activist Mazin Qumsiyeh on the tens of thousands deported since 9/11.

The Ride also made big strides in linking African Americans and immigrants, especially in the South, with special jointly-sponsored events. It garnered support from union officials who had either been inactive or even opposed immigrant workers’ rights, such as Building Trades leaders in Buffalo who had previously organized raids against undocumented workers. The AFT organized welcoming events in many cities—and this year announced a statewide campaign in New York to organize the mostly Black and immigrant home daycare workforce.

The Immigrant Workers Freedom Rides experienced hostile confrontations with the INS—and, to the surprise of top Federation officials, apathy from the Democrats: none of the Democrat presidential candidates spoke up to support the Freedom Riders. But as a result of the Rides local immigrant rights coalitions were born or strengthened in many cities.

Aftermath of the Freedom Rides?

The Rides were a follow-up to the previous year’s Reward Work campaign, sponsored by a similar alliance of religious, community, political, student, union, and immigrant organizations, which gathered hundreds of thousands of postcards supporting immigrant rights. But what was its legacy for future efforts?

Since 2003 there has been no visible nationwide activity in the name of the IWFR or its sponsors. But there have been many local struggles around the issues raised, such as fighting attempts to take away driver’s licenses from immigrants without Social Security numbers. And since the Rides several unions, including especially those in what has become the Change to Win (CtW) group, but not only those, have been busy organizing new immigrant workers. They’ve also used the courts to secure millions in back pay for immigrant janitors cheated out of overtime and minimum wage by contractors working for national supermarket and other retail chains, and to stop the practice of locking them in the stores overnight.

There have been nationwide efforts at laundry giant Cintas and landmark victories in North Carolina (FLOC) and in Florida (the Immokalee Coalition). Hotel workers in Los Angeles and San Francisco have been involved in prolonged struggles for decent contracts, including efforts to begin coordinating national hotel contract expiration dates. Struggles have also occurred among the lowest-paid, mostly immigrant parts of the airline industry. (SkyChef, the biggest competitor of Gate Gourmet, whose workers recently sparked a shutdown of all British flights, called in the INS to try to crush the union at its Seattle facilities a couple years ago.)

Unions in both camps of the split have significant immigrant memberships—both recent and long-resident—and there are huge numbers of immigrants in each side’s prime organizing targets (which often overlap in any case). While the numbers are more overwhelming for CtW members SEIU, UNITE/HERE, Laborers and UFCW, they’re highly significant for those unions staying with the AFL-CIO, even the building trades, where a nonunion Latino workforce has grown rapidly and suffers not just low pay and lack of protection, but the worst workplace injury and fatality rates of any group in the U/S.

Members of AFL-CIO affiliate USW at Asarco’s copper mines in the Southwest—a mostly Chicano workforce—have been on strike since the beginning of July. This strike raises two further issues. These workers are mostly longstanding residents or citizens, reminding us that immigrant workers’ struggles are (or should be) linked to those of older Latino communities and other workers of color. More broadly, it brings us back to the turmoil in recent decades in the Federation. The Asarco strikers walk in the footsteps of a similar workforce whose union was crushed in 1983-84 at Phelps-Dodge (with the decisive blow against the strikers coming from a National Guard called in by Arizona’s Democratic governor). The crushing of this strike was one of several body blows in that decade to the labor movement which eventually forced a section of the union officialdom in 1995 to decide it was time to dump the Old Guard and install the Sweeney team.

Which brings us back to the Sweeney-Wilhelm spat. The recognition of the importance of immigrant workers to the labor movement that inspired the changes described above were just a slice of a broader recognition of labor’s plight—declining membership, lost contract battles, busted unions—that led to the Sweeney team’s ascendancy and its announcement of various reforms and new initiatives. But before long the reforms turned out to be few and shallow and the initiatives lost steam. The same characteristics dooming the Sweeney team’s initiatives—its bureaucratic approach and its lack of a militant and politically-independent program—are shared by the unions splitting to form CtW. And this will hinder not only their organizing drives, which are heavily focused among immigrant workers, but also the way in which they approach immigrant workers’ other concerns (if anything the CtW unions are more even-handed than the Federation in their willingness to support capitalist politicians regardless of party).

Wilhelm claimed Sweeney was “scared” of the involvement of other union officials in the Immigration Committee. But Wilhelm himself, and his allies, are just as scared of too many voices being involved. There was no indication that Wilhelm called on his members, or even local or regional officials, to mobilize behind his efforts to reform the committee. In the same way, none of the CtW unions sought to mobilize such forces to reform the AFL-CIO. Instead they simply walked away, with no sign that their own practices or politics would change.

SEIU, for instance, the union behind the Justice for Janitors struggles in LA described above and similar ones around the country, is every bit as bureaucratic as any AFL-CIO union—and in fact trusteed the LA janitors’ local when it dared to elect a new, more militant leadership, and has recently merged it into a statewide building services local. (The creation of statewide or even multistate locals has become common practice for SEIU throughout the country.) And SEIU shares with the other CtW unions a class-collaborationist approach to both contract bargaining and electoral politics.

The CtW unions will certainly do more organizing among immigrant workers, and are likely to stay more active, in their own way, around the political and social issues facing the undocumented. Yet as pointed out above immigrant workers waiting to be organized exist in large numbers among the AFL-CIO unions’ likely targets (and as has already been seen in the fight between SEIU and AFSCME over California day-care workers, those targets are likely to be the subjects of competing drives and even raids). What’s more, for the CtW unions to succeed in their own efforts they’ll need the support of workers in other sectors and from the Fed’s unions: the UFCW’s efforts to organize Wal-Mart, for instance, will require forging unity among Latino and Black workers but also with huge numbers of poorer whites in rural areas—and will require mobilizing support from all unions, whether CtW or AFL-CIO.

The list of issues facing immigrant workers grows longer every day. In addition to the workplace pay and conditions and immigrant status problems discussed above, they include higher unemployment rates, lack of health insurance and higher rates of illness, discrimination on the job, higher enlistment and death rates in the military, post-9/11 state terrorism and attacks from fascist groups like the Minutemen, increasing deaths during Southwestern desert border crossings, etc. etc.

Official recognition of the objective pressures and the massive defeats of the 1970s and 1980s led to significant, if mostly formal, changes toward immigrants’ issues in particular and workers’ concerns in general. But nothing fundamental was changed in the officialdom’s politics. In that sense the Wilhelm-Sweeney spat stands as a symbol for labor’s larger impasse. For immigrant workers to win victories, whether on the shop floor, in contract struggles, in community battles, or in the political arena, a new militant leadership will need to be forged, one that will fight in an uncompromising and politically independent way. And such a leadership will push forward the struggles of all workers.