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There's a future for organized labor — if it welcomes immigrants and supports them

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This Labor Day will be a historic one for a coalition of organized labor and immigrant rights advocates in New York. In January, both camps celebrated the passage of the state DREAM Act, which made undocumented immigrants eligible for in-state college tuition assistance. Several months later, the state legislature overcame bipartisan resistance to authorize driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants, a critical measure for migrant workers in upstate New York. And in the closing days of the legislative session, the legislature passed the landmark Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act, which, as one bill sponsor put it, will “end Jim Crow-era working conditions and provide overtime pay, a day off, unemployment benefits, and the right to organize.”

But on the national stage, unions and immigrants remain under threat. With Donald Trump in the White House, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers are stepping up their raids, immigrant families are being separated at the U.S.-Mexico border and the xenophobic rhetoric has reached a new low with the shocking manifesto issued by the suspect in the mass murder of shoppers in a Walmart in El Paso, Texas. Meanwhile, labor unions are playing defense following a string of adverse decisions from the U.S. Supreme Court and the National Labor Relations Board — both bolstered by Trump appointees — while right-to-work laws have decimated union membership in a number of states.

An alliance between unions and immigrants offers a path forward, as Trump escalates his aggressive campaign to exacerbate racial tensions and target the undocumented immigrants that labor unions are hoping to organize. The relationship between immigrants and labor, in fact, is at the very center of the bitter battle over how the United States chooses to define itself in the 2020 presidential election.

Historically, there have often been political fault lines between undocumented workers and rank-and-file union members. But after years of losing millions of members, labor activists say their movement depends on embracing and elevating immigrants. Today, labor is in a struggle that is not just an ideological fight for social justice, but one for their very survival. As organizations that are defined by a collective effort that purports to be empowered by and for workers, what really matters is where you work, not where you were born.

“If there is a future for unions, it is to build (a) coalition with immigrants,” said Chaz Rynkiewicz, director of organizing with Construction & General Building Laborers Local 79. “Most unions, and ours was one of them, were formed by immigrants.”

While there have been tensions between the two groups over the decades, they also have a long history of joining forces. A half-century ago, the AFL-CIO was teaming up with the civil rights movement, while Cesar Chávez and Dolores Huerta were fighting to protect farmworkers. And their efforts built on other trailblazers who looked to extend worker protections — regardless of race or immigration status.

Exploiting racial tensions and nativist fervor has historically been a successful management tactic, according to Joseph Wilson, a former political science professor at the City University of New York and a leading expert on the African American civil rights movement.

“In terms of the tensions between immigrants and African Americans, certainly management and the employer class always sought to pit ethnic groups against one another in establishing a certain color hierarchy and class pecking order,” Wilson said. “The bottom strata of employment that had previously been used as almost exclusive territory for former African American slaves would be where immigrants would cover over and work really as de facto slaves, for even less wages and risking more dangerous conditions and that would displace black workers.”

Wilson says that for unions to be successful, they have to build multiracial and multiethnic coalitions in the tradition of A. Philip Randolph, who founded the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters in the 1920s.

“While it was a Chinese immigrant workforce that built the Transcontinental Railroad, it was the African........

© Salon