Unions, immigrants make unlikely team
Thousands are expected to rally for immigration reform Friday in Manhattan. (Photo by Getty Images)
By Jason Fink
As thousands in New York and throughout the country stage May Day rallies Friday to press for immigration reform, the occasion also marks the increasing strength of a growing alliance: organized labor and immigrants.
Though some unions in the past have had rocky relationships with those pressing for looser immigration policies fearing that undocumented workers would drive down wages advocates on both sides now say their futures are intertwined.
[Unions] had a long-standing concern on addressing the status of undocumented workers, said Michael Merrill, dean of The Harry Van Arsdale Jr. Center for Labor Studies at Empire State College. Theyve changed.Earlier this month, the nations two largest labor federations the AFL-CIO and Change to Win endorsed an immigration law overhaul calling for legal status to undocumented workers already in the country. It was the first time the two organizations agreed on a plan.
I think its a great sign, said Frances Liu, of the New York Immigration Coalition, which is sponsoring Fridays rally in Madison Square Park. In the last few years, the momentum has been building.
On Thursday, a U.S. Senate subcommittee, chaired by Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), held hearings on the immigration overhaul bill backed by the major unions.
At Fridays rallies, advocates will press for immigration reform as well as for passage of the Employee Free Choice Act, which would make it easier for workplaces to unionize by eliminating the need for secret-ballot elections. The measure, introduced in Congress in March, is among the top legislative priorities for organized labor.
New York, with its large immigrant population and strong labor tradition, has been a showcase of the relationship.
I see a natural fit between the labor movement and calls for immigration reform, said Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito (D-Manhattan), a former union official. The labor movement is very diverse.
After decades of pushing for restrictions on immigrationgroups like the AFL-CIO, suffering from dwindling enrollment, embraced the immigrant labor pool, said Merrill. Unions like the Service Employees International, which organized janitors, showed the potential power in tapping into that populations, he added.
Ann Avendano, an official with the AFL-CIO, said the group has been advocating for immigration reform for almost 10 years. This is a big shift for the federation, which was a vocal backer of a 1986 law that restricted immigration.
We've been working very closely with immigrants around the country, she said. It's a constantly developing relationship.
Some see nothing more than a marriage of convenience.
The unions found that the labor market was increasingly full of illegal immigrants and they decided, Weve got to organize them, said Vernon Briggs, author of Immigration and American Unionism.