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Labor Talks Sense About Immigration.  What Comes Next?

Something unusual happened on June 18: an important figure on the U.S. political scene spoke sensibly and realistically about immigration.

The occasion was a speech at the City Club of Cleveland, and the speaker was AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka.  The news wasn’t that labor was backing a rational, equitable reform of U.S. immigration laws; the AFL-CIO came out for that in 2000.  What made the June 18 speech different was that Trumka actually articulated in plain language several key truths that are usually missing from our supposed “national debate” on immigration.

For starters, he said clearly that reform was in the economic interest of all people who work for a living, the native-born as well as the undocumented.  We need to end the current “two-tiered workforce” of people with rights and people without them, Trumka said, “because an underclass of disenfranchised workers ends up hurting all workers.”

Although he couldn’t resist the usual reference to “this broken immigration system,” he showed forcefully how in reality the system works just fine for certain people:

[A]t the heart of the failure of our immigration policy is an unpleasant fact, one that you almost never hear talked about openly: Too many U.S. employers actually like the current state of the immigration system — a system where immigrants are both plentiful and undocumented — afraid and available.  Too many employers like a system where our borders are closed and open at the same time — closed enough to turn immigrants into second-class citizens, open enough to ensure an endless supply of socially and legally powerless cheap labor.

Trumka didn’t say in so many words that the employers and their allies promote the scapegoating of immigrants for the economic crisis or that they use anti-immigrant rhetoric to set workers against other workers — but he made it clear enough all the same:

I hear from working people who should know better, some in my own family, that those immigrants are taking our jobs, ruining our country.  [. . .]

When I hear that kind of talk, I want to say, Did an immigrant move your plant overseas?  Did an immigrant take away your pension?  Or cut your health care?  Did an immigrant destroy American workers’ right to organize?  Or crash the financial system?

The AFL-CIO head even broke the taboo against discussing the root causes for the current wave of immigration:

Immigration to the United States is part of a larger picture — the picture of how we are getting globalization wrong. [. . .]

NAFTA was sold to the American public on the idea that increasing trade with Mexico would create good jobs in both countries and slow the flow of undocumented workers coming to the U.S. from Mexico.

Instead, inequality has grown and workers’ rights have eroded in both the U.S. and Mexico since NAFTA’s passage.  And illegal immigration flows have tripled.

There were a few things to criticize in Trumka’s speech.  The main problem was what was missing: Trumka didn’t announce plans to dedicate the AFL-CIO’s resources to educating its 11 million members on the issue and to mobilizing them in a campaign to organize the millions of undocumented workers who are still outside the labor movement.  One good speech and a few good blogs aren’t enough to offset decades of media nonsense about “illegals” stealing our social services and destroying the fabric of our society.  Predictably, Trumka’s speech got minimal coverage in the corporate media.

But the immigrant rights movement doesn’t need to wait for labor.  We have our own resources.  Hundreds of thousands of people have marched for immigration reform and against anti-immigrant laws since January; activists have walked hundreds of miles, have held fasts and hunger strikes, have sat in at congressional offices.

These actions are important and inspiring, but that doesn’t mean we should overlook organizing among immigrants’ natural allies.  What would happen if each of these hundreds of thousands of marchers reached out to coworkers and neighbors with the sort of sensible analysis Trumka gave in Cleveland?  What if they led discussion groups at local libraries, union halls or religious centers?  There’s a wealth of good videos on immigration, ideal for showing at home or at school, and plenty of good articles and books to stimulate discussion.  The materials are there; we just need people to use them.

Trumka’s speech is a sign that attitudes on immigration are starting to shift.  It’s up to the rest of us to push this process forward.


David L. Wilson is co-author, with Jane Guskin, of The Politics of Immigration: Questions and Answers, Monthly Review Press, July 2007.  He will be participating in a panel on “Immigration Reform & the Militarization of the US/Mexico Border” at the July 23-25 National Peace Conference in Albany, NY.




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