Unions need to involve immigrant workers, speakers tell 35th Annual Conference

The future growth of the labor movement may depend heavily upon the nation’s more than 42 million immigrants.

That theme emerged again and again during discussions at the 35th Annual Conference of the Wisconsin Labor History Society held May 21 at UAW Local 72 in Kenosha.  The more than 100 persons attending gained insight into the struggles that recent immigrants face in this country, learned about labor’s “checkered history” in dealing with immigrants and discovered what unions currently are doing to assure all workers are  properly represent.

The topic was “especially timely,” commented WLHS President Steve Cupery who said he hoped the discussion may provide unionists with a “new understanding as to how to combat those fellow workers that may be tempted by the demagoguery of Donald Trump.”  He said it’s an obligation to challenge such thinking.

Immigrants are becoming a larger part of the nation, now totaling 13% of the U.S. population and have grown in Wisconsin from 2.5% in 1990 to 5% in 2014, commented Sergio Gonzalez, a doctoral student in history from the University of Wisconsin – Madison.  Gonzalez is also co-president of the Teaching Assistants Association at the university and a Latino leader.  He spoke in place of Immanuel Ness, an activist and professor of sociology at New York University who cancelled due to illness.

“For decades, there has been strength within the immigrant community, strength to mobilize and fight back,” he said.  “For the majority of our movement’s history, however, labor has either ignored or pushed back against that strength.”

It wasn’t that way at first, when immigrant populations in Milwaukee made up most of the labor movement, often forming unions based largely upon their ethnicity, Gonzalez said. In the early 20th Century, however, the Wisconsin labor movement formed “a more reactionary face to growing immigration,” reflecting the changes in attitudes in unions throughout the nation, he said.  Gonzalez cited numerous examples of union activities that immigration immigration, ranging from a 1917 American Federation of Labor resolution to bar Chinese labor (calling it “coolie labor”) to supporting a 1924 act to limit immigration by southern and eastern Europeans and Asians.

A real shift in policy came in the 1980s when labor supported the Immigration Reform Act of 1886, he said.  Meanwhile unions began active campaigns that involved organizing immigrants, such as SEIU’s “Justice for Janitors” campaign,” he added.

“In 2000, AFL-CIO leadership finally disavowed a one-hundred-year tradition of restriction and fear by openly calling for amnesty and full labor protections for all immigrant workers, regardless of their legal status,” he said.

Labor unions need to advocate for comprehensive immigration reform at the federal, state and local level, Gonzalez argued; such reform should “work for workers and not legislation that bends to the whims of employers looking for cheap, controllable and deportable labor.”

“It is among immigrants, who daily face seemingly insurmountable obstacles in their workplaces that the House of Labor will find the next generation to push our movement forward.”

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Following up on Sergio Gonzalez theme, Michael Rosen, economics professor at the Milwaukee Area Technical College, declared that the labor movement and the immigrant rights movement need each other.

Labor, even in its diminish state, has resources and important contacts, he said, while the immigrant movement has numbers (of people), passion, courage and militancy.  He reflected that the labor movement has lost the militancy that marked its early years, but that the infusion of the immigrant workforce could revitalize it. Labor needs to stop its decline and immigrant workers need to be organized, creating a mutually compatible combination.

The influx of immigrants into Milwaukee, he said, has been critical in keeping the city from losing population.  While the city’s population grew less than one percent since 2000, its Latino numbers have swelled by 51% from 71,000 to 108,000.  Without the influx of Latinos into the city, the population would have fallen dramatically.

Immigrant voters have an important role to play in the 2016 elections, Rosen noted, particularly in “swing states” like Wisconsin, New Mexico and Colorado.  “The Latino vote in this election will be a determinant into who will become the President of the United States,” he declared.

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The courage of immigrant workers was demonstrated in the testimonies of five who made up a panel discussion at the conference.

After hearing the presentations by the workers, one member of the audience summed it up perfectly, noting that workers in this country should learn from the inspiring examples, as shown by the five speakers, several of whom had to be assisted in having their remarks translated from Spanish to English.  He said while many U.S. workers may be afraid to stand up to their bosses and join in walkouts or other job actions, he said the stories of workers showed that “immigrants had courage.”

All of the panelists reflected that upon entering the United States, they found it necessary to “work, work, work,” leaving little time to think about forming unions or seeking a better life through organizing.  Most came to this country without an understanding of how important unions could be for them.

Ramon Munoz, came from his native Mexico, where he claimed unions were much stronger where you can’t be easily fired from a job.  The father of nine children, he and his family has been in the United States since the early 1980s.  Munoz said he was surprised to get fired recently after he went to the boss in his nonunion shop to ask for a raise for all the workers.

Another native of Mexico, Mauricio Galicia, told of his struggles to find work after arriving as an undocumented person in Los Angeles.  Most of the jobs he found were short-term, a few days or weeks in length, and he traded the warm climate for Milwaukee, where jobs were easier to find.

Such ignorance of U.S. labor laws and unions were common.  Mai McCarthy, a first generation Vietnamese immigrant, said her family came as refugees from that war-torn country in 1979.  She said her father fought with the U.S. troops and had to swim the Mekong River with two of her young siblings on his back to escape to safety.  The family, she said, had come from a culture of “hunters-gatherers” and were strange to the customs of the U.S.  Thus, her father worked constantly, “too scared to protest” about job issues and never got involved in unions.

Walid Abdalla, a native of Palestine, came to the United States from Jordan, leaving his family behind; often, he said, he faced homelessness, largely because he had trouble finding a job, even though he had experience as an auto mechanic.  Too busy trying to find shelter, he said he was “just working to survive,” thus finding little inclination to consider unionism.  He has been able to enroll at MATC to study engineering.

Gotofredo Meraz, however, has had extensive experience with unions, which he said he found to be “sweet and sour.”    His first became a member of a Steelworkers local union, where he found himself “drafted” to be on the bargaining committee.  That experience, he said, was positive in that the union was able to negotiate a three-year contract that provided for a narrowing of the gap in a two-tier wage system.  His second experience while working in a foundry under a different union was not successful, largely because the workforce was divided.  He became chairman of the committee, but because of the lack of support and a difficult employer their success was not great.

Nonetheless, Meraz stressed: Immigrant workers need a union. “We need to stick together.  I know that unions can help the Latinos, or the immigrant workers, and without the unions we may be in trouble.  I know that the unions may be in trouble without the immigrant workers, too.”

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When he was 22 years old, Jesus Salas led a dramatic 80-mile march in 1966 from Wautoma to Madison to seek legislation that would bring greater protections to the 5,000 migrant workers who came to Wisconsin each summer to harvest the state’s ample vegetable crops.

It was an act that would propel him into a lifetime of advocacy for all workers in the state and prompt the Wisconsin Labor History Society to present him with its annual Solidarity Award for Lifetime Achievement in serving the labor movement at the Society’s 35th Annual Conference in Kenosha.

Salas was a founder of Obreros Unidos during the 1960s to serve migrant workers.  In accepting the award he said the organizing effort was made to address the growing trend of the transfer of farms that were once family-run (with the “growers working in the fields alongside us”) to becoming large corporate operations.  He said the effort was made also to bring farmworkers under similar protections enjoyed by most workers under the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 that excluded farmworkers and domestics.

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While labor unions historically have often been neglectful of immigrant workers – and even hostile – efforts are being made to involve immigrant workers into unions, both to strengthen the labor movement and to assist in the battle for immigrant rights.

That was stated over and over in an afternoon panel discussion on labor’s response to immigration.

Neidi Dominguez, of Washington D.C., who is a leader of the new AFL-CIO initiatives, said the immigration effort is more than a policy issue and is also about worker rights.

Dominquez, who is director of the Workers Centers Partnerships and deputy director of Community Engagement for the AFL-CIO, said the labor federation is developing training programs for organizers who are able to handle both workplace and immigrant rights issues.  She said the program has field organizers available to assist communities in such strategies, including creating workers centers.

One such workers center is run by Voces de La Frontera in Milwaukee.  Christine Neumann-Ortiz, executive director of the center, another panelist, noted the close relationship the center has with many unions in the state.  Such centers, she said, have grown to provide direct service to workers for workplace issues as well as to supporting workers in organizing unions.  The centers also work on immigration issues.

For years the National AFL-CIO’s Labor Council for Latin American Advancement (LCLAA) has been a leader in supporting Latino workers, both union and nonunion. Another panelist, Joseph “Pepe” Oulahan, a leader of the Wisconsin Chapter, said that LCLAA’s goal is to connect Latino workers to unions.

He noted the challenges faced in involving Latinos, stating that many Latinos are union members but don’t come to meetings or are active.  They view unions only as “those are the people who take my money every payday.”

“It’s a horrible shame and it’s hurting the union movement,” he added.

LCLAA is seeking to overcome some of those issues, Oulahan said.