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AFL-CIO Turns Corner, Embraces Immigrant Workers (2)

Wisconsin AFL-CIO President Phil Neuenfeldt and AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka march in solidarity with immigrants and workers

The AFL-CIO recently announced a partnership agreement with domestic workers and guest workers, two professions that attract a large number of immigrant labor.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, alongside Saket Soni of the National Guestworkers’ Alliance and Barbara Young of the National Domestic Workers’ Alliance, announced the new alliance on May 10 in Manhattan.

The speech kicked off the start of the Excluded Workers Congress conference, a three-day event that sought to bring together international workers and activists who fight to protect the rights of disenfranchised workers.

“We’re talking about workers who are denied their most fundamental rights, denied the freedom to join and form unions and the right to bargain collectively for better wages and health care – even told that it’s unreasonable to want a better way of life for their families,” said Trumka.

The newly formed alliance is an important one. According to the United Nations International Labor Organization, the vast majority of the world’s workers serve in vulnerable occupations that are unregulated and unprotected.

Domestic workers and farm workers were specifically denied the right to bargain collectively when they were excluded from the National Labor Relations Act despite the fact that farm work is one of the more dangerous occupations in the US when it comes to things like workplace injuries and exposure to toxins. In fact, farm work is legally excluded from coverage and protection by OSHA, the Department of Occupational Safety and Health.

Furthermore, domestic workers cannot organize to fight for overtime protection and are also excluded from OSHA oversight.

The punishment for trying to organize can be deportation and retaliation if guest workers or domestic workers dare to speak out against harsh working conditions.

During his speech, Trumka used taxi drivers as an example of how the manipulation of laws strips workers of fundamental rights:

Until 1979, taxi drivers were recognized employees under our labor laws and they had the right to bargain collectively – but overnight they became excluded workers when the New York Taxi and Limousine Commission rendered them independent contractors. They lost not only the right to bargain collectively, but access to benefits, such as paid time off, unemployment and health insurance; their work days were extended by 15%, and within a year, they were making less than 75% of what they made when they were employees with full rights.

The Excluded Workers Congress rejects that old paradigm, and in addition to announcing this new partnership, Trumka also wished to celebrate labor’s victories.

For example, the NY Taxi Workers Alliance is now 15,000 members strong and currently fighting to win health care for its drivers. Despite having countless laws stacked against them, the drivers have thus far been able to negotiate with New York City.

In its press release, the AFL-CIO states that domestic workers are frequently excluded from labor agreements due to race politics (domestic workers were historically predominately African-American women). Now, that demographic has shifted to a mostly immigrant, namely Hispanic, women workforce.

Part of what took the coalition so long to coalesce stems from a burnt workforce looking to scapegoat someone – anyone – for the terrible state of the American economy. Wages have been stagnant for 30 years, unions are weaker then ever, and it was quite simply easy to blame immigrants for “stealing jobs.”

Of course, that’s not true. Immigrants grow the economy, expanding demand for goods and services, and the loss of jobs can be blamed on corporations, which expand their profits by outsourcing labor. The top US corporations outsourced more than 2.4 million American jobs over the last decade, while simultaneously luxuriating in lavish citizen-supplied subsidies and tax breaks.

At least for now, it seems labor is ready to stop blaming immigrants for the state of the economy, and, as the Latino population continues to explode, the epiphany appears to have come just in time.

“Immigrants are the best hope for the labor movement,” says Eliseo Medina, the secretary-treasurer of the Service Employees International Union and an immigrant. “Fresh blood will always make your body stronger.”

The alliance between big labor and domestic and guest workers comes at a critical time not only in the country’s history, but also in President Obama’s re-election campaign.

Lately, Obama has been feeling pressure from his Hispanic base as he attempts to generate enthusiasm for the 2012 election. Though Hispanics voted for Obama over McCain by a margin of more than two to one, issues like worker rights and immigration have somewhat soured relations between Obama and the Latino community.

The president has been almost entirely focused on the issue of immigration, as though the Hispanic community is a monolith obsessed with a singular issue. He would be remiss to overlook Latinos’ profound influence in the labor force (Hispanics represented 15 percent of the United States’ workforce in 2010). Additionally, 41 percent of all employed Hispanics in 2010 were women.

Though the Boycott Obama movement has largely died down in the Hispanic community, some remain angry with the president. Alfredo Gutierrez, a former Democratic state senator from Arizona, says Obama could not be counted on to enact things like a path to citizenship. “We should deny our votes to Obama, a man who clearly is not sincere about his intentions,” he told AFP.

On May 10, Obama made a major speech on immigration reform in El Paso that was supposed to lay out his blueprint for 21st century immigration reform, but which ultimately fell flat. Writing for The New York Daily News, journalist Juan Gonzales writes that Obama “weakly punts immigration reform back to Congress.”

The president continues to operate under the false assumption that if he just stacks enough armed soldiers along the border, Republicans will magically support immigration reform. Yet, the president has already sent the National Guard to the border, and dispatched drone surveillance, and hired more border agents, and the scapegoating of immigrants continues.

In the same speech, Obama credited immigrant workers with being industrious, and helping to rebuild the Pentagon in less than one year after the 9/11 attack, and then went on to continue familiar fear-mongering about illegal immigrants who must be “held accountable for their actions.” This is the kind of rhetoric one expects from a politician who wavers between half-Progressive and “serious moderate.”

It’s going to be difficult to get Obama to focus on the issues of Hispanic domestic workers while he’s busily escalating the anti-immigration policies of yore. For example, the Obama administration has detained and deported more people than the Bush administration did, according to Sunita Patel, staff attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights.

But immigrant workers have found an ally in big labor, which badly needs their new energy and commitment to solidarity to replace an aging, and shrinking, membership.

“Today is a proud day for domestic workers and for the US labor movement,” said Barbara Young, nanny and National Organizer with the National Domestic Workers Alliance. “We are committing to work together to build a powerful labor movement for the 21st Century. We are proud to fight together with our union brothers and sisters to defend and expand the right to organize, win justice for immigrants, and ensure that one day the workers that make all other work possible – cleaning and caring for children and seniors – will have rights, respect, and recognition.”

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