Organized Labor and Immigrant Workers

How has organized labor embraced immigrant workers? Debbie Elliott speaks with Ana Avendano of the AFL-CIO and Ruth Milkman, who teaches industrial sociology at UCLA.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

Last weekend, in an interview about who was organizing recent immigration marches, we said that the AFL-CIO is opposed to a guest worker program. They were concerned our reporter suggested that the umbrella labor group does not embrace immigrant workers. Today, we'd like to look closer at the relationship between organized labor and immigration. First, we'll speak with Ana Avendano, who handles immigration policy for the AFL-CIO. Ms. Avendano, welcome to the program.

Ms. ANA AVENDANO (AFL-CIO, Immigration Policy): Happy to be here.

ELLIOTT: So clarify for us the AFL-CIO's position on a guest worker program.

Ms. AVENDANO: The guest worker program is one part of our comprehensive approach to immigration reform. We are opposed to guest worker programs because they are a blueprint for exploitation of workers, but that's not the entire policy. Our executive council adopted a historic resolution in the year 2000, embracing immigrant workers as part of our movement and right now we're advocating there strongly for full legalization for all twelve million undocumented workers.

ELLIOTT: You say that a guest worker program is licensed for exploiting workers?

Ms. AVENDANO: Right. There's never been a single guest worker program that worked to the benefit the workers. Under guest worker programs, by definition, workers come to this country tied to an employer. An employer not only controls the working conditions for that worker, but also controls the immigration status for that worker. It is our position that is not good public policy to simply expand that program to include hundreds of thousands of workers who are going to be tied to their employer and, you know, ripe for exploitation.

ELLIOTT: Ana Avendano, from the AFL-CIO, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Ms. AVENDANO: Thanks. Bye-bye.

ELLIOTT: Professor Ruth Milkman has written about the relationship between labor and immigrants. She says there has traditionally been tension over this issue within the labor movement.

Professor RUTH MILKMAN (UCLA): There was always a strain in the labor movement of hostility to immigrants, the view being that immigrant workers undercut the hard-won labor standards of native born American workers. And then there's always been a second view, this is true for the whole time there's been a labor movement, nearly a century now in this country, that the right approach to this problem was to organize the immigrants and raise their labor standards to the level of others.

And these same kind of debates have actually taken place about other groups of workers. Women, historically, were treated in just that same ambivalent way. Black workers, to some extent. You know, the original view of many people in the labor movement and elsewhere was that you could never organize undocumented immigrants, especially, or poor immigrants, more generally. They were terrified of apprehension by the immigration authorities and deportation and so on.

ELLIOTT: Being caught, say, if their name was on a union roll.

Professor MILKMAN: Yeah, those all turned out to be, in my view, mythological views. So instead, when the unions actually began trying recruit immigrants, they found that they tended to be quite a bit more receptive than many native born workers. Immigrants experience so many risks. One personally interviewed here in L.A. pointed out that, she said, In my country if you organize a union, they kill you. Here you lose a job that pays the minimum wage. It actually turned out that there was tremendous organizing potential in this population and the unions that began to exploit that actually were very successful.

ELLIOTT: So as these immigrants started to get involved in unions, how did that change what was going on in the unions themselves?

Professor MILKMAN: It began to occur to people that maybe the historical approach of the AFL-CIO needed to be re-thought. And so in February of 2000, the AFL-CIO announced that new position and that was a big deal at the time. But there's one other important development that occurred between that 2000 policy change and the present, of course, which is a year ago, when a group of unions left the AFL-CIO, led by the SCIU and included some of the other unions that have been very active in the immigrant organizing who are now part of a group called the Change to Win Federation.

And that changed the dynamic a little bit because those unions were the leaders both in winning that policy change and in doing the immigrant organizing in the 1990s. So in a way that impulse is now concentrated and Change to Win and the AFL-CIO is left with the industrial unions on the one side, which have relatively few immigrant members, though they have some, and the public sector unions, which have hardly any immigrant members.

ELLIOTT: Ruth Milkman is director of the Institute for Industrial Relations of UCLA and is the author of a forthcoming book about immigrant unionism. Thanks so much for speaking with us.

Professor MILKMAN: My pleasure. Thank you.

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