AFL/CIO Vice President Discusses New Direction
DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:
Every day about 120,000 day laborers seek work. It's estimated about 3/4 of them are in the country illegally. The National Day Laborers Organizing Network represents many of these workers, but they now have another labor group on their side, the AFL/CIO.
Recently, the labor federation reached an agreement with the day laborers group to work together. Among other things, the AFL/CIO pledged to advance the rights of day laborers and to fight legislation that seeks to criminalize immigrants.
We asked Linda Chavez-Thompson, executive vice president of the AFL/CIO, to explain why her organization entered into this new arrangement.
Ms. LINDA CHAVEZ-THOMPSON (AFL/CIO): We believe that any time any group of workers is treated less-than, if they are pulled down as far as wages and working conditions and health and safety issues, it brings down all workers.
ELLIOTT: How will that play out in practice? If I go into a day laborers center, am I going to see a big AFL/CIO banner?
Ms. CHAVEZ-THOMPSON: No, I don't think so. What this working relationship is to find ways where we can mobilize to protect these workers. It's the same thing that happened at the turn of the century with the Irish, the Italians, the other immigrants that have come into this country. By predominance, the day laborers are undocumented immigrants and any time they are treated less, all workers suffer the consequences.
ELLIOTT: Now, am I to understand correctly, you're not going to be in these labor centers trying to sign up new union members.
Ms. CHAVEZ-THOMPSON: No. Eventually if they do join the union, great. But that is not the intent. It is more about talking about worker centers and of course the protection of the undocumented immigrant as well.
ELLIOTT: Now, the protection of these centers, you know, in some places these centers have come under protest, say, by groups like the Minutemen, or even local communities have voted to try to force them out. Will the AFL/CIO step in in these instances? I mean, what do you mean by protect? Is it money? Is it people? Is it legal aid?
Ms. CHAVEZ-THOMPSON: What we want to try to do is to work together with state and local enforcement regarding the rights of and the protections of these workers, including their wages. Immigrants, whether they're documented or not, still have rights under the law.
ELLIOTT: But there are also federal laws that say these people are not supposed to be here working. When you're talking about an undocumented worker, how do you navigate that line?
Ms. CHAVEZ-THOMPSON: Well, employers are the ones that are coming to these workers. I would assume that the employer is trying to get cheap labor, but we're trying to protect the workers and I think that's the goal that we have in this agreement.
ELLIOTT: You know, the nation is divided on the whole issue of what should be done about workers who are here illegally. What have you been hearing from the rank and file members of your union about this new agreement that you have?
Ms. CHAVEZ-THOMPSON: When we went into this agreement, we consulted with the president and the executive officers of the building trade, so this was not something that the AFL/CIO walked into without consulting these unions. And so it is about the workers. It is about what we can do to help protect them as workers. And as I said before, if they happen to come into the union, great. But for right now, let's just protect their rights.
ELLIOTT: You know, don't some rank and file union members look at workers in a day laborer center and think, you know, these are the people that might fill my job should I go on strike, you know.
What do you tell union members about how working with this organization and working with some undocumented workers might actually help them? How do you make that case?
Ms. CHAVEZ-THOMPSON: Part of it is education. Any union member who hopes to get better wages has to realize that the more of the work force that is out there that can be manipulated by employers, all workers suffer.
I think by having this relationship, we can almost assure ourselves that these workers are going to work with us not to be the strike breakers. And I think we've even had some incidents where the employers tried to go to them and have them break strikes, and these workers refused to do that, even long before our agreement with them. I think it's a win-win situation for both sides.
ELLIOTT: Ms. Chavez-Thompson, the November election is the first national election since six members of the AFL/CIO split off, but I understand you've decided to team up during this campaign year with Change to Win, the breakaway group that had formed.
What's the joint strategy for the election?
Ms. CHAVEZ-THOMPSON: The Change to Win unions and ourselves signed an agreement and what basically we are saying is we're going to work together. This is the largest program that the AFL/CIO has ever had. They have priority states. We have priority states. So we're all going to be working together, and our local unions are just as enthusiastic about making this program work as we have been with any other political year.
ELLIOTT: Linda Chavez-Thompson is the executive vice president of the AFL/CIO.
Thanks for speaking with us.
Ms. CHAVEZ-THOMPSON: Thank you.