News/US: Immigrant workers, unions join forces to seek new laws

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Subject: News/US: Immigrant workers, unions join forces to seek new laws
From: Melanie Orhant (morhant@igc.org)
Date: Mon Jul 03 2000 - 15:29:39 EDT


Immigrant workers, unions join forces to seek new laws
Tales of exploitation fuel the effort
Timothy Burn
The Washington Times, April 30, 2000

ATLANTA - Undocumented immigrant workers from across the South yesterday
recounted stories of exploitation by their employers in an effort to built
grass-roots support for the labor movement's new campaign to gain
citizenship for the estimated 6 million illegal aliens living in America.

The workers, from places as diverse as Mexico, Haiti and Somalia, told
local and national labor leaders harrowing tales of employer abuse ranging
from low wages and long hours to denied bathroom breaks and repeated
threats of deportation.

"I would work 40 to 60 hours a week and receive only $250 in pay, and I was
forced to work 15 hours a day with only one short break," Armando Torres,
an undocumented carpenter, told labor members at a union hall in South
Atlanta.

"It was pretty much like slavery almost because we would have to work in
the rain and at night and we wouldn't get picked up until the job was
completed for that day," said Mr. Torres, 29, who was lured into the United
States by an American construction company that promised him work.

Other foreign workers told similar accounts of abuse as part of a
nationwide campaign by labor organizers to illuminate the plight of the
exploding population of undocumented workers in America, and to promote
immigration reform.

In a major shift, the AFL-CIO in February called for a restructuring of
U.S. immigration law to improve the rights of undocumented workers by
granting them the right to stay in the country and work permanently. And it
is calling for an end to sanctions against employers who hire illegal aliens.

"We believe that all working people deserve good wages and benefits, safe
workplaces, basic dignity and the right to a voice in the workplace," said
Linda Chavez-Thompson, executive vice president of the AFL-CIO, a
federation of the nation's major unions.

Labor unions and their members have in the past taken a dim view toward
granting citizenship to undocumented workers, believing that their presence
in the work force has dampened wages and thwarted union organizing.

But labor leaders now believe that undocumented workers should not only
have the same rights as documented workers, but also that they represent a
potential bonanza of new members for the nation's unions, which have
experienced declining ranks in the past 20 years.

"We don't care if they are brown, black, white, documented or undocumented.
We don't care whether their families came here 400 years ago on a slave
ship, or the Mayflower, 100 years ago through Ellis Island or last year
across the Rio Grande," said Ms. Chavez-Thompson, herself the daughter of
Mexican immigrants.

Many labor leaders acknowledge that selling the new immigration initiative
to rank-and-file members will be difficult. But they insisted that the
future of the labor movement depends on all workers, regardless of color or
nationality, sticking together to fight for better working conditions.

"We know that everybody is not on the same page as the AFL-CIO is as far as
its immigration policy because folks are feeling resentment," said Clayola
Brown, vice president of UNITE!, a garment workers union, adding those
sentiments are shared among some black workers.

"Folks of all colors have to be a part of this immigration fight . . . and
we are not going to stand by and let those folks who practice the policy of
separation make our fight weaker," Ms. Brown said.

Though participants acknowledged a difference in opinion within the labor
movement, there were few dissenters and yesterday's forum drew about 50
union activists and immigrant workers from across the South.

It was the second such forum in a four-city tour of labor organizers to
draw attention to the exploitation of illegal immigrant workers, to
convince those workers that unions can help and to convince the
rank-and-file that the new policy will strengthen the labor movement.

The first event was in New York on April 1; the next two will be in June in
Chicago and Los Angeles. Labor officials said they plan to use the forums
to gather information and then craft a plan of action by August.

The next step will be for labor leaders to take their proposals to federal
lawmakers. Changing immigration law requires an act of Congress.

For its part, the Clinton administration has signaled its support for
improving the rights of undocumented workers. The Immigration and
Naturalization Service last week granted temporary relief from deportation
for seven undocumented Mexican hotel workers.

The workers earlier this year were at the center of a discrimination
lawsuit against their employer, the Holiday Inn Express in Minneapolis. The
workers won an out-of-court settlement from the hotel after accusing its
managers of discriminating against them because of their national origin
and immigration status.
Melanie Orhant <<morhant@igc.org>>
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