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Organizing the undocumented worker

Near the end of last month, a California Bay Area day laborer center, Centro Legal de la Raza, joined with America's largest federation of labor unions, the AFL-CIO, to educate the country's estimated 12 million undocumented workers about their workplace rights, according to Judicial Watch, a nonpartisan, educational foundation.

The recognition of undocumented workers by labor unions is "something that was going to happen regardless," said Travis Thompson, staff attorney for Centro Legal in St. Paul. "If a union has a contract with an individual, that individual will be covered under a union contract," he said. (Centro Legal is not affiliated with Centro Legal de la Raza.)

In a policy move announced last year, the AFL-CIO, representing some 10 million American workers, said it would advocate for illegal aliens by working with 140 day-laborer centers in 80 cities and towns. Centro Legal de la Raza has worked to protect the rights of immigrants and all low-income Latinos in Northern California since 1969. According to its website, the center helps low-wage workers fight unlawful working conditions, offers legal advocacy, and conducts employment rights workshops and leadership development training.
Affording undocumented workers with many of the same rights given American workers may be the first step in recognizing the need for "illegals" in the American economy.

"Undocumented immigrants are so vital that if they all went on a general strike for a week, we wouldn't find life very comfortable," said David K. Shipler, a former New York Times correspondent, in a May opinion piece for business source Forbes magazine.

But because of their status in the workplace and because of the constant threat of deportation, the rights of undocumented workers are not recognized in the workplace, and "employers routinely take advantage," according to Linda Chavez-Thompson, executive vice president of the AFL-CIO.
"The result is that both guest workers and undocumented workers end up working the most dangerous and most exploitative jobs in our country," she said last month in Forbes.

According to information from the AFL-CIO, "Among foreign-born workers, workplace fatalities increased by an alarming 46 percent between 1992 and 2002," and, "since 1992, fatalities among Hispanic workers have increased by 65 percent."

Day laborers, often undocumented workers who queue up on street corners or in vacant lots looking for work, have nowhere to turn when employers refuse to pay or expect them to work under unsafe conditions, so the AFL-CIO has made the decision to take their part. According to Judicial Watch, "An enthusiastic director of Centro Legal de la Raza predicts this could be the first step to fully unionizing illegal immigrants in the United States."

Pressure by the AFL-CIO on Democrats in the Senate helped derail Congress' immigration reform bill, voted down late last month. Federation officials cited provisions in the bill that were overly punitive to the undocumented work force. But other labor unions, especially those representing service employees, supported the legislation as a starting point that could have been built upon.
According to a story appearing in The New York Times shortly before the final, fatal vote on June 28, a service union official was quoted as saying he supported the measure because, in his opinion, it would have been good for both undocumented workers and labor union members.

"It's not just a question of helping us as organized labor," said Eliseo Medina, an executive vice president of the Service Employees International Union, in the Times article, but "it helps all workers because if you have a significant number of workers without any rights, that suppresses wages for everybody."




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