Organizing the undocumented worker
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
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
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