In some year-end reviews of labor in 2012 (here and here), we see an important missed connection that the union movement is committed to building in 2013. While these reviews identify important worker struggles throughout the year, they fail to recognize that all workers—immigrant, public, private, low-wage and middle-class—share values and experiences that unite them in a broad-based union movement. A major theme of many of last year’s important labor struggles was how immigrant workers and the union movement came together in local communities to win justice.
Labor and immigration are often mistakenly treated as separate issues by the news media. In reality, the two intersect in ways that are crucial both to the union movement and our country’s future prosperity. Many unscrupulous employers exploit immigration law or employer-friendly federal and state labor laws to intimidate both foreign- and native-born workers into submission and silence in order to depress wages and prevent workers from uniting for a voice on the job. All workers are connected in this struggle because when employers depress the working conditions of some, the conditions for all are lowered.
The AFL-CIO acknowledged the common struggle uniting native- and foreign-born workers in 2012, and the federation showed its commitment to creating a common-sense immigration process for immigrant workers and aspiring Americans that includes a road map to citizenship. As AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka put it in a recent video, reform of the immigration process is “key to restoring the middle class and growing the economic power of working people.”
With this in mind, here are a few stories that could have easily been part of a list of the top labor stories of 2012:
1. Taxi drivers in New York won a ground-breaking health and disability fund for drivers. These workers, whom the law treats as independent contractors and thus denies them the protection of the National Labor Relations Board, negotiated a fare increase and the creation of the fund with the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission. For the first time in decades, taxi drivers in New York will have access to affordable health care.
2. In 2012, Los Angeles carwash workers, many of whom are aspiring citizens, became members of the AFL-CIO-affiliated United Steelworkers union and signed collective bargaining agreements with three carwashes. These carwash workers built connections with many community groups and labor unions to fundamentally reshape abusive conditions in Los Angeles’ carwash industry. Carwash workers in New York won similar victories when they voted to join the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union-UFCW (RWDSU-UFCW).
3. Halfway through the year, the Dreamers, a group of brave young aspiring citizens brought to this country as children, achieved the seemingly impossible: a policy directive from President Obama to protect them from deportation. The Dreamers can be found in unions, worksites, high schools and universities around the country. Shortly after Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano announced deferred action for childhood arrivals, Trumka defended the new policy as one that “helps all working men and women,” adding:
The labor movement is united in calling on Congress to take action and create a common sense immigration process—one that reflects our values, keeps families together, supports a secure border and creates a road map to citizenship.
4. In August, the AFL-CIO joined in Palermo Villa Inc. workers’ cries of “No Justice! No Piece!,” endorsing a nationwide boycott of the Milwaukee-based frozen pizza manufacturer. The striking workers, many of whom are immigrants, were asking Palermo’s Pizza to recognize their union and for the opportunity to address serious workplace problems through the collective bargaining process. The strike brought stark attention to how low-road employers use immigration enforcement to disrupt workplace organizing.