By Bendix Anderson
On April 14th, an alliance of union workers and immigration rights activists gathered on the steps of City Hall. “Si Se Puede!” chanted more than 100 workers brandishing union flags and banners – “Si Se Puede” is Spanish for “Yes We Can!”
The event was just a warm up for a larger march and rally planned for New York City’s Foley Square. “Join us on May First,” said Raglan George, executive director of District Council 1707 of the AFL-CIO. “The time has come to call for greater rights for many, and not just for the few.”
In recent years, May Day has become a day that brings unions and immigration activists together – a partnership that has strengthened with time.
The AFL-CIO’s latest call for “Comprehensive Immigration Reform” includes both regulations of new immigration based on labor shortages “based on actual need” and “adjustment of status for the current undocumented population.” That means giving legal status to illegal aliens.
“It is our responsibility to help undocumented workers,” said John Delgado, Business Manager of Laborers Local 79. “They will not be stealing anyone’s job. They are already here. They already have jobs.”
Improving the status of undocumented immigrants will also help balance federal and state budgets. Millions of immigrants paid off-the-books could start paying taxes and potentially contribute to the cost of their health care. “It will be billions of dollars in revenue,” said Delgado.
Helping undocumented immigrants also helps the unions. That’s because if employers could no longer hire undocumented immigrants and intimidate them into accepting less than minimum wage, that would remove a powerful cost incentive to hire non-union workers.
It wasn’t always this way. Over the last two hundred years, relatively poor newcomers like recent immigrants continuously clashed with established organizations of workers like guilds and unions. The old fear has been that people who have jobs may lose them to immigrant workers willing to accept lower wages.
However, the alliance between labor unions and immigration advocates has been growing stronger, starting in the early 1990s when the AFL-CIO passed a resolution that reversed its long-standing policy and began to support immigration reform after years of active opposition.
“If we don’t work together, they will pit us against each other,” said Chung-Wha Hong, executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition. “The day immigrants lose their rights starts a race to the bottom for all workers.”