The Worker/Immigrant Link: America’s Driving Force

Kimball Baker

Credit: snapinadil/Shutterstock

The Worker/Immigrant Link: America’s Driving Force

When the Center for Migration Studies (CMS), a Catholic think-tank headquartered in New York City, spearheaded the creation of the Catholic Immigrant Integration Initiative four years ago, the agency did not realize the extent to which the issues of immigrant and worker justice had become so entwined.  Indeed, this linkage is fast becoming the driving force behind the attempts by many Americans to reclaim this nation’s keystone values of economic fairness and social justice.

“In striving to carry out the initiative’s mission of helping immigrants, documented or undocumented, to find effective pathways into American life, we are increasingly discovering that the best pathways pass through the workplace,” said Donald Kerwin, CMS’s executive director. “By helping immigrants get jobs and thrive at work, unions, worker centers and enlightened employers are helping these immigrants to better provide for themselves and their families, and to participate more actively in their communities. CMS comes out of the Catholic faith tradition, so most of the initiative’s efforts are done in partnership with Catholic parishes, dioceses, or institutions, but we work ecumenically with many faith communities and with social justice institutions and leaders of all kinds.”

Every faith tradition or humanistic belief has a strong social justice component. Energizing this dimension is crucially important at a time of divisive political currents which are both anti-immigrant and anti-worker. The decades-long crusade to hamstring labor unions has succeeded: today labor unions make up only seven percent of the US private-sector workforce. Simultaneously, the United States is faced with an ugly recurrence of the nativism which periodically blights American history, and which in the 1920s laid the framework for today’s national immigration system. This system, with its ill-conceived quotas, flawed and delay-ridden processing, and inhumane implementation, is inflicting much needless suffering upon multitudes of immigrants and their families.

To understand how our nation got into its present state of crisis, it helps to time-travel back to early 1941. The scene is the huge, sprawling River Rouge, Michigan auto-making plant of the Ford Motor Company. For weeks, the company had refused to comply with a US Supreme Court ruling that Ford must recognize the United Auto Workers (UAW) union as the collective-bargaining representative for the company’s workers. The response of the workers to this situation was simple. On the first day of April, they just stopped working, unanimously and whole-heartedly. That night at the union hall of one of UAW’s participating locals, workers gathered in joyous celebration. Emil Mazey, an immigrant who had risen through the union’s ranks to become the local’s president, described the scene:

It was like seeing people who were half-dead suddenly come to life. And did they come to life! It was hard to keep them going, hard to organize, so eager were they just to mill around and talk and let some steam go. That night you really understood what the union could mean to workers.

Today, when more and more American workers are rediscovering what organizing means to them – whether in unions or in one of the rapidly-increasing number of worker centers (from 137 in 2006 to approximately 250 now) – it is important for us to remind ourselves that for immigrant workers, from Mazey to his present-day counterparts, solidarity is essential. Wherever these workers come from – Mazey and many others were descendants of the wave of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe in the late-19th and early-20th centuries, whereas today immigrant workers come largely from Central America, Mexico, Asia, and the Caribbean – that essentiality exists.

Sometimes, as the old saying goes, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” So it proved for Aura Sprague, who came to this country from Nicaragua in 1981. For her, as for Mazey, joining a union and becoming active in it have enriched the American experience. In her case, the union is UNITE HERE, the union for 270,000 hospitality workers, specifically Local 54 of Atlantic City, New Jersey. Aura is both a longtime casino employee and a longtime organizer for the local, a task which she says is especially challenging in today’s anti-worker and anti-immigrant climate.

“I escaped political turmoil in Nicaragua in 1981 with only $100 to my name, but with a fierce determination to get to the United States and make a life there, and I’ve been fortunate to be able to do so,” Aura relates. “I became a citizen in 1991 and, having struggled mightily both before and after that event, can help more-recent immigrants deal with their struggles. The fear and uncertainty now are enormous. I have many friends and co-workers whose lives and livelihoods are severely affected by the threats to DACA and TPS, and I counsel them regarding such matters, as well as standing side-by-side with them as our local fights for justice in members’ workplaces.”

DACA – Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals – was put into place by President Barack Obama in 2012, and gives temporary work permits to undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children. To date, some 700,000 people have benefitted from the program, the so-called “Dreamers” – an apt name since so many of them have excelled in school and in their workplaces, living out their versions of “the American Dream.”

Roxana Aguilera, a DACA participant, came to this country from Mexico 15 years ago. “Before I received DACA,” she says, “I was a single mom with no money to buy food and no car to go to work in. After DACA, I got a good job and joined UNITE HERE (Local 2 in San Francisco) and found a better place for our family. If they revoke DACA, I would return to the shadows.” President Donald Trump has since terminated the program and has urged Congress “to finally act.”

As for TPS – Temporary Protected Status – it is now provided to some 320,000 immigrants from ten countries, including Nicaragua and Honduras since 1999 (following Hurricane Mitch), El Salvador (since February 2001), and Haiti (since the 2010 earthquake). The Trump administration is terminating TPS for Nicaragua in January 2018 and for Haiti in July 2019; and it may not extend TPS for El Salvador or Honduras.

Belinda Osorio, another UNITE HERE activist (Local 737 in Orlando), fled Hurricane Mitch in 1998 and came to the United States. “Thanks to TPS,” she says, “I was able to get a good job. If I’m not protected and am deported, my kids will remain here, without their mom. My son, 14, is always worried by what he hears on the news. I try to make him think that I’m not worried, but inside, I’m as worried as he is – or more. I love this country as if it were my own.”

The threat of deportation is very real for undocumented or temporarily-protected immigrants. Most Americans have little idea of what it is like to live under such a threat, but it is at the heart of the immigration crisis. Families are being divided, parents are being held (often for months) in bleak deportation centers, and every day planes fly out of the United States with “violators” of a national immigration system which is broken and which our government seems unable to fix. Frequently, the “violators” have led exemplary lives in this country, where they have treasured freedoms and blessings most Americans take for granted.

Most undocumented or temporarily-protected immigrants, who are asked what they would say to President Trump if they had the opportunity, respond with some variation of “please consider the impact of your policies and actions on us and our families.”

It is an exceedingly reasonable request, of course, but the answer so far has been totally negative. The President seems much more caught up in the approval that he and his policies and actions receive from nativists, racists, and plutocrats. It’s the old, old story of “divide and conquer,” but the President and his allies are making a major miscalculation. They are hugely underestimating worker solidarity. It is this solidarity which is pushing America’s strong and growing worker/immigrant linkages into the national picture in a powerful way.

Nowhere is this more clearly apparent than in the nation’s approximately 250 worker centers. Initially, most of these centers were in major metropolitan areas and had a primarily-immigrant clientele. They have often functioned as “gateway centers,” notes Janice Fine in the book Worker Centers. “Central components of the immigrant community infrastructure, and, in the combination of services, advocacy, and organizing they undertake, are playing a unique role in helping immigrants navigate the worlds of work and legal rights in the United States.”

Consider the example of New Labor, a worker center in the New Brunswick area of New Jersey. This center combats the exploitation of workers by training its participants in worker rights, health, and safety. It uses the peer-to-peer method, whereby the less-experienced learn from the more-experienced, and both groups grow in confidence and effectiveness. Florentino Ramos, for instance, reports that he joined New Labor just last year, after hearing about it from a co-worker, but that his training has already enabled him to assume more leadership in his union local.

Germania Hernandez, another New Labor member, came to the group in 2004 to learn English. “I did,” she recalls, “but more than that I found a friendly atmosphere. I trained in worker health and safety, became a trainer myself, and five years after I came I joined the center’s staff as an organizer. A particular focus of mine has been immigration reform, because a lot of families are being divided and much hate has been launched against the immigrant community. As we’ve become part of the entire community, however, we’ve discovered that we’re not alone.”

Worker centers are still performing integrating functions for many immigrant workers, documented and undocumented, but what has been most exciting in the past decade is the extent to which worker centers and unions are cooperating to form worker/immigrant linkages. Both Fine’s book and The Worker Center Handbook (2016), by nationally-recognized worker-justice advocates Kim Bobo and Marien Casillas Pabillon, explore many facets of worker-center/union partnerships.

In the early days of worker-center/union relationships, there was some degree of competitiveness and suspicion, but this was largely based on misunderstandings, by one side of the relationship or the other, about what the other side was all about. As both sides have realized that they are working toward the same goals, and as the forces of plutocracy have ramped up their anti-worker and anti-immigrant behaviors, worker centers and unions are forming more and more strong partnerships.

The Worker Center Handbook cites the example of a worker center known as the Chicago Workers Collaborative, which cooperated with Bakers Local 1 in the city on an organizing campaign. The center trained temporary, low-wage workers to know their rights, with the result that workers at two companies won union-election victories within a year.

On the national level, the AFL-CIO has authorized worker centers to affiliate formally with state labor federations, local labor councils, and Working America, the AFL-CIO’s political organizing arm. Also, the national federation has formed partnerships with the National Day Labor Organizing Network, the National Domestic Workers Alliance, and similar groups. These partnerships are vital because they fight for worker/immigrant justice in occupations not covered by the National Labor Relations Act of 1937 (NLRA).

The Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, only a decade later, grievously misshaped the NLRA by allowing for so-called right-to-work states (now half of the states in the United States), which keeps unions from presenting the necessary united front to employers. Union momentum gradually slowed then experienced a precipitous decline after President Ronald Reagan’s breaking of the PATCO strike in 1981. By then, monied interests were fully back in the saddle, with the predictable outcomes workers suffer from today – low wages (even wage theft), poor (if any) health care coverage, inadequate benefits, and, worst of all, little voice for workers in determining their own workplace destinies.

Adding to these injustices, President Trump and other anti-worker, anti-immigrant politicians are playing upon the very real frustrations of working people by pretending concern, whereas these politicians support unregulated capitalism which is keeping working people down. Such hypocrisy even includes accusing immigrants of stealing the jobs of other Americans. The reality is that many of the jobs immigrants get are jobs few Americans will take. More importantly, most economists contend that immigrant workers are adding more to the economy than they are taking from it, and are thus helping to expand economic opportunity for all workers.

Whatever plutocratic politicians think they are doing, the net result, thankfully, is the energizing and multiplying of social justice activists and advocates. Unions and worker centers are key parts of this heartening surge, and are forging more and more linkages with immigrants fighting for their rightful places in American life, just as their predecessors did back in the 1930s and 1940s. Many industrial unions formed and flourished in the face of a myriad of attempts to divide them by race and ethnicity.

Both union renewal and worker-center expansion are integral parts of the worker/immigrant drive forward. Georgetown University professor Joseph McCartin, a renowned historian and the executive director of the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor, calls for a reframing and updating of “that old vision of industrial democracy,” as well as for the rebuilding of “worker organizations that can help achieve that democracy.” The Kalmanovitz Initiative is helping significantly by bringing together many resources for worker-center development.

As worker organizing refurbishes the old and solidifies the new, central elements in this two-pronged approach are education and ecumenism. A then-and-now perspective is helpful in understanding these elements, particularly a comparison of worker-center training with the networks of Catholic labor schools of the 1930s and 1940s, which were one of that era’s primary means of teaching newly-organized workers the ins-and-outs of organizing and collective bargaining.

In terms of education, nearly every worker center has training in workers’ rights, employment and immigration law, safety and health, the minimum wage and wage theft, worker organizing, and other relevant and practical topics; and there are sets of workers’ rights materials available for center participants. Many centers offer a weekly class for eight or ten weeks, and bring in speakers from unions, state and federal labor departments, other worker centers, and local universities.

The emphasis in all this training is on critical thinking – to get workers thinking not just about workforce realities, but also about how these realities came about, and to focus on the enforcement of laws and not just on the laws themselves. A hugely important topic right now is the future of work, including changes in how work is done and the effects of globalization; workers’ ideas developed in the centers need to become parts of all job training and of international economic arrangements. The primary means which centers use to help trainees use critical thinking is the popular-education method, featuring learners involving themselves based upon their own experiences.

In comparing this worker-center training with the Catholic labor-school networks (52 of them in 1939, in 24 cities), the most remarkable finding is the similarity of the labor education involved. The length of sessions was the same, as was the nature of the courses and methods of the schools. Most schools offered courses in public speaking, parliamentary procedure, labor history, and current labor developments. They brought in outside experts as most worker centers do, and they looked for ways to involve learners, such as through school newspapers, debate teams, and mock collective-bargaining sessions.

Most Catholic labor schools also offered a course in the ethics of worker justice, a course which was often taught by a priest and which emphasized relevant Catholic social teachings, such as the papal encyclicals emphasizing the dignity of human beings and the dignity of work and workers. Monsignor John Ryan, an economist who oversaw the Catholic Social Action Department through most of the labor-school era, expressed this spiritual and moral dimension when he stated that “economic as well as other human actions are subject to the moral law, that buying and selling, borrowing and lending, employing and serving, wage-paying and rent-paying, are either right or wrong, good or bad, just or unjust.”

The Catholic labor schools declined with the long, post-World War II decline of the labor movement, but not before much of the spiritual and moral dimension espoused by Monsignor Ryan and his labor apostles had permeated the New Deal’s industrial democracy. This moral dimension dovetailed with a similar dimension in most of the other labor schools of that era, as well as the worker-education efforts of many unions. There was a common underlying vision which lives on in union renewal and the burgeoning of worker centers.

Ecumenism is the second key element of current worker-organizing developments. They build upon the open-to-all characteristic of the major faith traditions’ movements for worker justice and immigrant justice, including the Protestant Social Gospel movement of the late-19th century, the Jewish labor lyceums of the early 20th century, Islamic efforts at various times to implement the Quran’s worker-justice teachings, and the Catholic social-action movement of the 1930s and 1940s.

CMS’s Immigrant Integration Initiative is putting immigrant justice together with worker justice in a way which exemplifies America rediscovering its bedrock moral values. Father Clete Kiley, Immigration Director for the UNITE HERE union and an active participant in the CMS Initiative, gained social justice inspiration from serving as a young priest in a Chicago church which hosted an early Catholic labor school. Now he leads the immigrant/worker justice efforts of a group of about 120 priests (half of them immigrants), who are active in worker organizing in cities all across the United States. They and social justice champions from all faith traditions are glad to live in a time when Pope Francis speaks up vigorously for workers and immigrants, and acts on their behalf.

Fortunately, these priests have plenty of occasions to practice what they preach. Father John Thomas, for example, pastor of St. Monica Church in Atlantic City, is a friend of Local 54, mentioned earlier; its president, Bob McDevitt, is one of his parishioners, as are many Latino and Vietnamese immigrants from the resort’s casino and hotel workforces. Recently, Father Thomas said a Mass dedicated to worker solidarity and marched in the parade which followed. “I need to be involved,” he states. “I‘m trying to make the church relevant to parishioners’ lives.”

Also active in the CMS Initiative is Elena Segura, Associate Director and Senior Immigration Coordinator in the Office for Human Dignity and Solidarity of the Archdiocese of Chicago. She has been with the Initiative since its beginnings and is struck by how immigrant justice has since become a priority for huge numbers of people throughout the Chicago area and throughout American society, especially for those concerned with economic inequality and worker injustices. An important part of her job is to promote immigrant integration throughout the Chicago region, in churches and other Catholic institutions. She is heartened at the strong response to her doing so.

Segura cites as an example of this response a development in the northwestern Chicago suburb of Wheeling, at the aptly-named Church of St. Joseph the Worker (the patron saint of workers). Recently, parishioner Fernando Flores, a local insurance agent, chaired a workshop for fellow parishioners (many of whom are immigrants, documented and undocumented) regarding laws and happenings pertaining to immigration and work. “My parents immigrated to this country and lived for years as undocumented workers,” Flores shared, “and I’ve seen what fear and uncertainty can do in people and in a community. Lately, though, it seems like folks are more willing to talk about what’s going on, so I invited some social justice activists from Arise Chicago, a worker center, to come and answer parishioners’ questions. I see the workshop as a way of living out the values of my faith, like helping others less fortunate and lifting up those who are down.”

Interfaith Worker Justice, headquartered in Chicago and with 75 local affiliates around the United States, including many worker centers, promotes the living out of such values, and Laura Barrett, the group’s executive director, reminds us of the across-the-board nature of fighting for justice in America these days, whether worker justice, immigrant justice, or racial justice. “We believe,” Barrett asserts, “that labor has a sacred bond with the dignity of all people. However we labor, our work contributes to the creation of community, the richness and diversity of culture, and a chance for every human to connect in fellowship with one another.”

All the immigrant/worker justice activists surveyed for this article – whether participants in the CMS initiative, union organizers, or worker-center staffers – highlighted one major determinant of effectiveness: the forging of wide-ranging community partnerships. Rand Wilson, a Service Employees International Union organizer who teaches at the Boston Labor Guild (a surviving Catholic labor school), points to the Guild’s forming links with the New Bedford center for fish-packing workers. And Father Kiley tells of organizers in the Los Angeles and Oakland areas who took part in an affordable-housing campaign, or of Las Vegas organizers who helped secure panic buttons for female hotel workers at risk of sexual assault (a too-frequent occurrence in that occupation).

Community partnerships can result in great steps forward. Back in the day, Mazey, a socialist, worked with Catholic social justice activists and others in the coalition which elected Walter Reuther to the UAW presidency. When workers and immigrants like what you practice and the way you work together, they’ll listen to and act on what you preach.

The bottom line of all our social justice efforts must be total commitment. Just as Thomas Paine warned the American Revolutionists against being “sunshine patriots,” so we who are continuing the revolution must warn ourselves against being armchair activists. We need to redouble all our worker-justice and immigrant-justice efforts, including dissipating the shadows surrounding immigrants, documented and undocumented; rolling back “right-to-work” laws; organizing as many workers as possible; and, above all, dethroning money as America’s prevailing value and restoring the values of social justice to their rightful place. If we do our utmost in these respects, we will bring nearer the day foretold by the Old Testament prophet Amos, when “justice rolls down like water, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

Kimball Baker is the author of “Go to the Worker”: America’s Labor Apostles (Marquette University Press, 2010).


Author Names

Kimball Baker

Date of Publication November 29, 2017
DOI 10.14240/cmsesy112917