Economy & Trade, Headlines, Human Rights, Labour, Migration & Refugees, North America

Q&A: “Helping the Most Vulnerable Benefits All Workers”

Peter Costantini interviews ANA AVENDAÑO, director of the Immigrant Worker Programme, AFL-CIO

SEATTLE, Washington, Jun 13 2009 (IPS) - After decades at sea, organised labour has limped into port. Last fall, they helped to elect a sympathetic U.S. president and Congress. Now trade unions are gearing up to push for a major overhaul of labour law. They are also welding an alliance with immigrant and human rights groups to win comprehensive immigration reform.

Ana Avendaño Credit:

Ana Avendaño Credit:

As director of the Immigrant Worker Programme and associate general counsel for the American Federation of Labour and Congress of Industrial Organisations (AFL-CIO), Ana Avendaño has worked tirelessly and persuasively over many years to turn the listing and leaky workers’ vessel onto a pro-immigrant course.

The AFL-CIO is the largest trade union federation in the United States, representing some 11 million members organised in 56 national and international labour unions.

Avendaño has testified before the U.S. Congress and the U.N. General Assembly on international migration. She served as the U.S. Worker Representative to the International Labour Organisation (ILO) Committee on Migration and on the ILO’s Panel of Experts on Migration.

Avendaño spoke with IPS by telephone from her Washington, DC office. Excerpts from the interview follow.


IPS: When AFL-CIO President John Sweeney spoke to the National Day Labour Organising Network in 2007, there were six workers’ centres affiliated with AFL-CIO. Has the number increased? Ana Avendaño: In August of 2006 our Executive Council adopted a resolution allowing [mainly immigrant] workers’ centers to affiliate with state and local bodies. And that was a major event. Because until then we’d had these two labour movements operating basically on a parallel track. And President Sweeney saw a great opportunity here for collaboration, for bringing these two different worlds together with the aim of improving labour standards for all.

At the same time, President Sweeney entered into a partnership agreement with the National Day Labour Organising Network, under which we pledged to work together, to start dialogue on the local level, to work on immigration reform and other policy matters. Since then we’ve had eight workers centers affiliate, and I have more in the pipeline that should be done fairly quickly. All of these different partnerships around the country, some affiliated and some not, are just one aspect of this larger project to strengthen labour rights generally.

IPS: Do you see this partnership evolving organisationally towards having locals form out of day workers’ centres? AA: There’s a lot of energy and creativity on figuring out ways how to bring workers the right to collectively bargain.

But if you remember, at the genesis of many of the building trades unions, it wasn’t based on collective-bargaining agreements, it was based on this notion of solidarity. If you look at the constitutions of some of the building trades unions, you’ll see, ‘the members pledge to work together for a certain wage’ or various other things, which is exactly what the day labourers are doing.

And so there’s this concept that worker solidarity within a community of workers that are very vulnerable to exploitation is inherently a good thing.

IPS: How does the AFL-CIO support that? AA: We have two other partnership agreements with networks: one with Interfaith Worker Justice and one with Enlace, which is a bi-national network.

And when we came to negotiate these agreements, we made sure that we were at the table as equal partners, that each was contributing our expertise. So this is not about what the AFL-CIO can do for them, or what they can do for us, but what we can do together.

One of the models that has developed around this is enforcement of labour standards.

For example, in Los Angeles, one of the unions is having to deal with a contractor who is not abiding by minimum standards on some jobs. So the workers are working with a day labour centre, acting as the eyes and ears of the union, reporting violations to the union. Then the union is bringing targeted litigation.

IPS: Do you think ultimately that the AFL-CIO will grow membership through this? AA: Well, of course. Anything that grows the labour movement is a positive benefit. But that’s not what’s motivating us right now. We’re dealing with a population of workers that in many aspects is the most vulnerable in our society. And anything we can do that lifts the floor for those workers benefits all workers.

IPS: How do you handle the issue of most day labourers being undocumented? AA: American labour law is very clear that a worker’s immigration status has absolutely no relationship to that worker’s ability to enforce the law or not.

Now of course because our legal system allows employers to police themselves, employers take advantage of that power and become enforcers of immigration law when it suits them. When it’s convenient for them, when workers try to organise or report a workplace injury – then and only then employers ask the workers to see their papers.

So labour unions and workers centres have made clear that the issue of immigration status is something that is a matter between the government and the workers. We’re not in the business of asking about immigration status because that is a tool to suppress workers, to suppress the enforcement of labour standards.

What we’re actually doing is making sure that when workers engage in these labour-standards campaigns, when they are acting in the benefit of other workers, that employees don’t have that tool to ask for their immigration status.

IPS: Of your member unions, which have been the most active in this at the local or regional level? AA: Really the work has been done through the central labour councils and a couple of the construction unions locally. The construction unions are very decentralised, so it’s really different folks in different parts of the country.

IPS: On your long run goals such as immigration reform, how are you working with day labour and other immigrant groups? AA: The question has been for the last few congressional cycles how we accomplish [changes in immigration law].

The whole reform system looked at the issue of future workers and future flow. And the answer to that through past efforts was to bring more and more and more guest workers, temporary workers, which as a matter of public policy and economic policy and labour policy is just a horrible idea.

So the labour movement opposed that. Interestingly, the grassroots groups did as well.

 
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