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

LABOUR-US: A New Internationalism Rising

Peter Costantini

SEATTLE, Washington, Jan 9 2006 (IPS) - As the U.S. Congress contemplates a bill that would build fences along nearly 700 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border to keep foreigners out, recent immigrants – many of whom crossed that same border – are pumping fresh blood into an anemic U.S. labour movement.

In late November, for example, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) announced that 4,700 janitors who clean more than 60 percent of the office space in Houston, Texas had joined the union and would begin bargaining with their employers for a contract.

Houston is the latest in a string of campaigns known as Janitors For Justice that have unionised 225,000 janitors in 29 cities over the past two decades, according to the SEIU.

In this and many other cities, the building-maintenance workers and union organisers are mostly recently arrived immigrants, many from Mexico and Central America.

The Houston victory was particularly significant because workers in Texas and across the U.S. South are less unionised than elsewhere in the country.

Houston janitors are not covered by health insurance, and most work part-time at an hourly base rate of 5.25 dollars, just 10 cents above the federal minimum wage.

“Everybody in our division of SEIU sent organisers and resources to help in Houston,” said Sergio Salinas, president of Local 6 in Seattle, “so it was a combined national effort.” This campaign, Salinas believes, has “historical importance” as a major inroad by unions into the South.

Overall union membership in the U.S. is down to 12.5 percent of the workforce from a high of 20.1 percent in 1983. In the private sector, the rate is only 7.9 percent, about half what it was in 1983.

Of the few unions that have continued to organise aggressively, many are in the service sector and focus on immigrants without regard to their legal status.

Among them, the SEIU, with members primarily in property services, health care and the public sector, has become the largest and fastest growing labour union in the U.S., claiming a membership of 1.8 million. Immigrants account for some two-thirds of that figure, Salinas estimates.

The SEIU is a leading proponent of an increasingly visible strain of internationalism in the U.S. labour movement.

Where more conservative unions have historically ignored or excluded immigrants, demographic changes in the workforce, shifts in the U.S. economy and a hostile political environment have pushed some unions to welcome recent arrivals into their ranks or face irrelevance.

Among other unions with large immigrant memberships are the United Food and Commercial Workers, UNITE HERE, the Laborers, the Carpenters, and the United Farmworkers.

Last June, these and the Teamsters split off from the main U.S. union confederation, the AFL-CIO, to form a new grouping called Change to Win (CTW). These unions, which represent some five million workers, have pledged to concentrate much more effort and money on organising. The AFL-CIO and some member unions have also recognised the need to aggressively expand membership.

This internal globalisation is largely a response to a labour force in which immigrants, documented and undocumented, are a growing source of energy.

In many areas of the country, low-wage jobs in certain parts of the economy are filled primarily by workers from Latin America, Asia, Africa and Eastern Europe.

In the service sector these include property services, landscaping, hotels and restaurants, food services, health care, day care, laundries and educational support staff. Non-service industries include construction, meat and poultry packing, and garment manufacturing. In several of these sectors, the majority of workers are also women.

A significant portion of all new union recruits are immigrant workers, according to Kate Bronfenbrenner of Cornell University. “Recent immigrants overall are more receptive to unions than native-born Americans, particularly those who had union experience in their own country,” she observed, unless unions there were linked with repressive governments.

As their ranks expand, some of those immigrant workers have moved into positions of union leadership.

According to Salinas, a veteran of the labour movement in El Salvador, three other presidents of major SEIU locals are also Latin American immigrants.

Both rank-and-file and leaders have cross-pollinated the labour movement here with trade union experience, political sophistication and positive attitudes towards collective action brought with them from their home countries.

But immigrants, especially unauthorised ones, can be particularly vulnerable to employer pressures: in more than half of organising campaigns involving undocumented workers, Bronfenbrenner has found, employers threaten them with deportation, a very effective way of undermining unionisation.

“Two things are true,” said Lance Compa, a former official of the NAFTA Labour Secretariat. “One, many immigrants are afraid to organise because of fear of deportation, thus retarding union organising in many workplaces and communities, and two, many immigrants are the most active, fearless organisers, bringing new unions to many workplaces and communities.”

“The challenge for unions is to find and mobilise group two to bring enough of group one over to their side.”

A Human Rights Watch report by Compa quoted a worker from El Salvador at a U.S. meat-packing plant: “The company has armed police walking around the plant to intimidate us. It’s especially frightening for those of us from Central America. Where we come from, the police shoot trade unionists.”

When David Ayala, an SEIU leader in Portland, Oregon and Salvadoran immigrant, talks with workers he asks them: “What did you dream? Why did you come here? Why did you cross the border? Why did you almost die? And now you’re earning 5.25 an hour with no Social Security, no health insurance. Is that why you came here all the way from down there?”

In the past, undocumented workers have been a point of contention for organised labour, but the decline of membership and the influx of unauthorised immigrants have led more unions to welcome all workers into their ranks, regardless of legal status.

The right wing calls them “aliens”, Ayala said. “What’s an alien? It’s not a human being. An alien is somebody from outer space. So then when you hear, oh, an alien, the public doesn’t relate with a human being, somebody who has a family, somebody who is a good person.”

The internationalisation of U.S. labour is occurring in the face of increasingly vocal xenophobia in some quarters.

A vigilante group called the Minutemen has received wide publicity for its ad hoc efforts to police the Canadian and Mexican borders.

The current immigration bill in Congress, while likely to be modified in course of the legislative process, passed the House of Representatives with key provisions favoured by the extreme right.

The bill, which is more restrictive than the proposals of the George W. Bush administration in some respects, would criminalise both living in the U.S. without papers and assisting those who do, and would tighten requirements that employers verify employee immigration status.

Congress is expected to take up immigration legislation again in February.

While the debate intensifies, total immigration into the U.S. has fallen from a peak of some 1.5 million in 2000 to 1.2 million in 2004, a decline of 20 percent, according to research by the Pew Hispanic Centre. Mexican immigrants represent about a third of that flow.

Since 1990, however, the total proportion of the foreign-born in the U.S. population has increased from eight percent to 12 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, with over half from Latin America.

Among a total undocumented population of about 11 million, Mexicans represent 57 percent, with 80 to 85 percent of all Mexican immigrants estimated to be undocumented.

Of the civilian labour force, 6.3 million workers or 4.3 percent are unauthorised, according to the Pew Hispanic Centre, with one-third of these in the service industries.

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