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Organizing the Undocumented

Local unions consider inviting undocumented workers into the fold.

By Eric S. Peterson
Posted // May 10,2011 -

While union labor in Utah has helped construct freeway overpasses, office buildings and homes, union members at a May 1 labor rally in downtown Salt Lake City hoped to build something new to Utah—bridges with local immigration-reform activists who are rallying against “Utah Solution” bills like the Legislature’s guest-worker bill and Arizona-style enforcement bill.

Under a banner of “Organize/Legalize/Unionize,” United for Social Justice has begun seeking inroads with local unions not only to bolster Utah’s labor organizations but also to enlist their help in championing federal solutions to the immigration debate.

“It’s important to have organized labor and undocumented workers not be divided,” says William Van Wagenen, president of United for Social Justice. He argues that unionized, undocumented migrant labor can strengthen both unions and immigration reform.That way, he says, “Working people, whether documented or undocumented, citizen or noncitizen, can work together to protect workers’ rights.”

Calls for unity, however, may remain as platitudes at this point, as the organization faces the challenge that many rank-and-file union members consider undocumented labor as serving to undercut their already vulnerable standing in Utah. Other critics of compassionate immigration reform say immigrant labor would simply be trading the oppression of a private sector boss for the exploitation of a union one.

Josh Belka is a member of one of Utah’s oldest and, because of the nature of their work, least visible unions. Members of Local 99, Salt Lake City’s International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, pride themselves on the backstage magic that makes touring Broadway theater acts and concerts go off without a hitch. Belka takes pride in the history of his union, which dates back to Utah’s early days of statehood, but also criticizes other union members for not appreciating labor history.

“Most union members, just like everybody else, don’t realize where unions have come from and what they’ve done, but if they do their homework, they’ll see all the big labor strikes of the late 1800s and early 1900s were done by immigrants in conjunction with labor unions,” Belka says.

Belka was one of just two presenters at United for Social Justice’s recent May Day celebration, recognizing an annual celebration of organized labor around the world. Belka sent invitations to all the state’s labor organizations but says he only recognized a handful of members from his union in attendance. He says he’s got his work cut out for him.

“I would like to try to change the union mentality,” Belka says of labor’s attitudes about immigration. “This idea that immigrants are undercutting union wages is a smokescreen as far as I’m concerned.”

Van Wagenen agrees and hopes, at a minimum, the collaboration could temper the angst of Utahns who blame the recent economic downturn on undocumented immigrants. Van Wagenen also says United for Social Justice is doing more than paying lip service to an alliance with unions. In fact, his organization is also sending members to Las Vegas to research the makeup of the city’s powerful service-workers union.
“We want to see if something similar could be done in Utah,” Van Wagenen says, “especially with all the undocumented immigrants working in hotels in Park City and elsewhere.” Beyond that, his organization also shares the opinion of major state labor leaders, which is that the session’s package of immigration bills unconstitutionally have stepped over the federal government’s jurisdiction. House Bill 497 would force law enforcement to check immigration status for certain crimes, and House Bill 116 would create a guest-worker permit.

While Utah AFL-CIO President Jim Judd decided not to go to the rally, he is sympathetic to the plight of undocumented immigrants.

“Being undocumented creates a situation that is ripe for unscrupulous employers to exploit these people,” Judd says. Such exploitation, Judd says, only helps push wages down in the workforce. “No longer will they be exporting jobs from the United States; they will have brought the sweatshops back that we tried to get rid of in the 1930s.”

Judd says that Utah’s labor strength has closely tracked the national average at about 10 percent of the state’s workforce. While he says unions have struggled in recent years because of the economic recession, he doesn’t lay the fault for that with immigrant labor.

“The AFL-CIO is not anti-immigrant, and unions are not anti-immigrant labor,” Judd says. “We are anti-worker- exploitation, however that goes on.”

But for critics like Rick Braithwaite, a former drywall business owner and chairman of the West Valley City Utah Minuteman Project, unions can exploit undocumented laborers just as easily as any “unscrupulous” contractor or construction company can.

“If you think unions aren’t using all the cheap labor they can get, you better think again,” Braithwaite says. “They’re like anyone else; they want to make that almighty dollar.”

Two years ago, Braithwaite, a lifelong Democrat with 30 years in the construction business, handed in his business license rather than resort to hiring undocumented labor, he says. Throughout his career, though, he’s worked closely with union labor and says that in the past decade, unions have resorted to employing undocumented laborers as frequently as other employers by contracting undocumented workers or accepting their falsified documents to join their organizations.

“It works for the union elites, but it doesn’t work for the American citizen,” he says.

Judd saysthat as a norm, however,  unions likely wouldn’t enlist undocumented laborers who need proof of high school diplomas or GEDs and special mathematical training to enter into more technical apprenticeships.

Braithwaite challenges unions’ claims of protecting workers’ rights, especially if they’re leveraging undocumented labor on construction bids, just like any other company.

While Braithwaite accuses union leadership of pandering to immigrant labor and undercutting rank-and-file union members, Van Wagenen rejects such claims and hopes that his organization’s collaboration can dispel such myths.

“Even if we’re not able to achieve legalization or massively increase the number of undocumented union members, at least it’s a way of letting people know capitalism is the problem, not these workers,” Van Wagenen says. That’s a point Belka sought to drive home at the May Day celebration—even if it was only to a small clutch of dues-paying laborers outnumbered by young college-age immigration-reform activists.

“As members of working families, organized labor, and as workers of the world, we welcome our newest brothers and sisters,” Belka said of America’s immigrant history at the May Day celebration. ”The fact is, we all came to America to work.” 

 
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