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By Tula Connell at the AFL-CIO

Why should unions care about low-wage immigrant workers?

Don’t they just undercut the wages and benefits of other hard-working people? Aren’t we slicing our own throats by giving them a hand?

Many people—union and nonunion—make such arguments in good faith, believing that by holding on to their own diminishing piece of the economic pie they will be better off than if they share it with others. It’s much harder to recognize that economic hardships are rooted in laws that enable corporations to get away with nickel-and-diming—and outright abusing—their employees than it is to point the blame at the low-wage worker with an accent.

And, unfortunately, the U.S. union movement historically made similar arguments, especially in its early years at the turn of the 20th century, when a large influx of immigrants challenged union leaders already trying to hang on to tenuous workplace gains in the face of fierce battles against corporate giants like U.S. Steel.

Today, the union movement recognizes that by raising wages and improving the working conditions of the lowest-paid employee, all workers ultimately will benefit. In doing so, we deprive corporations of a key weapon in their race to the bottom as they try to out-Wal-Mart Wal-Mart. We deprive them of the ability to divide and conquer. We take away their ability to replace family-supporting jobs with low-wage ones, and we put an end to the racial and ethnic division U.S. employers have used for more than a century to divide workers who, if they joined together, could successfully challenge corporate greed. The ability to exploit any worker hurts all workers. If any group of workers' rights are not protected, those workers can be exploited and standards are pulled down for all workers.

This year, the AFL-CIO union movement has taken significant steps toward reaching out to the nation’s immigrant workers. Along with traditional worksite organizing—the Mine Workers’ efforts at Peabody Energy and the Communications Workers of America’s hugely successful campaign among Cingular Wireless workers, to name just two examples—we have launched innovative partnerships with several key immigrant worker groups.

In recent weeks, the Taxi Workers’ Alliance, which represents 7,000 New York City taxi drivers, is affiliating with the 1-million member AFL-CIO New York City Central Labor Council. Mostly immigrant workers, the taxi drivers start each day $130 in the hole and work 60 to 70 hours a week—all for between $27,000 and $33,000 a year. And they risk their lives earning a living. A recent report by Chicago Tribune reporters showed the top cause of death on the job for foreign-born workers is homicide, and most victims are clerks at gasoline stations and food stores—and cab drivers.

Under rulings from the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the drivers are considered independent contractors, not employees, and so do not have a right to unionize and negotiate contracts with the taxi garages. (In fact, the nation’s labor laws make it difficult for many workers to join unions—find out more here.)

Immanuel Ness, professor of political science at Brooklyn College, City University of New York, calls such efforts as those by New York taxi drivers “organizing against the odds.”

Until recently, independent contractors were considered professionals in business for themselves, carrying out services for multiple clients. However, in an effort to reduce labor costs, the practice of replacing employees with independent contractors has become widespread among businesses since the 1990s.

Yet, despite the odds, in 1998, some 40,000 taxicab drivers waged a one-day strike, and in 2004, the alliance won a historic victory when New York City established the first-ever living wage standard for the city’s 40,000-licensed yellow medallion taxi drivers. Most recently, the AFL-CIO entered into a national partnership agreement with Interfaith Worker Justice (IWJ), the largest faith-based network serving low-wage, often immigrant workers. IWJ Executive Director Kim Bobo says the partnership reflects the values of all major religions:

All religious traditions believe that those who work should be paid for their labor and treated with respect and dignity. Workers’ centers put that belief into practice.

IWJ established its worker centers network in 2004 to educate and organize low-wage and immigrant workers and to build power for workers in both their workplaces and the broader community. Currently, there are 14 worker centers in the IWJ network.

Earlier this year, the AFL-CIO joined in a partnership with the National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON) that paves the way for AFL-CIO central labor councils and state federations and NDLON’s day laborer worker centers to work together on issues ranging from workplace rights to immigration law reform to health and safety and other job-related concerns.

Speaking about the agreement, NDLON Executive Director Pablo Alvarado says:

One of the ways to ensure that the rights of all workers in this country are protected is to ensure that the 12 million undocumented immigrants come out of the shadows.

The 140 NDLON worker centers in 80 cities and towns operate as advocates for day laborers, approximately 200,000 in the United States. The centers provide a structure by which workers join together to set their own terms and conditions of employment. In Agoura Hills, Calif., day laborers have set their minimum wage at $15 per hour. Centers also provide a variety of services, including leadership development, legal representation to recover unpaid wages, English classes, workers’ rights education and access to health clinics, bank accounts and loans.

Janice Fine, assistant professor at the School of Management and Labor Relations at Rutgers University, says that in 1992 there were fewer than five centers nationwide and advocates that “unions work with worker centers to improve overall labor standards via public policy initiatives and improved enforcement strategies.”

Says Fine:

[Unions] also should work together to develop new models of membership and organization that enable them to provide low-wage workers what craft unions have traditionally provided for construction and entertainment workers.

Fine, who was principal investigator in a national study of immigrant worker centers at the Economic Policy Institute from 2003 to 2005, believes it is critical that 21st century unions introduce new methods of outreach among this growing population.

To respond to conditions in today’s low-wage industries, unions must create models of permanent organization that bring workers into membership across a multitude of employers and provide the voice, political community, stability, training and access to benefits that they cannot get from their employers.

AFL-CIO Organizing Director Stewart Acuff says the Taxi Workers’ affiliation and NDLON partnership are just such examples of this new method of building worker power:

When workers are shut off from collective bargaining, it doesn’t mean they are shut off from building power. It’s important for the AFL-CIO to embrace other forms of organizing and to support and learn from groups, such as workers centers, that are organizing in other ways.

Joining with immigrant workers doesn’t mean the union movement is abandoning its traditional outreach at the workplace. And it doesn’t mean we’re slicing our throats. We’re slicing the pie so everyone can get a big piece.