Photo credit: Richard Copley
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The symbolism couldn’t have been richer. On the north side of Lafayette Park earlier this week, historian Michael Honey spoke at an AFL-CIO-sponsored event about the 1968 Memphis, Tenn., struggle in which more than 1,400 African American sanitation and sewer workers sought the right to form a union. The workers were joined by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who was assassinated in that city 40 years ago tomorrow. The sanitation workers’ struggle is memorialized in photos in which they carry signs stating: "I Am A Man."

In Lafayette Park, just in front of the White House, more than 70 guest workers rallied in the cold rain to demand fundamental changes in the nation’s guest worker program, which President Bush is trying to expand. They also want a congressional investigation of their former employer, Signal International, a marine construction company they say held them in modern-day forced labor in its Pascagoula, Miss., shipyard.

The workers, who traveled to Washington, D.C., carried signs stating: "I Am A Man."

Jagpal Yadav, one of the former workers at the shipyard, says the workers were exploited first by unsrupulous recuriters and then by the company.

In India, we paid $20,000 to recruiters who promised permanent residency and citizenship. When we came here, we found out all the promises were false—there were never any green cards. There were just prison-like conditions. We lived as if in a jail, 24 people to a room. We had no place to sit or stand. We slept in bunkbeds stacked on top of each other. The man in the top bunk couldn’t even sit up straight because his head would hit the ceiling. The conditions were degrading.

Oh, and each man was charged more than $1,000 a month for rent.

Forty years and the struggle continues for basic respect—human decency at its most fundamental core—at U.S. workplaces.

After working for a year in essentially bonded servitude—the current guest worker program forbids workers to change employers, no matter how bad the conditions—Yadav and his co-workers embarked on a “satyagraha,” or truth action, in the tradition of Mahatma Gandhi. Traveling from New Orleans to Washington, D.C., they met with allies from the African American and labor rights communities at key sites in the civil rights struggle, including Jackson, Miss.; Selma, Ala.; Atlanta; and Greensboro, N.C.

Yesterday, they met with members of Congress and staff, including the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus. They discussed the need for Congress to make fundamental changes to the H-2B system. The Indian workers were joined by other H-2B workers and advocates from the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Brennan Center for Justice.

Earlier this month, Sharan Burrow, president of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), wrote to U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey, saying American and Indian recruiters promised the Indian pipe fitters and welders decent work, as well as “green cards” for the workers and their families, but:

their preconceived American Dream turned out to be a nightmare.

Last week, the workers met with the Indian ambassador to brief him on their struggle. At a rally near the embassy in Washington, D.C., former worker Aniesh Thankachan gave a tearful account of the pain of being separated from his family:

You see these pictures? These are our families. They are the reason we came here. We were told that we would be able to bring our families on permanent residency visas. Once we came here, we learned that these promises were false. I cry at night. I can’t tell my family what’s going on. I listen to my children on the phone and I weep. Our families are the reason we’re here. They are why we are on this satyagraha.

The AFL-CIO has been working closely with U.S. House Education and Labor Committee Chairman George Miller (D-Calif.) in developing legislative solutions to address the fundamental flaws in the current H-2B program. After the staff briefing, Miller said in a statement:

We must make certain that there are sufficient safeguards in place to protect all workers—both U.S. workers and guest workers—from exploitation. Strong labor standards that are vigorously enforced are essential to prevent employers from driving down wages and hurting our economy. Until we have stronger protections for both U.S. workers and foreign guest workers, I cannot support increasing the size of the guest worker program.

Miller is working on a legislative package similar to the one we support in the U.S. Senate (S. 2094), which, in part, would:

  • Require employers to do a much better job at recruiting American workers first at higher wages before being able to hire H-2B guest workers.
  • Provide the U.S. Department of Labor with the explicit authority to enforce labor law violations pertaining to the H-2B program.
  • Allow workers who have been directly and adversely affected by the H-2B program to have their day in court against unscrupulous employers.
  • Prohibit companies that have announced mass layoffs within the past year from hiring H-2B guest workers.

Saket Soni, director of the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice, who helped the workers organize, says:

Foremen, supervisors, company officials, security officials routinely subject workers to, at best, abuse, and at worse, to human traffickling and forced labor. One of the reasons we’re going to Congress is to tell them the guest worker program has turned into nothing more but a legally sanctioned labor trafficking program. Across the Gulf Coast, hundreds of men like these are being held in conditions that anywhere else would be called forced labor.

Marching with the Memphis sanitation workers 40 years ago, Martin Luther King Jr. understood what was at stake. If he was here today, he would have been in Lafayette Park to march with the shipyard workers because he understood what’s at stake.

As historian Michael Honey says, we need to recall King’s warning that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Instead of denigrating immigrants, we need to renew King’s call to “planetize our movement for social justice” by helping workers in other countries organize to improve conditions so they don’t have to emigrate. At home, we need to regain the right to organize at the workplace. We need to strengthen laws to allow organizing, and reignite our own multiracial coalition. We need to return to King’s campaign to end war and poverty and support union rights.