Immigration Reform: What's Labor Up To?

Labor has reached a common position on immigration reform, but does it give away too much even before legislative horse-trading has begun? Photo: David Bacon

Labor Notes’ Tiffany Ten Eyck interviewed longtime Bay Area immigrant rights activist David Bacon about the new joint position on immigration recently released by the AFL-CIO and Change to Win. Bacon argues that the new stance is inconsistent—some parts contradict other parts. He believes the resolution is based on the CTW view: that in order to get any form of legal change for immigrants through Congress, unions must ally with employers. That means supporting a guest worker program, which employers favor. It wasn’t always like this. What happened?

LN: Why is a united position important right now? Where have the federations and key unions differed in the past?

DB: In 1986, the AFL-CIO supported the Immigration Reform and Control Act. It had an amnesty provision which gave about 4 million people legal status, but it also had a section called “employer sanctions,” which says that employers may not hire people who don’t have papers. It becomes illegal for people who don’t have papers to work.

Immigrant communities and immigrant rights activists inside the labor movement opposed that bill, but the AFL-CIO supported it. Their rationale was that if people can’t work, they will go home, or they won’t come here. It was an us vs. them argument. In other words, the labor movement and jobs belong to citizens, and immigrants shouldn’t be here.

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After that, immigrant rights activists inside unions agitated and organized against that position and tried to get unions to call for the repeal of employer sanctions. As the demographics of the workforce changed, and as unions became more interested in organizing unorganized workers, we were able to win battle after battle inside unions around repealing employer sanctions. That meant that if you try to fire somebody because they don’t have authorization, we’re going to fight you.

Inside the AFL-CIO, the first unions we won were the garment unions, and then the Service Employees (SEIU). This was during the period of rising activity of Justice for Janitors. Employers were using employer sanctions against those workers whenever they would try to organize. We won the battle in SEIU by showing that employer sanctions had become a weapon against the union in its efforts to organize workers.

John Sweeney got elected in 1995 on the promise that he would move organizing unorganized workers into the center of the agenda. So we were able to argue that if you are really interested in organizing workers, then you must oppose employer sanctions, because they are going to be used against you whenever you try to organize. This was proven time after time. Sanctions were used against the Teamsters when they tried to organize apple workers in Washington state, they were used against janitors in Silicon Valley, used against clothing workers in New York.

We had an organization in Northern California called the Labor and Immigrant Organizers Network, which wrote a resolution in 1998 and began circulating it in unions and labor councils around the country, calling for four things: repeal employer sanctions; legalize people without papers; protect the rights of workers to organize, including undocumented workers; and reunify families. We didn’t include guest worker programs in that resolution, because the AFL-CIO was already opposed to guest worker programs.

That resolution caught fire and coming into the AFL-CIO convention in LA, we had many labor councils from around the country signed on, and international unions that were prepared to call for a change in position. The executive council meeting a couple of months later adopted a new position calling for all the things in our resolution.

That was a historic change for the labor movement, because it said “our movement belongs to all workers, not just some; we have to fight for the legal status of everybody; we have to oppose laws that criminalize work.” It was the high point.

LN: What happened in years to come that led to opposing positions on immigration reform by the major unions and federations?

DB: The big question after the convention was how to get immigration reform through Congress. Those unions that went off to form the CTW federation, generally speaking, adopted a position that the only way we are going to be able to get legalization is by building an alliance with employers, and employers want guest workers. If we give them guest workers, and we agree that enforcement of employer sanctions will continue, maybe we’ll be able to get amnesty in trade for that.

And that was the architecture for the “comprehensive immigration reform” bills we saw in Congress over the last few years: big guest worker programs, increases in enforcement of employer sanctions, and some degree of legalization. But the legalization proposals were actually more pro-corporate: they proposed things like 18-year waiting periods, but they would immunize employers from punishment under employer sanctions. In other words, they would grandfather in the existing workforce while guest worker programs were getting up and running.

So we’ve had the labor movement divided in the last few years on immigration reform, with AFL-CIO continuing to support the position that we won in 1999 and SEIU, UNITE HERE, and other unions in CTW basically changing positions and supporting those comprehensive immigration reform bills instead. The irony is that these are the unions that fought the hardest in 1999 for a repeal of sanctions!

So the new joint position between the AFL-CIO and CTW is an effort to overcome that division. I think it’s actually an effort to bring the CTW and AFL-CIO back together, period. If you can do it on immigration reform, then you can do it pretty much on everything else, because this is one of the places where there was the sharpest conflict between CTW and AFL-CIO.

A joint position on immigration reform is a good idea if it’s a good position. It’s not a good idea if it’s not. We have to look at what it actually says.

There’s one good piece to this position that is worth trying to get the labor movement to live up to it. It says a long-term solution to uncontrolled immigration is to encourage just economic integration, which will eliminate enormous economic inequalities. An essential component of that is a fair trade globalization model that promotes the creation of free trade unions for all workers.

There was an even better statement that Sweeney and Ken Georgetti of the Canadian Labour Congress wrote to Obama about NAFTA. They talked about the displacement of people, that NAFTA caused migration by increasing poverty.

So here we look at the connection of immigration policy to trade policy. We can’t support a free trade agreement with Colombia if it is going to lead to the displacement of millions of Colombians, which it will. Same thing with Panama, with Peru, all these agreements and the economic model they are part of are displacing millions of people. So we have to not only oppose the trade agreements but also call for a new economic relationship with other countries. That is a very profound thing to say, and it’s going to take a lot of work to get our labor movement to live up to those words.

Because what we are really saying is that we demand a fundamental change in the foreign policy of this country, economic, political, military. That’s going to bring us into confrontation with the Obama administration.

LN: It’s great on paper but how do we make it real?

DB: It represents a basic increase in understanding by our labor movement and by workers. NAFTA educated us, with some very painful costs. It taught us not just that corporations would be more than willing to take our jobs and move them to Mexico but that those same trade agreements were no good for the people in those countries either.

They impoverished people, they eliminated their jobs, they tore up their union contracts, they dumped agricultural products on their markets so that farmers couldn’t survive, all of these things that produce migration.

In other words, working people in this country and working people in those countries, Mexico, specifically, we have a common interest in opposing these agreements.

That’s an important realization for us. We’re on the same side here. Those Mexican workers that are crossing the border into the U.S., we have the same problem.

So if it’s true that the reason that people are coming here is NAFTA and unfair economic and trade policies, then we need to make sure that those people, as they come into our workforce, have the same rights as we do. They’re not somebody else, they’re us.

So the question is, does the rest of this statement live up to that, is it consistent? It’s not.

It says that those people who are displaced and coming here should not be allowed to work. In fact, they should really go home.

When you say there must be a “secure and effective worker authorization” mechanism, what you mean is that employers may not hire undocumented workers, and if people are already in the workforce, they must leave.



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LN: That brings us to amnesty. This platform offers up the adjustment of status for current undocumented workers.

DB: Amnesty is important, but it is not going to eliminate the effect of worker authorization. Because people are going to continue to come so long as this economic inequality exists—they will be in our organizing drives, they will be members of our union.

So the real question for us is, are we going to defend our sisters and brothers who don’t have work authorization?

We just had a good example at Overhill Farms down in LA. Management fired 254 people on May 31 for not having good Social Security numbers. These people belong to UFCW Local 770. What is the union going to do?

If the union was following the protocol in the AFL-CIO-CTW position it would say, “OK, you don’t have work authorization; I guess you shouldn’t be here." That basically gutted the union. How can you have a union in which 254 members out of 800 get fired and you don’t defend them?

LN: Part of the platform calls for an independent commission that determines the number of foreign workers admitted to work. I wonder if the folks who charted out this new platform would argue, “There’s going to be plenty more work visas and people can come in legally.”

DB: This is the heart of the employers’ proposal. Employers have been proposing guest worker programs since going back a long way.

But we now have 10 percent unemployment. So proposals for allowing employers to recruit 400,000 or 500,000 workers a year under work visas and bring them to the U.S. are not politically realistic. Congress is not going to pass them.

So what employers have proposed is to kick the ball down the road: if in the future employers want to claim there are labor shortages, they can go to a commission and if the commission agrees, then the commission will allow them to bring people in on temporary work visas.

Now, there are a lot of things wrong with work visas. First of all, people are recruited by employers. That means a system of corruption and recruitment in the countries that people come from. People have to pay someone off in order to get visas.

The workers at the Signal shipyard in Pascagoula, Mississippi, paid $20,000 apiece for those visas to come to the U.S. People have mortgaged everything their family has in order to send someone here.

The other big problem is that these are all visas that say you can only stay in the U.S. if you are employed. If you are thinking about signing the union card or you want to make a complaint about unpaid wages, if your employer fires you, you become deportable. So people are not free in this status. These are not visas that lead to permanent residence or citizenship, they don’t carry political rights, these folks are never going to be able to vote or receive social benefits. They’re not the social or political equals of the people living in the community around them. This is what employers want. Because this is the way of forcing people to work for cheap.

If you believe that there have to be full rights for immigrant workers, then you would not support work visas or guest worker programs. If there’s work for 400,000 people a year in the U.S., why not give people green cards instead of work visas?

Besides that: what is a good union supposed to do if there’s a labor shortage? If an employer is having a hard time finding workers, what do you do? You go on strike. You use that as a way to force wages up. So why are we being bad trade unionists?

LN: Why did the AFL-CIO soften its stance against guest worker programs?

DB: The AFL-CIO agreed to a position that is much closer to Change to Win’s, specifically to SEIU’s. So you could say that this is the price of unity.

But the rationale always given for this by union lobbyists was that this is just political realism. That we are not going to be able to get any kind of immigration reform without the support of the employers, and the employers are not going to support any reform proposals that don’t include guest workers. So this is surrender to that logic.

And the answer to that is that we are only going to get what we are able and willing to fight for. And we have to fight for what we really want, not for what we think employers are going to give us. When we go into contract bargaining, we don’t start by offering employers what we think they are likely to agree to. We fight for what we need.

That’s exactly the same thing as what’s going on here—if we want immigration reform based on human rights.

LN: My sense is that it’s a hard time to talk about immigration among native-born union members because of the economic crisis. How could labor deal with them together?

DB: We can’t win the right of undocumented people to work without saying everybody in this country needs to be able to have a job. Because the way they defeat us is they say, there aren’t enough jobs. Why should someone from Mexico who crossed the border without a visa have a job, and I can’t get one?

The answer to job competition isn’t for us to fight over the crumbs.

The response to the plant closures crisis in the 1980s was that when employers said, “we have the right to close plants and we determine whether there are jobs there or not,” we said, “no, we have the right to a job. And if the private sector is not willing or capable of providing employment, then the federal government has to do it.” That’s what the New Deal said.

The answer is to force the federal government to guarantee the right of all workers to be able to work—and to fight against things like the GM bankruptcy that are leading to the unemployment of tens of thousands of workers. Undocumented workers did not steal the jobs of those 14 plants that GM is going to close. GM took those jobs, with the Obama administration.

Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee from Houston is saying that there is a common ground. She authored a bill that said, have an amnesty for people who are here without papers, and then let’s take the fees that those workers are paying for the normalization of their status and use them to set up job creation and job training programs in communities with high unemployment.

If we fight for jobs programs at the same time that we are fighting for the legal status and legal rights of immigrant workers, we can have a program that unemployed African American workers and Latino and Asian workers can benefit from.

It’s the same thing in talking about rights at work. The lesson at Smithfield Foods was that when the employer and ICE were able to use raids against the workers when they were trying to organize the union, everyone in that plant suffered. Not just the workers who got picked up, not just the immigrants. The Black workers at Smithfield suffered, too, because so long as they could terrorize the workforce, they could stop that union drive from succeeding. It was only when workers could say to each other, “everybody in this plant has a right to be here,” that they were able to get enough strength that they finally beat the company.

But if we say that there are not enough jobs for everybody, some people have the right to put bread on the table and other people should go hungry, all we’re doing is helping our employers beat us over the head.

LN: So how do activists get unions to do the right thing on immigration?

DB: We have to look for a rational immigration policy that reflects what’s actually happening to us. In LA at Overhill Farms 254 people are fired and then replaced with part-time employees with no benefits. It makes no sense for us to have a policy that allows employers to do this and then to go to Congress and lobby for a bill that says we want a “secure and effective worker authorization mechanism.” We are lobbying for the same thing that’s being used against us!

We need a reality check and an immigration position that helps us, not our employers, and we have to look for the things that bring us together.


Miguel (not verified) | 06/15/09

I agree with Mr. Bacon, green cards are not work visas. Green cards, as he points out, are about personhood. A work visa is paper thin and you can lose it immediately. I'm second generation American. I have cousins in this country who are first generation. This is an issue close to my heart and Mr. Bacon's argument is the stronger one in my opinion.

#1organizer (not verified) | 06/19/09

I demand to know why the urgency of this legislation! I feel that if we do not get the Employee Free Choice Act as proposed, we have no business giving "open border" access (the true agenda), to immigrants from a country that does not recipricate. The 1986 Amnesty program that allowed 7 million to stay only encouraged more to come. Because we are land-locked with Mexico it allows for a disproportionate number of immigrants to enter illegally and thus creates a discrimination factor for workers from other countries that also desire to work here. It would seem that some would suggest that we allow a replacement of our present workforce with one from a different country. We need alot better working conditions and contracts for U.S. workers and organized labor before we entertain rolling out any red carpets! I believe it is the intent of the activists to use U.S. labor Unions to do there bidding for "uncontrolled" immigration. My question; if we don't get Employee Free Choice, what chance do we have of organizing this new "transient" workforce, who by virtue of their illegal status will work for anything, and may resist unionizing to ensure their employment and thus become the new "replacement" workforce for employers. If they resist unionizing, we just end up with a swollen labor pool of low wage workers! Will American workers be able to wander all over Mexico and back looking for work? Will we be provided the same benefits of education and healthcare while in Mexico? This comes down to what is "fair" for all workers, not just those that will take the risk of breaking our laws! There is a reason we have LIMITS on immigration. Mostly so the majority of our population doesn't become impoverished like other countries with immigrants trying to migrate here. It is popular today for activists to claim racism is the label for anyone that apposes illegal activity or requires checks and balances however, I think we can agree that the true "rule of law" is what keeps this country great, and any compromise is unacceptable! What will Unions look like indeed? You say "one" workforce representing all workers and the next thing you know segregation exists such as the "Hispanic Caucus", Black Caucus, Asian Caucus. To just hand over American jobs with unemployment at 10%+ and no end in sight is foolish at best and anyone supporting this idea today has failed miserablely at representing their members!

David Bacon (not verified) | 06/09/09

Here's the language the writer is referring to:

"The system for allocating employment visas - both temporary and
permanent - should be depoliticized and placed in the hands of an
independent commission that can assess labor market needs on an
ongoing basis and - based on a methodology approved by Congress -
determine the number of foreign workers to be admitted for employment
purposes, based on labor market needs. In designing the new system,
and establishing the methodology to be used for assessing labor
shortages, the commission will be required to examine the impact of
immigration on the economy, wages, the workforce and business."

Employment visas are visas that condition the ability of someone to
stay in the U.S. on their job -- in other words, if you lose your job
and you're not working, you have to leave. That's very different
from a green card, or permanent residence visa, which says you can
live in the U.S. as any other person (although you can't vote or
receive many social benefits), and you can work, go to school, take
care of a family member, or whatever. If your boss fires you, you
don't become deportable if you can't quickly find another job. Some
employment visas say you can only work for the employer that
initially hired you. Temporary employment visas say you have to work
to stay, and have to leave after the visa expires.

This section talks about the issuing of those employment visas, and
says they should be based on "labor market needs." In other words,
if there is a claim that there's a labor shortage, these visas may be
issued. It also calls for establishing a methodology for assessing
"labor shortages."

The proposal would set up an independent commission to look at
migrant labor flows in the future, and tie the issuing of "temporary
or permanent" visas to labor shortages. This assumes that there will
be temporary workers in the future, and that new visa programs will
tie people's ability to stay in the U.S. to their employment or work

Essentially, this would allow employers to come before that
commission, say they have a labor shortage, and get workers on work
visas if they make their case.

This proposal weakens the case for permanent residence visas,
especially those based on family reunification, and treats migration
essentially as a labor supply system. When there are shortages of
workers, employers would be able to get employment-based visas,
instead of raising wages or investing in training.

This opens the door to an organized system of recruitment of workers
outside the U.S. if employers can demonstrate such "shortages."

Instead of moving toward the elimination of existing guest worker
programs, this institutionalizes the rationale for them. Elsewhere
in the statement it says we shouldn't expand existing guest worker
programs. So why then set up the apparatus for using migration as a
labor supply system during labor shortages?

Growers have been claiming labor shortages for years in order to get
H2-A workers, and to modify the existing program. Julia Preston,
for instance, wrote a notorious story in the New York Times about the
lost pear harvest in California's Lake County, while rural
unemployment was in double digits. We used to only have one
employer in California who brought in H2-A guest workers. Now there
are several and the number is rising, along with 10% unemployment

Growers have to pretend they can't get workers locally in order to
justify getting workers on work visas. Proving a "labor shortage" to
an "independent" commission is not much different than certifying an
inability to hire local workers to get H2-A workers today. It's a
slightly different process, but the basic idea is the same. It's the
same rationale Bill Gates uses in pushing for more H1-B recruitment.

The bracero program was also administered through a supposedly
impartial and independent government apparatus, and was only supposed
to be used where there were labor shortages. There was even an
arrangement (including "good treatment" and "rights") negotiated
between the US. and Mexican governments (one the rightwing Mexican
government today wants to reinstitute). A government-run process was
no better protection than what we have now.

No "independent" commission appointed by Congress, or made up of
hired civil servants, even under a friendly administration, is going
to be made up of workers and unionists who know the reality on the
ground, and who have workers' interests at heart. And in an
unfriendly administration?

Until we stop trade agreements and neoliberal policies that cause
poverty and displacement, people will continue to come. The current
statement recognizes this (a very good point), and Sweeney and
Georgetti's letter to Obama on NAFTA made that link even more
concretely. So given the continued flow of migrants across the
border, the choice is over what status those migrants should have.
We can make green cards available and strengthen family
reunification. Or we can allow employers to further transform the
immigration system into a labor supply organized for their
convenience, at the expense of migrants and residents both.

The reader advocates giving migrant workers green cards instead of
work visas. That's what's needed, but this new statement doesn't say
green cards. It says, "employment visas - both temporary and
permanent" and "foreign workers to be admitted for employment
purposes, based on labor market needs."

Migrants need green cards that don't tie their presence to
employment, to give them some semblance of equality and rights.
Equality for migrants won't end anti-immigrant hostility, but it does
make it easier for them to organize, and for other workers, including
our own members, to unite with them when they do, instead of fearing
them as a source of replacements. Employers would cry about this
idea too, but it's much more what we need than a commission to fill
labor shortages.

Employers may cry about the "independent commission" idea in public
as the reader says. But I think these are crocodile tears. The
Chamber of Commerce knows they can't get a Kennedy-McCain style
program during a recession. This proposal holds the door open for

The reader doesn't mention the statement's call for "work
authorization," but this is connected to the proposal for an
immigration system based on employment visas. Calling for work
authorization would basically force employers to refuse to hire
workers without good Social Security numbers (or whatever other
document the government uses to prove authorization), and eventually
fire those who don't have it. This is clearly directed at
undocumented workers. It is a method for enforcing employer
sanctions, the provision of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control
Act that makes it a crime for an employer to hire an undocumented
worker, and effectively makes it a crime for an undocumented worker
to work.

Mandatory work authorization, enforced through no-match letters, was
the heart of the Bush regulation the AFL-CIO and others sued in San
Francisco to stop two years ago. That regulation would have required
employers to fire any worker whose name and number don't agree with
the Social Security database. Bush's position was that the reason
the numbers are bad is because those workers are undocumented, and
therefore that they have no right to work and must be fired. Bush
proposed an"E-Verify" system to "efficiently" enforce work
authorization. Janet Napolitano continues to support it.

We have spent the last few years fighting the consequences of
increased sanctions enforcement, at Swift, Smithfield,
Agriprocessors, Howard Industries, Cintas, Woodfin Suites, and now
Overhill Farms. These are just a few of the many places where
thousands of workers, including our own members and workers trying to
join our unions, have been fired, and in many cases arrested and
deported. Demanding "work authorization" sets up the further
enforcement of employer sanctions, leading to more no-match letters,
I-9 checks, and ultimately, raids.

If we tell the government that we approve the enforcement of work
authorization, how will we represent and fight for the rights of of
those workers who are then targetted? Will we fight for the right of
all workers to work, to stay in their jobs and feed their families,
or only some? Will we fight for our own ability to organize workers
without authorization, or will we only organize those who have it?
What kind of unions will we become?

These are the questions and issues we faced at the AFL-CIO convention
in 1999. To our great credit, we stepped up, and agreed that we had
to call for repealing sanctions if we were going to be a labor
movement for all workers.

Work authorization is necessary, not to protect workers' rights, but
to enforce employment visa programs. Chertoff himself told us this,
time after time -- that the raids, no-match checks and enforcement
were a way to "close the back door and open the front door." In
other words, sanctions are necessary to ensure that workers only come
through the labor programs that give them "work authorization."
Sanctions are part of the labor supply system -- not intended to keep
people out, but to control and manage the flow and price of labor.

Instead of proposing what we don't want, why not use this moment,
when many unions have seen and suffered the effects of no-match
letters and raids, to propose measures to end them? Why not, for
instance, demand that Obama issue a new regulation allowing anyone to
apply for a Social Security number? After all, we want people to pay
into the system, and undocumented workers get old or disabled and
need benefits (which they've paid for) like everyone else. If
everyone had a Social Security number, no-match firings would become
impossible. This would work towards ending employer sanctions,
instead of making them more efficient at pulling in more people.

Both the "independent commission" and "work authorization" are
important changes in the positions we fought for and won in 1999 at
the AFL-CIO convention in Los Angeles and the executive council
meeting that followed. These are still the official positions of the
AFL-CIO. Our position on sanctions especially was a watershed
decision, and we should fight to defend it.

We should have had more debate and discussion, more broadly
throughout the labor movement, before the new proposal was written.
But even after the fact, it is important to have open and robust
dialogue and debate. If it is organized by those who advocate the
new statement, it could be a positive experience -- if all voices can
participate, and if disagreements over ideas and politics aren't
treated as attacks.

I appreciate the reader's kind comments about my photographs and
previous articles. Sometimes longtime friends and allies can and do
disagree. Open debate and dialogue is the way to move forward in

David Bacon

Anonymous (not verified) | 06/10/09

Mr. Bacon, we clearly want similar things for all working people. We just read labor's position differently. Or perhaps, you are reading intentions in parts of the proposal that don't explicity say what you want to hear. Perhaps this is the problem. So let me respond to your response. BTW, I'm glad we can be civil. Afterall, it is the empployers who are doing the exploiting, not workers.

If the independent Commission really is set up to do what you say it does, which is to justify more temporary visas or employment visas that tie workers to employers, I would agree with you, and I too would oppose it. But that is not what the commission is set up to do.

The employment visas to be issued by the commission will be both for "permanent and temporary" visas. This is important. Temporary employment visas already exist and Bacon and I agree that they are exploitative and exist to meet the needs of employers at the expense of workers. Labor's position is that they should not be expanded. In fact, they should be reformed and resources should be dedicated to enforce the labor protections that are written into law.

The difference that the Commission would have on these visas is that the number of visas would be subject to an objective, transparent, economic based analysis rather than the current political horse trading. If the commission determins that no labor shortage exists for these types of workers, it is conceivable that some guest worker visas won't be issued.

Bacon believes that industry can just "lobby" the Commission for more temp visas. I disagree. Imagine big business lobbying the buearu of labor statistics to ensure that the unempolyment report for a specific month fits their needs (or something like that). It is not going to happen. We can agree to disagree.

The "permanent employement visas" are green cards. Otherwise, what are they? The U.S. already issues permanent employment visas, green cards, to thousands upon thousands of immigrants. The problem is that they only issue 5,000 to unskilled labor and tens of thousands to doctors, professionals, business owners, professors, scientists, etc. This is why entering with "work papers" is so difficult and therefore, many workers come without them. The commission will do away with the arbitrary 5,000 figure and apply a labor market analysis. In these hard economic times, we probably won't be issuing too many permanent work visas. When times are better, these numbers will most likely go up (based on the analysis of the commission's professional, civil service staff). This is what labor means when it says "the system for allocating employment visas should be depoliticized".

Another thing about the permanenet employment visas. The worker enters with this visa and is immediately eligible for a permanent residence status (green card). This means they can sponsor their families too. This is what the commission is proposing. It sounds very similar to what the AFL-CIO has been proposing for years and which SEIU has just signed off on.

True, in 2000 the AFL-CIO reversed it's regretable position on employer sanctions. Taking away the employer's power to check workers' work authorization was the right thing to do. This system was guaranteed to fail. We now have 7 million unauthorized workers and very few employers have been sanctioned while workers are taken away in hand cuffs. We agree on this.

However, does rejecting the employers sanctions provision of the IRCA mean that work authorization is unnecessary? In other words, anyone that wants to work can just enter the country and get a job? Really?
That sounds like open boders when it comes to the labor market. Any trade unionist would have a problem with that.

If we are against free trade (no restrictions or regulations), then how are we for open borders? As trade unionists support fair trade in the interests of foreign and U.S. workers, labor should be for immigration that is fair for immigrants and U.S. workers. We need an accurate work authorization system.

E-verify is not fair or accurate. Social Security no-match letters are not accurate and don't determine anyone's immigration status anyway. We agree on this. If the government were to come up with an accurate system and places it in the hands of employers, we would be in deep trouble. Employers would figure out how to abuse the system. Isn't it better for labor to come up with a system that is fair, transparent, and accurate that takes away the boss's power? This is what labor is proposing.

Bacon, if what you are proposing is that even if labor can design a system as described above, you will still be against work authorization, then you should say you are for open borders because that is essentially what you are proposing.

David Bacon (not verified) | 06/11/09

As the reader says, we want the same things. Rights for workers in the workplace. Strong and democratic unions. Human rights for immigrants. This is a good common ground for our discussion, and good criteria for looking at the statement.

The reader says that people coming to the U.S. with "permanent employment visas" would be eligible immediately to apply for a green card. In another place, she or he says permanent employment visas are green cards.

Employment visas are not green cards. Employment visas require a person to work in order to stay. For us, in unions, the difference is crucial. If a worker gets fired for joining a union, and can't find another job right away, she or he can be deported. Most people, if they think they have to risk deportation to sign a union card or make a complaint, regardless of their labor rights on paper, will be very reluctant to do so. And employers will take advantage of this. We don't want employment-based visas, whether they're temporary or permanent.

A green card (or permanent residence visa) allows a person to work or not work, to live where they like, travel back and forth across the border, and participate in civic life. They don't have to fear losing the right to stay if they lose their job.

If our objective is to allow immigrants to apply for green cards, then why not simply give people green cards to begin with? Or as an AFL-CIO immigration expert used to ask, why make immigrants guest workers [or tie their visas to their jobs]? Why not simply give people green cards?

But that's not what the statement says. So if that's what we want, why not say so? Why not say, "Future immigration to the U.S. should give immigrants permanent residence status, and not tie their ability to stay to their employment."

Perhaps the reader has more faith in government commissions than I do. More than two decades as an organizer battling the NLRB, for instance, made me a little paranoid about the political will of such commissions to protect our rights, and eight years of seeing what Bush did with DoL should be a warning.

I prefer Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee's solution. Her bill looked at the fact that about 4-500,000 people were crossing the border without papers, many dying, every year. She simply proposed increasing the number of greencards from 480,000 to 960,000 to ensure that people who are going to come anyway can do so legally, with rights.

Remember, "those people" are us. They are our family and friends. They will soon be members of our unions. We'll be asking them to vote for the union (or hopefully sign a card) in an organizing drive. So let's get for them the best we can win. And if employers need workers, they can raise wages to get us to go to work for them.

Today most green cards go to families bringing in other family members. But if we increase the number, many could go to a process in which people could simply go to a consulate and apply to come. If we don't want discrimination against low-wage workers in favor of doctors and lawyers, make it a level playing field without income requirements. But having a commission study labor shortages, and then recommend levels of employment-based visas to fill them, will inevitably be biased against farmers and factory workers, and put the needs of corporate employers first.

In terms of work authorization, we need a reality check. For many years most progressive folks in our labor movement have said that we will not ask workers for their immigration status when they join our unions, or when we ask them to join in organizing drives. A worker is a worker, we say. We all have rights, and the union is there to fight for all of us. This is a good rule.

So what happens if we say workers must be authorized? We all know that undocumented workers can't get authorized. That's what authorization means. There is no such thing as work authorization that doesn't eventually require employers to fire workers without papers. That's what employer sanctions says. The employer may not hire those workers, and, in effect, those workers may not work.

So then what happens when a worker gets fired for not having authorization?

This is not an abstract argument. That's what happened at Swift. Those 1000 fired workers were our members. They paid dues. Doesn't the union have a responsibility to fight for their jobs and their right to work? Or should we just say, you shouldn't be here, so we won't defend you. What about the workers fired and picked up for deportation at Smithfield? Should we defend them, since they put their jobs (and more) on the line to get the union organized, or should we say, you shouldn't be working here?

The main problem with Bush's proposed no-match regulation isn't that the Social Security database isn't accurate. It's that it would require employers to fire millions of undocumented workers. Many, many of them would be our own members, and workers we are trying to organize.

Work authorization is a recipe for tearing our unions apart. How will our unions be strong enough to confront the boss if we're divided between those who have rights and who we'll defend, and those who don't? How will we win organizing drives in workplaces with immigrant workers if we say that many of those workers don't have the right to even be there? What worker without papers is going to want to join our union if he or she knows we'll take the dues money, but we won't defend them if they get fired? Or should we just not permit undocumented workers to join? These are fundamental questions about who we are, and who our unions belong to.

Forget "open borders." Our criteria should be defending the rights of all workers, and keeping our unions strong. There is no way to advocate employer sanctions and work authorization, and then say we'll defend our members and people trying to organize whether or not they're undocumented. We either support sanctions, or we defend all workers. There is no third way.

Calling for repealing sanctions what we fought for at the AFL-CIO convention in 1999, and what we won. As Wilhelm said on the floor that day, "in the 1930's we asked workers in the great organizing drives in the mills and hotels, 'which side are you on?' And today immigrant workers are asking our labor movement, 'which side are we on?'"

James Frickey (not verified) | 06/08/09


You can lie about your private finances and none of us will ever know.

What we do know, of course, is that E-Verify is a voluntary program --which is to say, Overhill Farms complied voluntarily with the firing of 250 immigrant workers. And anyone who's been around the labor movement for 5 minutes knows that "no-match" letters don't fall from the sky -- they arrive in the worker's mail after the employer has invited ICE into its shop.

You're no different from the rich slobs at Swift & Co who screamed bloody murder when their plants were raided in 2006. Now, as then, the resulting spike in company profit will surprise no one.

Every low-life employer like you who collaborates with Homeland Security to smash immigrant workers always turns around and invites the news cameras out to film the line of hungry black and white workers waiting to apply for the new jobs. You're a propagandist for immigration reform -- and your methods play one race against the other.

What happens next, when the cameras are gone, is anyone's guess. But what remains absolutely clear is that your company's objective is to stir resentment and hatred against immigrant workers -- nothing less can satisfy your profit forecast.

I'll bet you can hardly wait for comprehensive immigration reform, when E-Verify and No-Match and ICE raids are institutionalized and you can send all of your "red-white-and-blue" workers on a permanent vacation.

Many of us will be ready for the day that comes after that -- when it's we who are sending out statements on company letterhead, and you who are doing the pleading outside the gates of your occupied farm. Blame no one but yourself.

Anonymous (not verified) | 06/06/09

"A long-term solution to uncontrolled immigration is to encourage just economic integration, which will eliminate enormous economic inequalities."

Unless Mexico and so on are developing their economy and domestic living standards rapidly, this is a recipe for global leveling down, not leveling up.

Alex Auerbach (not verified) | 06/06/09

The comment by David Bacon about Overhill Farms is inaccurate. The company was required by federal law to terminate these employees because they had invalid social security numbers. To do otherwise would have exposed BOTH the employees and the company to criminal and civil prosecution.
The employees being hired to replace them will be full-time employees, members of UFCW Local 770, with the same pay and benefits as other employees -- including paid sick leave and vacations, company-paid health insurance for the employee after six months, and company-paid health insurance for the employee's entire family after four years.
The company did not have any role in selecting which employees were subject to IRS action -- it could not add or subtract from the list provided by the IRS. It did retain legal counsel to see if there was any way to assist the employees, but was advised that there was none.
The terminations cost the company many loyal, experienced and valued employees, some with technical skills that will be difficult to replace. Overhill Farms had no role in initiating this action, and certainly did not benefit from it.