Immigrants Fight the Power - Workers Centers Are One Path to Labor Organizing and Political Participation

Article excerpt

It was an unusual victory. In 1997 New York State passed the toughest wage-enforcement law in the country-after an eighteen-month campaign developed and passionately led by immigrant workers, almost none of whom could vote. At a time when anti-immigrant hysteria was at its peak, these newcomers won the sponsorship of their bill by the same Republican state senators who had tried to bring their own version of California's Proposition 187 to New York. And the workers did it through legislative visits carried out in Spanish.

The participants were members of the Workplace Project, a workers center on Long Island. Its strategy of citizenship education and organizing shines light on one road to real political participation by immigrants. The project, which I founded in 1992 and directed until 1998, is but one of more than a dozen independent workers centers around the country. The Chinese Staff and Workers Association in New York, La Mujer Obrera in Texas and the Asian Immigrant Women Advocates in California were among the pioneers. Six centers now exist in New York State alone.

The Workplace Project and its fellow centers are far from having all the answers to the difficult questions of how best to organize immigrant workers. But what the project learned through the work that culminated in the Unpaid Wages Prohibition Act should be of interest to the labor and immigrant-rights movements in any case. With more than 25 percent of new entrants to the work force foreign-born, labor organizing must address immigrant issues if it is to succeed.

This story begins in what at first glance seems an unlikely place: the well-planned streets and bedroom communities of Long Island.

Suburbs are the new immigrant destination, and the Island is home to perhaps 400,000 Latino immigrants, including one of the largest outposts of Central Americans in the country. On the surface, the suburbs seem an appealing setting, but their economy bears all the hallmarks of sweatshop labor. Busboys and dishwashers may labor more than seventy hours a week in restaurants for less than $3 an hour with no overtime, despite federal minimums; workers mow up to fifty lawns a day for small landscaping companies, slicing off fingers and permanently injuring their backs in the process; and isolated and vulnerable domestic workers receive as little as $1.90 an hour in workweeks of up to eighty-five hours. Even such minimal wages may never be paid. Business is transacted in cash, employers close and open under new names and workers are plentiful and cheap.

Despite the recent rededication of the AFL-CIO to the organizing of immigrant workers and a few resulting victories in immigrant-heavy industries (for example, the SEIU's impressive 1999 victory in California's homecare industry), unions are often unwilling to undertake expensive organizing campaigns in small, fly-by-night businesses that do not generate an adequate dues base even when unionization drives win.

Labor unions on Long Island have lagged behind the national AFL. Some see immigrants as a threat to their hold on the job market and have no plans to organize them. Others find themselves representing a Latino work force as jobs turn over, but do not translate their contracts or hire staff who speak Spanish. As a result, most traditional organizing campaigns targeting Long Island immigrants have failed.

The Workplace Project began where unions dropped away. Its mission is to insure fair wages and working conditions for all low-wage workers through a cycle of outreach, leadership training, membership-building and organizing in individual workplaces, industrywide and across industries. The project's more than 465 dues-paying members are gardeners and domestic workers, busboys and janitors, and workers in small plants. A slim majority are from El Salvador, with the rest from other countries in Central and South America, Mexico and the Caribbean. About a third are undocumented; most of the rest have temporary work permits. …