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Immigration reform must include workers’ rights

1:41 pm in Uncategorized by Amy B. Dean

At this moment, various plans to reform America’s broken immigration system are working their way through Congressional debate. On Monday, a bipartisan group of eight lawmakers unveiled a plan that includes what they call a “tough but fair” path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Last Friday, members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus met with President Obama to discuss the issue, and this caucus’ input will be influential in shaping any final legislation.

In the current political climate, immigration reform is broadly popular, with both parties eager to win over the Hispanic electorate in 2014 and 2016. But that doesn’t mean that a bipartisan effort will pass a good law—especially if long-time opponents of immigration reform are only cynically vying for votes. We have every reason to doubt the sincerity of conservatives such as Senator Marco Rubio, who is leading the charge from the Republican side of the aisle with an eye on his own bid for president.

For the Democrats, the challenge will be to avoid simply jumping at the first deal offered by newly converted conservatives. Instead, for the first time in decades, promoters of reform have the opportunity to hold America to its promise of being a land of liberty and justice for all.

Most centrally, that comes down to the issue of work. Holding America to its promise will mean ensuring that immigrants have pathways for securing just and meaningful employment in this country.

Immigrants Rebuilding the Middle Class

The primary reason people come to the United States from other nations is the potential for good work. It’s not enough for immigrants to have legal status to stay here. They must have legal rights as employees to speak out against wage theft and abusive working conditions—and to exercise their freedoms to associate and engage in collective bargaining.

In recent decades, unions that were once isolationist have come around to this position. That’s why, in the current debate, organized labor is one of the strongest institutional voices speaking out in favor of immigrant rights.

A key goal in crafting a legislative package for reform will be to avoid the creation of a permanent two-tiered system of employment—with some immigrants allowed to stay and work, but only on terms that greatly restrict their rights. Some conservatives would like to see a version of immigration reform that emphasizes helping corporations maintain a pool of cheap immigrant labor and that would further weaken unions. Such a system would foster a permanent underclass of workers living little better than serfs.

We go down that path at our collective peril. More than any other institution, the trade union movement was responsible for the creation of a stable American middle class. And more than any other constituency, waves of fresh immigrants to this country’s shores did the most to lay the foundation for the U.S. labor movement.

For this reason, whether or not you are an immigrant or a union member yourself, we all have an interest in ensuring that new arrivals to the United States are able to stand up to fight for better wages and working conditions.

Avoiding the Errors of the Past

In order to make sure that immigrant rights and workers’ rights go hand-in-hand in any new reform package, we must not repeat the errors of the past. And with regard to immigration, the past is the Simpson-Mazzoli Act of 1986. For the last 27 years we have lived, however messily, under the guidelines set out in this bill.

Most consequentially, Simpson-Mazzoli beefed up enforcement partly by making employers turn workers in to the Immigration and Naturalization Service (now called ICE). At the time, this idea had broad support. In an influential editorial from 1982 (the year Simpson-Mazzoli was first introduced), the New York Times argued, “The United States cannot conceivably let in all the worldwide millions who want in. That means controlling our own borders and that in turn, means something called employer sanctions.”


This provision was likely the bill’s greatest mistake, as many former supporters have since recognized. Employers should not be made to do the government’s job of enforcing the law. Doing so only deepened the divide between employees based on their legal residency status. More importantly, it opened the door for unscrupulous employers to use the threat of an immigration raid to keep disaffected workers from standing up for themselves and exercising their rights.

Under the broken system, employers looked the other way on employees’ legal status when it was to their advantage, but they used workers’ undocumented status as a tool when it could ensure their employees would never take collective action. Such behavior and unfairness helped lead to depressed wages throughout the economy.

The current bipartisan immigration reform plan promises an “effective” employment verification system. The devil will be in the details, and much remains to be worked out. But this much is clear: To allow employers to have the power to enforce immigration laws in 2013 would be history repeating itself, and it is the wrong way to go.

The folks who supported Simpson-Mazzoli back in 1986 thought they were making our system fairer. Yet everything fell apart after it was passed. The U.S. began to witness a steady climb in illegal border crossings, rampant fraud, and a snarled mess of an enforcement system–the exact reverse of the legislation’s intended consequences. And America’s middle class has only suffered in the years since.

When people come to this country, they are coming because they want to make a living. While it’s important that immigrants be given a pathway to citizenship and the ability to reunite with family members, these goals are not enough. Until immigrants are able to fully exercise their rights in the workplace, America has not lived up to its promise.

How Progressives Won the Labor Rights Showdown in Ohio

11:34 am in Uncategorized by Amy B. Dean

This piece was originally posted on Truthout.

Last week, the labor movement and its allies scored a major victory with the repeal of Ohio Senate Bill 5 (SB5), a piece of anti-union legislation signed by Republican Gov. John Kasich. In a referendum that gave voters a chance to speak on the issue, Ohioans resoundingly rejected the law, which would have gutted the bargaining rights of 350,000 public-sector workers. In a landmark defeat for Republicans, voters turned out in large numbers and voted 61 percent to 39 percent to strike down SB5.

To understand how progressives pulled off this remarkable win, I spoke with Paul Booth, one of the chief strategists behind the campaign to repeal SB5. Currently, Booth is executive assistant to Gerald McEntee, the longtime president of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). But he is also an organizing legend outside of the labor movement. In the 1960s, Booth served as national secretary and vice president of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), and in the 1970s he was a prominent figure at the Midwest Academy, an influential training ground for organizers. He has worked for AFSCME since 1974.

Delving into the Ohio victory, I opened with a simple question: “Why did we win?”

“The people of Ohio decided that this was as a power grab by the governor and his people,” Booth said. “They decided public service workers’ rights were worth preserving.”

His answer seemed consistent with the common “overreach” analysis. Many commentators argue the Ohio vote is symptomatic of a widespread backlash against Republican governors who exceeded their electoral mandates by ramming conservative agendas through statehouses.

“I’m cautious about ‘overreach,’” Booth countered. “We stuck Kasich and his people with that characterization, but as a factual matter overreach is the wrong word. Because what they did was right out of their game plan. They had electoral success in November 2010. And, in order to thwart everything that we stand for, they wanted to cash that in as quickly and thoroughly as possible. They wanted to change the rules of the game for 2012. They view next year’s elections as their last best hope for throwing Obama out, taking back the Senate, and finalizing everything they’ve worked for in the last forty years. So this was reach, not overreach. They did exactly what they thought they had to do. In the context of everything they’ve been trying to do for the last forty years, it is essential for them to cripple the voice of working people.” Read the rest of this entry →

Unity Is Strength for Progressives

8:46 am in Uncategorized by Amy B. Dean

Business and liberal elites have long invested in developing collaborative leadership. In Occupy Wall Street and beyond, grassroots progressives are now getting into the game of working together.

Something huge is happening in this country. It’s been a long time since we’ve seen this level of populist activity directed at the right targets: the big banks and the corporate elites that dominate our political system.

But there’s something else going on, behind the scenes. Though largely obscured by the Occupy Wall Street story, we are seeing a rare and welcome level of unity: progressive groups are maintaining a better level of coordination than at any time in recent memory. It’s a trend toward cooperation that should be recognized and celebrated.

With the Occupy protests, it’s been wonderful to see a wide range of labor, community and nonprofit groups come together to embrace the struggle – even though the activists who launched the new movement embody very different organizational cultures. When New York Mayor Bloomberg threatened to evict the Zuccotti Park demonstrators a couple of weeks ago, AFL-CIO president Rich Trumka declared that his federation “Stands with Occupy Wall Street” and encouraged union members to help protect the occupation from a police raid. For their part, Occupy activists have supported workers organizing at companies including Sotheby’sWal-Mart and Verizon. Historian and Nation writer Jon Wiener calls it an alliance of “hard hats and hippies.” And it’s not just labor. An impressively diverse coalition of community groups and nonprofit advocates have marched in solidarity as well.

But the kind of cooperation that’s been on clear display in the past month thanks to the Occupy movement didn’t come out of nowhere. In fact, coordination among progressives has been quietly growing for over a decade.

That the labor movement so readily signed on to support the Occupy protests is in part a result of collaboration and networking that began in the 1990s. Cooperation around trade issues – beginning with the fight against NAFTA – served as an important opportunity for labor, community, environmental, student and faith-based organizations to start forming relationships.

The coalition building exploded into view with the 1999 protests in Seattle. There, a “Teamsters and Turtles” coalition famously shined the spotlight of public scrutiny on the World Trade Organization. Global justice demonstrations were another instance in which labor might have kept activists coming from different organizing cultures at arm’s length. But John Sweeney and other union leaders instead threw labor’s institutional weight behind the protests. Many of the relationships that are fostering more fluid and open cooperation now were forged during that time.

Considering coordination among today’s groups, I would make three observations about the recent trend toward progressives playing well with others.

First, cooperation is a product of necessity. One reason we’re coming together is we have to. Divided, we get our butts kicked. Yet, tough times do not guarantee unity. In the 1970s and early ’80s, progressive groups too often fell into infighting when confronted with challenges. In contrast, we’re now channeling our frustrations and grievances into collaborative action. That’s a change for the better.

A second reason groups are working together better is that there are younger leaders at the table. A new generation of leadership, in unions and beyond, is dispensing with some of the old grudges that inhibited cooperation and viewing collaborative action as a vital part of their work. Individuals such as Mary Kay Henry at Service Employees International Union, George Goehl atNational Peoples’ Action and LeeAnn Hall of the Alliance for a Just Society are thinking beyond their own organizations. They’re recognizing that working across boundaries is critical to gaining strength.

Finally, we have seen an institutional investment in building relationships and encouraging collaboration among progressives – an area of focus that for too long has been the domain of elites. In the 1970s, John Gardner, who helped found both Common Cause and the American Leadership Forum (ALF), identified a crisis of leadership in the country. This, he believed, resulted from a dearth of influential figures working across disciplines and organizational divides in pursuit of the common good. Since then, groups like ALF have channeled resources into networking across boundaries. However, their efforts primarily targeted high-level business leaders and prominent individuals in civil society such as university presidents.

Only recently have institutions emerged that are investing resources in this type of activity for social movement activists. Groups such as the Rockwood Leadership Institute should be commended for devoting resources and attention to the challenge of building relationships and encouraging collaboration among progressives. They have created the space for grassroots leaders to come together, understand one another’s interests and learn common skills and practices. The importance of cultivating collaborative action in this way can hardly be overstated.

From the Madison protests of early 2011 to the Occupy movement today, we are seeing the fruits of a new push for cooperation. The lesson of such mobilizations is clear, and we can only hope that a greater number of people working for social change take it to heart: The more we break down barriers and join forces, the more we build power.

Amy Dean is co-author, with David Reynolds, of “A New New Deal: How Regional Activism Will Reshape the American Labor Movement” and is president and founder of ABD Ventures. She worked for nearly two decades in the labor movement and now works to develop new and innovative organizing strategies for social change organizations. You can follow Amy on Twitter at @amybdean, or she can be reached via