On this Labor Day, American workers have little, if anything, to celebrate. Profits and productivity are up (as are CEO salaries), but real wages keep falling. During this golden age of profit taking, the amount paid to compensate employees reached a new low as a share of the total economy.
One reason is that union membership in the private sector has dropped below 8 percent. Many of the remaining union workers are seeing their job protections, healthcare benefits, and pensions disappear as corporations slash labor costs. Additionally, workers' rights to organize and speak freely are regularly violated, making it extremely difficult for unions to recruit new members.
But then, this spring, something unexpected happened, something that cut against this knotty grain.
On May 1, masses of the nation's 20 million immigrant workers poured into the streets from coast to coast protesting a proposed federal law that would make undocumented foreigners felons. The strikes, boycotts, and parades were a compelling reminder of the labor movement's birth on May 1, 1886, when thousands of immigrants left work to demand an eight-hour day. For the next century several generations of foreign-born workers used labor unions as a means of escaping poverty and becoming active citizens in the democracy.
What will these recent May Day demonstrations mean to today's hard-pressed unions? It's too soon to tell. The demonstrators were protesting against anti-immigrant attitudes and policies, not in favor of unions; and yet they were presenting themselves as workers, not simply as immigrants.
They were saying: If you are going to treat us like criminals, why are you hiring us to care for your sick and your elderly, to clean your offices and build your houses, to cook and serve your food?
A few labor unions with immigrant members offered support for the spring demonstrations, but the massive turnout resulted mainly from the efforts of religious and community groups and radio DJs. Playing a less visible but critical role in this historic mobilization were the 140 immigrant worker centers in cities and rural areas across the nation. On this gloomy Labor Day the emergence of these centers of solidarity and advocacy offers hope to immigrant workers and their many allies.
The vast majority of these centers have been formed during the past decade when they have played some of the roles that trade unions, ethnic clubs, settlement houses, and legal service offices have played in the past.
For example, staffers at the Brazilian Workers Center and the Chinese Progressive Association in Boston provide legal advice, expose and rectify employer abuses, and provide education and training, as does the Welcome Project in Somerville. This project also provides safe space for immigrants of all nations to find common ground, and fosters a sense of solidarity, which is what played out May 1 when several thousand Somerville residents marched to Foss Park for a spirited immigrant-rights rally.
The AFL-CIO has recognized the importance of these workers' centers in reaching out to the huge numbers of immigrants who work as day laborers, particularly in the building, landscaping, and restaurant industries. Indeed, just one month ago the federation announced an alliance with the newly formed National Day Laborers Organization, a product of what its director calls a ``growing worker center movement."
The centers are not adequate substitutes for unions because they are not legal, recognized bargaining agents and therefore have limited leverage over large employers.
However, immigrant worker centers have become a foundation for an emerging immigrant workers' rights movement, and they could be a building block for a new, multifaceted American labor movement.
Such voluntary worker associations were, in fact, the forerunners of the first unions that formed a century ago, long before employees won the right to organize, strike, and bargain collectively. The Workmen's Circle, for example, once provided a wide range of services to immigrant Jewish laborers who then created legendary garment workers unions, like the ILGWU, organizations that lifted two generations of Jews and other immigrants out of ghetto poverty.
Could this happen again? Indeed it could. And so on this Labor Day immigrant workers and those who value their contributions to our society have good reasons to hope that history will repeat itself.
James Green teaches history at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. He is the author of ``Death in the Haymarket: A Story of Chicago, the First Labor Movement and the Bombing That Divided Gilded Age America."
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