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Immigrants and Unions Make America Great

And they’re fighting back against Trump’s onslaught

People march and rally on May Day, on May 1, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. Numerous May Day, or International Workers Day, marches are taking place in the greater Los Angeles area, and in cities across the nation. (Photo: David McNew/Getty Images)

Clara spends her days cleaning Miami office buildings on her hands and knees. Most days her back screams with pain, but the 47-year-old mother of a teenage son keeps working. She knows that her family depends on the union wages and benefits that she brings home. While Clara worries about her son getting into college and whether her car will make it to work, she does not have to worry that her employer will steal her wages, that she will lose her job for reporting sexual harassment, or that she could have her hours cut due to favoritism or prejudice.

That’s because she has a union job that provides protection against the worst abuses many immigrant workers face. Clara and 400 of her Miami co-workers fought to join their union, 32BJ of the Service Employees International Union, even though it entailed a 17-day hunger strike.

"As so many institutions have failed or outright scapegoated them—including Congress, the White House, their employers, local law enforcement, and ICE—immigrant workers have come to rely more than ever on unions and grassroots organizations to protect the few rights they cling to."

Immigrant workers like Clara and the unions that protect them face unprecedented attacks under the Trump administration. The Janus Supreme Court decision, which upended decades of precedent in order to cripple unions, adds to the threats confronting immigrant workers who are already grappling with the horrors of family separations and mass deportations. As so many institutions have failed or outright scapegoated them—including Congress, the White House, their employers, local law enforcement, and ICE—immigrant workers have come to rely more than ever on unions and grassroots organizations to protect the few rights they cling to.

Unions like 32BJ, which represents tens of thousands of building-service workers, many of them immigrants, up and down the East Coast, and organizations like United We Dream, which represents hundreds of thousands of Dreamers, understand all too well the double jeopardy in which President Trump and the Supreme Court have placed immigrant workers. We know that when Trump killed the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program and Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for immigrants from many countries, he not only put more than one million people at risk of deportation, he also took away their ability to work, provide for their families, and live a life of dignity out of the shadows. We know that Supreme Court decisions have weakened workers’ rights to class-action lawsuits, even as the administration has issued a number of anti-union executive orders and stacked the National Labor Relations Board with anti-worker members.


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American labor has always been a movement in which immigrants, often in the most thankless and dangerous jobs, have played leading roles—often stopping the race to the bottom that employers entered them in. The young immigrant women who worked in the clothing and garment industries of New York and other cities in the early 20th century—not least, those who died in the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire—paved the way for the reforms that led in time to the New Deal, minimum-wage laws, the eight-hour day, and the weekend.

In more recent times, from the grape strikes of the 1960s to the Justice for Janitors movement of the past quarter-century, immigrant workers have made significant gains by organizing into unions. The momentum keeps growing. Most recently, immigrant airport workers in New York have joined with 32BJ SEIU and are on a path to an historic wage raise to $19 that benefits all workers, immigrants and non-immigrants alike. The same drive and fortitude that led these immigrant workers to risk everything for a better life for their family by coming here led them on a path to a wage raise that was unimaginable just a decade ago.

The organizing among immigrant workers continues. There is hope that we can stem the tide that threatens our core American values. We’re seeing inspiring popular movements spreading like wildfire, new allies speaking up, and political leaders who are willing to tell the truth and stand for justice.

The Trump administration has waged war on the values that most Americans share: that hard work should be honored, that justice is for all, and that human dignity comes before political ideology and profit, and families belong together. We must resist the attacks on the most vulnerable among us—and the organizations that protect them—in order to truly live up to the promise of America.

Héctor Figueroa

Héctor Figueroa

Héctor Figueroa is the president of 32BJ Service Employees International Union, the largest property service workers union in the country and one of the largest unions representing immigrant workers.

Cristina Jiménez Moreta

Cristina Jiménez Moreta

Cristina Jiménez Moreta is the co-founder and executive director of United We Dream, the largest network of immigrant youth in the nation.

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