New Orleans Rich Trumka of the AFL-CIO lambasted the Republican “principles” on immigration reform as a non-starter virtually creating a permanent apartheid of immigrants inside the country. There was a time when the vigorousness of labor’s opposition would have signaled the death of such a bill. This time though President Obama was encouraging to the Republicans, even signaling that he might be open to the door being shut on undocumented workers here now, as long as it wasn’t permanently locked. The president is obviously desperate to get something done on immigration in a time of political peril for his presidency with the countdown already beginning on whether or not his time is running out even though three years remain.
More troubling for reformers committed to more meaningful reform were comments made by Chicago Congressman Luis Gutierrez, who more than any other politician has made reform his issue in every way possible. Gutierrez essentially seem to be cautioning reformers that they need to lose the last of their illusions and be prepared to make a deal with the Republicans anyway they can, no matter the fact that they might be covering their noses, eyes, and mouths to do so. This seems to be the emerging Washington beltway consensus voiced as well in part by longtime advocates, Frank Sharry of America’s Voice and Angela Kelley of the Center for American Progress.
In five years, the immigration reform movement seems to have devolved from a position of calling for comprehensive reform to trying to get a patchwork quilt to cover array of issues faced by 14 million undocumented immigrants in the country. Some of this isn’t news. Advocates have been strategically withdrawing for some time to be willing to embrace reform in separate packages rather than as part of a comprehensive measure. Chris Newman of NDLON, one of the leading groups behind any reform and one of the most aggressive, argued that this would be a necessary strategic shift months ago in an interview with me.
The Republican principles though are not what he had in mind, and you can take that to the bank! Even Ross Douthat, the Republican cheerleader and conservative op-ed columnist for the New York Times, argued that these principles were essentially a collection of special interests concessions without any pretense of fixing the problem.
The only place where there seems to be an emerging winner may be for the DREAMers, the children of undocumented immigrants brought to this country and raised here. Their courage, activism, and continued direct protest has convinced politicians of all stripes that the morality of their cause is something they cannot no longer escape. Direct action tactics, including the recent fast by Eliseo Medina and others, seem to have value in keeping a heartbeat for other protests, but do not seem to be moving the needle for more extensive reform.
Unfortunately though if we’re now negotiating from weakness, we’re facing a hard spring followed by at best a meager harvest.
New Orleans Reports on the closing of the AFL-CIO quadrennial convention in Los Angeles were depressing to me. Sure, I liked hearing Rich Trumka almost endorse my long standing call for “majority unionism” by saying labor needed “to build a movement not for the 99 percent but of the 99 percent. Not just the 11 percent we are right now.” On the other hand I had trouble finding where the beef might be. Elections of some people, no matter how good, to the Executive Council is a sentence to a elite frequent flyer status and butt calluses, not a prospect for real change for labor. There’s almost a proportional formula in these situations that the smaller the organization becomes, the more people it elevates to leadership.
It was wild reading Richard Berman of the so-called Center for Union Facts op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal which was largely an attack on worker centers bereft of virtually any factual basis. His most convoluted and misleading claim was that the value of worker centers, given their nonprofit status, was that they could picket companies endlessly and “get around” the NLRB requirement that after 30 days, a union’s picketing had to stop or file for an election. Huh? Of course he’s talking about the instance when a union might be picketing for recognition to represent the workers. The “facts” are that a union or any group or individual can picket any company endlessly over grievances and problems in the company. Berman needs to learn the facts about America and our freedom of association. Not sure what country he’s talking about, but of course he doesn’t really care about the truth there. He just wants to take some shots at worker centers in order to make the point that the publicity strikes recently at Walmart and at fast food shops calling for $15 per hour didn’t have many participants. Who said they did? They were protests called strikes. Get over it!
The most encouraging news from labor this week was from the UAW and its president Bob King, who recently returned from a meeting with Volkswagen officials in Germany where he was seeking recognition. For the first time the UAW can see potential success in organizing a “transplant” or foreign automaker in the US since they now have a majority of the 2000 workers signed up at the VW plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee thanks to a big layoff there that sparked the drive. The wage differences are of course not the driver. VW pays $14.50 to start where most UAW auto contracts start at $15.78 and in 4 years go to $19.28, while VW gets past that to $19.50 in 3 years. UAW success finally in the South would be much more of a game changer for the labor movement than learning how to use Twitter or Facebook. And, I’m not oblivious to the reality that fast food workers demands for $15 per hour seem hollow when the elite of labor in the auto industry are scratching to get close to $15 themselves.
To organize still requires putting organizers real boots on the ground, not more press releases and tweets in the air, and it still takes real members and real workers to build a movement, not just a claim to represent.