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Lauren Davis/ MEDILL

Richard Monje, vice president of Worker’s United, watched activists speak at Federal Plaza for immigrant rights Wednesday.

Union support for immigration reform wasn’t always a sure thing

by Lauren M. Davis
May 2, 2013

Lauren Davis/ MEDILL

Hundreds of immigrant rights activist walked from Union Park to the Federal plaza on May Day.

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Labor unions have been in the forefront pushing for immigration reform as the U.S. Congress wrestles with the issue, but immigrant support hasn't always been a union position.

“It’s a complicated, contradictory, long story, said Gene Carroll, co-director of the New York State AFL-CIO and historian at Cornell Union Leadership Institute. During the 19th and 20th centuries labor unions mostly opposed immigration.

The traditional fears of some unions were economic competition, he said.

“Unions responded to that fear by opposing immigrants and it fueled sort of an anti-immigrant and racist attitude in some cases,” he said. “I think they were afraid that immigrants could undercut their work standards and their pay standards because at least initially a lot of immigrant workers would be willing to work for less pay.”

Over the last 15 years, the AFL-CIO has developed a much more progressive position more accepting of immigrants, he said.

“There definitely has been a change,” said Jeff Hauser, leader of the political media team at AFL-CIO.

The most dramatic evidence of a change was in February 2000 when the federation publicly endorsed the pathway to citizenship. There was no clear stance on immigration in the ‘90s, he said.

“Obviously we don't embrace this now, but there was a fear in the past that it would reduce wages, but now there’s very strong evidence that a roadmap to citizenship will increase wages,” Hauser said.

Ileen A. DeVault, professor of labor history at Cornell University, understands how immigrant citizenship could lead to a pay increase. Unions have realized that immigrant acceptance will actually help them gain more members and more money.

“If they join unions that will help wages go up,” she said. “Even if they don’t though, because they will feel that they have more rights to complain about wages and working conditions it will improve both wages and working conditions for everybody.”

Mark Meinster, international representative at United Electrical Workers, who marched in Wednesday’s May Day Rally in Chicago, said his union has been supporting immigration reform for decades for many reasons.

“Our immigration system is broken,” Meinster said, “Employers can use immigration status to pay people less than minimum wage or steal their wages.”

Richard Monje, vice president of Worker’s United, a Service Employees International Union affiliate, said immigrants are an unmovable part of society.

“We can’t have unions if sections of the population have no right to be a part of those unions,” he said during Wednesday’s May Day Rally.

People marched for immigration reform this year because there’s finally a serious conversation about it, he said. “In the past there wasn’t the political will unfortunately to actually fix the system.”

Urszula Domaratzki wore a bright orange Service Employees International Union shirt at the rally. She was there to support immigration reform, “Because I am an immigrant too,” she said. She left Poland in 1984 and became a U.S. citizen in 1996. She hopes others will get a chance to permanently live in the U.S.

“When I saw how beautiful the country is and how much opportunity I got here, I decided to stay,” she said. “I was lucky.”