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Thursday, October 12, 2006

US labor unions adrift over foreign workers' activism


SAN FRANCISCO, USA—JOHN Ford was flipping an egg in his kitchen when union members and immigrant activists in the Bay Area marched down Market Street here.
Ford may have sensed something was up since he paused for a fraction of a minute before going back to cooking.
Ford's absence in that march bares the ambivalence that have clutched American unions on the issue of immigration reforms, pending bills in Congress that never saw light when legislators recessed October 1.
Union leaders like Ford –he represents iron workers– even stayed at home weeks before lawmakers signed off amid clamors for positive immigration reforms to benefit undocumented and legalized foreign workers (including Filipinos).
Labor union members —as themselves, like some members of Ford's Iron Workers Bridge Structural, Ornamental and Reinforced Union Local 377— went to Civic Center (the seat of the city of San Francisco's governance) September 4, but top honchos of unions like Ford's weren't around.
Ford's reason: the union is still discussing some reform measures in the pending immigration reform bills that, because of the recess, would be reverted back to committee hearings.
Traditionally, US labor unions are unsupportive to immigrants, and their officials might need more time to understand immigrants' concerns in today's rise of immigration issues, says Oakland, California-based Mexican Lara Casillas of the Bay Area Immigrant Rights Coalition.
While this indecision to support immigrants or not prevails, foreign-born workers in the US are growing in number. The Migration Policy Institute in Washington D.C., in a May 2004 paper citing US Census figures, said there are 17.654 million foreign-born wage and salary workers.

"There is a changing demographic in the workplace: union members now speak English with an accent," Casillas said.


RALLIES in various US cities, including San Francisco, marked Labor Day holiday over a month ago, though some 1,000-4,000 rallyists were spread out among themselves in their march from Embarcadero Avenue to Civic Center.
That Labor Day rally was no match to the estimated 50,000 that filled Civic Center Plaza last May, at the height of the US immigration reform debate.
And for the first time "in a long while," observes Casillas, this year's American Labor Day celebration touched on immigrants' issues.
Still, San Francisco Chronicle headlined the rally, reporting on September 5 that the affair "(demonstrated) a new alliance between unions and illegal workers—groups that have been at odds".
"I went here at the rally on my own," Filipino Bryan Cruz of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 790 said.
Cruz also told the assembly: "I believe the 11-to-12 million undocumented migrants should be legalized. My local union sees (immigration issues) as a cause."
That day saw immigrant union members –janitors, hotel and garments, and other service workers– wearing colorful t-shirts, hats, and caps.
Ford said two days after that march that some of his union's members joined the rally, as his local union "has no formal stand yet."
IWBSOR Local 377, whose members maintain the structural strength of San Francisco's bridges, has 3,000 members –all paying $40 in union dues monthly.

Foreign workers like Mexicans and some Filipinos already make up 40 percent of Local 377, but whether they're black, brown or white-skinned, Ford said Local 377 negotiates for them.

"Our union represents all workers, and we are not mindful at looking at them as 'immigrants.'"

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