On Nov. 16, a delegation[i] of African American labor leaders traveled to Alabama on a fact-finding mission to investigate and document the impact of HB 56, America’s latest extreme anti-immigrant law. The delegation met with local labor, civil rights, faith and community leaders and business owners, who painted a stark picture of the real-world effects of the law. They also heard from those most impacted by the law—undocumented people and their families.
The delegation members were profoundly affected by what they saw and heard. They were deeply troubled by the humanitarian crisis they witnessed—a crisis that hearkens Alabama back to the bleakest days of the state’s racial history. Delegation members reported that parallels to Jim Crow were all too real, and the prejudice they heard about felt all too familiar.
The delegation concluded that HB 56 and sister laws are part of a broad agenda to deny workers their fundamental rights. The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) is the source of these laws, and the source of model bills around the country that take away the collective bargaining rights of public employees, cripple unions, privatize public services (including prisons and detention centers), loosen regulations, lower taxes on corporations and inspired the spate of recently adopted voter ID laws.
What the delegation found was America’s harshest new anti-immigrant law.
The delegation’s findings are as follows:
1. HB 56 impacts fundamental human and civil rights on a broad scale, not just immigrants’ rights.
The human consequences of HB 56 are devastating. It is disturbing to working people, to the labor movement and to our country that currently people are being disenfranchised in the state of Alabama and discriminated against. The law allows police to check the immigration status of people they stop and suspect are in the country unlawfully and includes measures to suppress voting rights.
2. The law has a particularly negative impact on children and families.
Destroying the hope and dreams of children is not the American way. Children are being denied the right of an education. Public universities are prohibited from enrolling undocumented students. Making it a crime to help a person in need and teaching children to be fearful or to hate is not the American way.
3. The labor movement must be a strong voice on the side of justice for all.
The purveyors of hate would have us believe that anti-immigrant laws are about protecting jobs. These are the same forces that are trying to destroy unions by pushing anti-collective bargaining laws, undermining Project Labor Agreements and limiting the voting rights of working people. The labor movement has always stood up in solidarity to call out injustices and has to take these purveyors of hate head-on. Often, as is the case in Alabama, local community organizations are focused on providing services to the community, and have no resources (or experience) to organize against HB 56-types of attacks. The labor movement, on the other hand, has the experience and ability to organize, but often lacks a connection to the community. We need to link our strengths, and build stronger and more powerful relationships to protect and defend against attacks on fundamental rights.
4. The labor movement should address the anti-immigrant laws in the context of defending against all laws that attack working people.
It is clear that HB 56 and its sister laws are part of an agenda to disenfranchise voters. That agenda includes legal limitations on unions, strict voter ID laws and anti-immigrant bills. All of these laws are designed to make it virtually impossible for people to participate in the political process.
5. The labor movement needs to develop a strong, rights-based response to these laws, and continue to push for immigration reform on the national level.
Business is already pushing its solution to the Alabama law: bringing back the convict-lease system. Tea Party Republicans have pre-filed a bill that would make it legal for private companies to hire prisoners to work on farms, in chicken processing plants and in manufacturing industries. It is very disturbing that elected officials are calling for the return of one the darkest periods in American history—a period in which Corporate America, in complicity with southern states in the aftermath of the Civil War, essentially re-imposed slavery via convict labor. [ii] Today, replacing immigrant workers with prison labor guarantees employers a stable supply of virtually free and socially and legally powerless labor. News reports also indicate that Alabama is considering following Utah’s lead in creating a guestworker program of the type exposed in the Southern Poverty Law Center’s seminal report “Close to Slavery.”
Whether it’s re-imposing convict labor, keeping poor communities of color from voting because of so-called voter ID laws or eliminating collective bargaining, it’s all part of the same roadmap—one that silences the voices of whole communities. Our immigration policy must be consistent with our core values as a society and our moral obligation to treat all people with dignity and respect. Our focus should be on creating a country that gives everyone the freedom to work, support a family and a have a voice.
The delegations’ recommendations are as follows:
- Educating our leaders and our members to recognize that laws like HB 56 are anti-worker laws is a top priority. To that end, the AFL-CIO should work with its affiliates to develop the necessary educational tools and programs. State federations must also be given the tools to fight against these types of legislative efforts.
- The labor movement needs to develop a strategic response based on a rights-based framework. The labor movement has a national policy on comprehensive immigration reform, which former Secretary of Labor Ray Marshall helped the AFL-CIO develop. Consistent with the AFL-CIO’s national policy and principles for immigration reform, the AFL-CIO together with its affiliates should develop a strategy to oppose state legislation that is inconsistent with those principles and support state legislative enactments that advance workers’ rights and effectively hold employers that repeatedly exploit workers accountable, so that they do not put responsible employers at a disadvantage. Employers who exploit, misclassify, or otherwise violate labor and employment law should suffer debarment from state contracts, license revocation and other appropriate remedies.
We adopt these findings and recommendations and will take the necessary steps to implement them by the August 2012 Executive Council meeting.
[i] The delegation members were: James Andrews, President, North Carolina State, AFL-CIO; William Lucy, President, Coalition of Black Trade Unionists; Donna McDaniel, Assistant Director, LIUNA; Terry Melvin, Secretary-Treasurer, New York State AFL-CIO; Daryl Newman, Secretary-Treasurer, Michigan State AFL-CIO; Fred Redmond, International Vice President, USW; Kenneth Rigmaiden, Executive General Vice President, IUPAT; Yvonne Robinson, Secretary-Treasurer, Georgia AFL-CIO; Roger Toussaint, President, Local 100, TWU; Angelia Wade, Associate General Counsel, AFL-CIO; Caniesha Washington, Women’s and Fair Practices Department, AFT; and Diann Woodward, President, AFSA.
[ii]Blackmon, Douglas A. Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black People in America from the Civil War to World War II, New York: Doubleday, 2008.