January 2011 Issue
December 19, 2010

POV: Unions must organize all workers

Source: NYSUT United

UUP member Alethia JonesUUP member Alethia Jones is an assistant professor in the Department of Public Administration and Policy at UAlbany. She is a nationally recognized advocate for immigrants' rights. NYSUT United asked Jones about her studies of and views on immigration.

Q: How does your life experience inform your work on immigration policy?

A: Two years in a Brooklyn public school and four years at a New England boarding school demonstrated the vastly divergent educational experiences that exist in the U.S. As an immigrant, I hoped that Columbia University's celebrated Core Curriculum would ground me in the traditions of a society where I still felt like a stranger. Though I enjoyed learning the political theories and literary classics that anchor the Western tradition, I was puzzled by the "West is best" presumption that permeated the curriculum. ... As I studied anthropology, I became interested in the ways colonial powers employed state regulations to govern the lives of indigenous peoples. But as a working class kid who attended elite schools via scholarships, I thought I could not afford to study in a foreign country, so I opted to study foreigners in the U.S. That led to studying the intersection of immigrants and public policy.

Q: What hurdles do immigrants face in efforts to become U.S. citizens?

A: Many immigrants are fully integrated into U.S. life as workers and consumers. Those who fill an integral place in the economy as farm workers, nannies, janitors, secretaries, business owners, engineers and nurses operate as economic and socio-cultural "citizens" long before they become citizens legally.

Legal citizenship is a major hurdle, even under the best circumstances. After five years, those with green cards can apply for full citizenship but often face a slow, complex and indifferent bureaucracy, prohibitively high fees and misinformation. Currently, unauthorized immigrants face an increasingly hostile public.

Another hurdle is the wealth of scam artists who claim to be immigration attorneys or "notarios" who take money but give misinformation that jeopardizes the legal status of some immigrants.

But the real tragedy is that so many legal immigrants wait 15-17 years before they apply for citizenship. That was true for me, my mother and sister — we were too busy living life to do the paperwork. And the government does nothing to inform and encourage us to pursue this option as soon as we pass our five-year residency benchmark.

Q: Immigrants are often cast as being a "drain" on the economy. Is that true?

A: Our laws block legal and illegal immigrants from receiving a host of services, except in the most dire situations. Moreover, the "drain" image completely ignores how immigrants often give more to the economy than they will ever get back. The invisible labor of picking our fruits and vegetables, cooking in restaurants, sewing clothes and cleaning malls and office building has bolstered the economy as has their consumption of goods and services.

Even immigrants without legal status pay almost $1 trillion a year in taxes to the IRS. Others make payments into Social Security of $500 billion a year, which keeps the system solvent.

The Fiscal Policy Institute's report "Working for a Better Life" documents that all immigrants are a net benefit to society, especially when we include doctors, lawyers, financiers, engineers, entrepreneurs, and other professionals and legal workers. Another recent study calculates that legalizing the undocumented would immediately boost the economy by $1.3 trillion dollars.

Q: The labor movement has changed its position about immigration in the last decade. What do the changes mean for union members?

A: Unions backed the first federal law that excluded an entire group based on their nationality, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. The last vestiges of this law were removed in 1942 when Asians were finally allowed to become U.S. citizens.

Cesar Chavez saw illegal immigrants as a threat to union organizing because a steady stream of low-wage workers undercut union jobs.

Today, unions realize they must organize ALL workers rather than allow employers to use legal status to abuse and undermine unionized workers. Every worker should have the right to organize into a union.

All workers have benefited from the gains unions have made: the 40-hour work week, the weekend (2 days of rest), minimum wage and, most recently, expanded access to health care. ... Because our system protects the rights of legal persons rather than of workers, legalization of the undocumented is the only way to protect the almost 10 million workers that our economy has absorbed in the last 24 years. It is solidarity for all workers, not just solidarity of union members.

Q: NYSUT and its affiliates support the federal DREAM Act. What other steps should a union take regarding immigration?

A: It should fight for a fair and just DREAM Act while supporting other proposals that acknowledge that many employers and consumers have benefited from the labor of unauthorized immigrants for decades.

The DREAM Act would grant legal status to individuals who were smuggled into the country as children. Often, they learn of their undocumented status as teenagers when parents/guardians decide to reveal this inconvenient truth, which explains why they can't apply to college or obtain employment. Without the DREAM Act, this country squanders our investment in them.