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Immigrants Are Future of Labor Movement
by David Bacon

UNFORTUNATELY, getting harassed for passing out leaflets urging workers to organize is not news in this country. It's been a fact of life since workers started forming unions 200 years ago.

Carlos Canales of Long Island's Workplace Project was a recent victim of this hallowed tradition. But the people Canales is organizing in the Long Island Rail Road parking lot in Freeport are not part of your typical workforce. He was arrested where the most innovative workplace organizing is happening today-the street corner.

Day laborers, mostly recent immigrants, seem an unlikely vanguard for U.S. labor.

Every one of them has to find a new job every day. Wages are low. Latino workers face hostility from police and neighbors who see them as interlopers.

You just need to look at Farmingdale Mayor Joseph Trudden's announcement this week to shut down the Nassau village's hiring site. The decision to close the gravel lot gained steam from Suffolk County Executive Robert Gaffney's controversial veto of a proposed hiring site in Farmingville, a Suffolk community that has been a lightning rod in the debate over the rights of day laborers. Plus, curbside shape-ups are an old and integral part of our economic system. In an economy stratified by race and immigration, street corners are a historical entry point into worklife for immigrants and racial minorities.

But despite the problems, day laborers and the Workplace Project don't accept the street's extreme insecurity and exploitation as inevitable. Nor should they.

Just decades ago, dockworkers also competed for jobs in morning shape-ups on the waterfront. And just as day laborers are stereotyped today for urinating on the sidewalk and harassing passersby, the longshoreman was a synonym in the 1920s for "bum" and "drunk." Today, longshore workers have some of the highest wages in the nation. They fought their way off the street corner by organizing unions- and winning control over their work.

The Workplace Project is still a long way from that goal. But projects like it around the country have an attitude reminescent of the left-wing activists who built the Congress of Industrial Organizations in the 1930s.

What you are really seeing on the street corners are men learning to organize themselves.

Day labor is only the most extreme form of a problem increasingly faced by millions of American workers. Today, most employees no longer have a traditional, secure permanent relationship with a single employer. This explosion in contingent jobs presents a whole new set of problems for workers and unions.

On Long Island, the "invisible" day laborers have begun to suggest answers.

They've discovered their shared immigrant culture can act as a powerful tool to articulate their experience and needs and build an organization from the grass roots up.

Major U.S. labor unions should pay heed, as they look for ways to unite a workforce that is more diverse-and less secure-than ever before. And unions are taking a new, more supportive attitude toward immigrant workers. The New York City Labor Council rose to the defense of Long Island day laborers after the physical attack on three men picked up in Farmingville. The council, once one of the nation's most conservative, is more vocal today about human rights because its members are aware that its own future is tied to the organizing struggles of immigrants.

It's not hard to understand why. Unions represent about 13 percent of U.S. workers today, down from 35 percent in the early 1950s. To maintain that percentage, unions have to organize 400,000 workers a year. To grow by just 1 percent, labor must organize 800,000 people-a rate not achieved since the 1940s.

But back then, unions didn't ask, "Let me see your papers." They asked, "Which side are you on?" Immigrant workers today have the right to ask of us the same question: Which side are we on? For day laborers in Long Island, unions and others should be saying -yours.

About The Author

David Bacon is associate editor for Pacific News Service and a California-based writer and photographer who covers labor, immigration and the global economy. copyright 2001 by David Bacon. For reproduction rights, contact