Arizona Immigration Law Confronts Unions: Is an Injury to One Still an Injury to All?

The anti-immigrant bill passed by rightwing forces in Arizona has mobilized immigrant and community groups around the nation. When will organized labor raise its voice loudly in opposition to this attack on civil and human rights? Photo: Slobodan Dimitrov

It took the passage of an anti-immigrant bill by rightwing forces in Arizona for the Obama administration to refocus on the question of immigration law, now boiling over on its back burner. The Latino community has been reinvigorated by this latest shameless attempt to step up policing of those who look like they might be undocumented.

When will organized labor raise its voice loudly in opposition to this attack on civil and human rights?

Under the pressure of boycott threats and nationwide outrage, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer has already softened the language of the law, which is slated to take effect this summer. In an attempt to mask the law’s legalization of racial profiling and to placate critics, Brewer changed the legal basis on which police could ask for a person’s papers from the wide-ranging “lawful contact” to “lawful stop, detention or arrest.” (The true colors of the bill’s proponents were further exposed when a subsequent bill stripped funding for school courses that teach the culture and history of ethnic groups.)

Long before the Arizona law arrived, Latinos, both native-born and those with residency papers, have been caught up in anti-immigrant sweeps in neighborhoods and workplaces across the country. These sweeps have taken place periodically since the early 1900s, especially in the Southwest during tough economic times.

The indignation visible at demonstrations in many cities on May 1, when hundreds of thousands gathered in more than 80 protests nationwide, is based on real fears that once again an entire people is being blamed for the country’s social and economic ills.

We have seen before where this xenophobia, if left unchecked, can lead, when California voters passed Proposition 187 in 1994, in an attempt to keep undocumented immigrants from using health care, public education, and other social services.

In this Great Recession, employers want cheap labor and are once again thrilled to have a divided working class. The AFL-CIO and Change to Win should lead a combined fight to reverse the Arizona law before it spreads to other states—as many are predicting.


What is organized labor waiting for? AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said the federation “joins people of conscience around the country in condemning the law, which will make racial profiling the norm—if not a requirement,” and called on Homeland Security to cut ties to Arizona law enforcement. SEIU Executive Vice President Eliseo Medina announced that the union will “boycott conventions and meetings in Arizona in an effort to denounce the extremist, anti-immigrant law.” SEIU and the Food and Commercial Workers joined a lawsuit against the bill.

What Does the Arizona Bill Do?

• Criminalizes undocumented immigrants as “trespassers” in the state of Arizona, subjecting them to arrest. This is similar to HR 4437, the 2005 Sensenbrenner bill that provoked huge May Day rallies.

• Legalizes racial profiling: requires police to demand papers from anyone they suspect is undocumented.

• Gives police the authority to enforce federal immigration law and arrest people who cannot produce identification proving their legal residency in the U.S.

• Gives police the power to investigate and entrap employers for hiring undocumented workers.

• Makes seeking work illegal for day laborers. It also forces all individuals, regardless of immigration status or citizenship, to carry identification papers or be subjected to detention and even deportation. Public agencies and service providers could demand identification documents from any person.

These statements are appropriate, but much more needs to be done. Immigrant and community groups have issued a call to action that includes widespread civil disobedience. Labor needs to join in, and take on targets like sit-ins at the governor’s mansion in Arizona. We could pursue a sanctuary on Native American land. Immigrant groups are organizing freedom rides into the state—why aren’t we?



Give $10 a month or more and get our "Fight the Boss, Build the Union" T-shirt.

Others have suggested putting muscle behind the calls for a boycott with a serious divestment campaign, including targeting advertisers that support extremist pundits.

At the least, a national call from Change to Win and the AFL would have swelled the ranks of marchers on May 1, bringing out many more unions to join the marches in cities and barrios from coast to coast (which dwarfed the Tea Party gatherings).

“We’re doing the heavy lifting of lobbying in the capital,” one UFCW official told Labor Notes. Reform Immigration for America, a coalition of community and immigrants-rights groups, “is doing a great job with the grassroots push. Everyone’s playing to their strengths.”

We’ll guess he didn’t mean for the comment to be so revealing.

At the policy level, the AFL-CIO and Change to Win have taken steps forward in their joint proposal for immigration reform. It calls for a legalization of the undocumented population, keeping families together, and a humane border.

Unfortunately, it also calls for a guest worker program. Immigration reform must be based on human rights and not the economic grounds pushed by the Chamber of Commerce. Guest worker programs allow employers to mistreat workers and discard them and are contrary to labor’s core principles of respect and dignity.

On paper, labor opposes jailing and deporting people without due process, separating parents from children, promising a road to regularization but throwing up roadblocks. Labor could improve the debate by exposing the root causes of immigration—trade policies that enrich corporations.

NAFTA and the like exacerbate poverty in Latin America, driving immigration. We need to challenge both parties’ support for trade agreements that don’t defend worker rights.


In the aftermath of the health care debate, is labor up to the challenge on immigration? The November elections have been used as an excuse to hold back from addressing immigration reform. If a bill proceeds, will labor roll over in the face of each countermeasure for fear of losing votes?

Already, legislative proposals put forward by Democrats, including Representative Luis Gutierrez, include many problematic elements. They accept border militarization that will drive thousands of immigrants to their deaths and an employment verification system that employers use to break unions and chip away at work conditions.

The Latino community is asking that all communities join together in overturning the Arizona law through determined escalation of tactics. Now’s the time for a national grassroots meeting for union and workplace activists to form coalitions that will counter this cancer before it grows. ¡Ya basta! Enough already!

Louie Rocha is an organizer for Communications Workers Local 9423 in California.

A version of this article appeared in Labor Notes #375, June 2010. Don't miss an issue, subscribe today.


Guillermo Perez (not verified) | 05/29/10

I don't see where the two federations' joint statement on comprehensive immigration reform "calls for a guest worker program." It expressly states that the two support improvement and NOT expansion of current guest worker programs. I'm in total agreement that organized labor should advocate for the dismantling of all guest worker programs, but I think it's a distortion to say that their position "calls for" the creation of such programs.