One of the most oft-repeated lessons of the 2012 election is that America's growing population of immigrants is a force to be reckoned with. While many of us in the labor movement have known this for a long time, recently released figures drive this lesson home – bucking the national trend, California has witnessed rising union membership largely due to organizing drives in sectors with high immigrant populations, including home care aides, car wash workers and scientific researchers. This powerful partnership between the labor and immigrant communities is key to strengthening the worker's rights movement and will be a major factor in immigration reform.
You get results in the economy the same way you get results in labor organizing – you look forward, not back. Countries that choose to embrace immigrants and their skills will go farther faster than those that don't. And that is why immigration reform is such a step in the right direction for the country, for immigrants and for organized labor.
My union represents over 6,000 postdoctoral researchers at the University of California – people who have already earned their PhDs and are working at the cutting edge of their fields. The vast majority work in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields, and the majority are in the US on guest worker visas. We perform imaginative research that leads to breakthroughs that help treat disease and spark the products and industries of tomorrow. But currently, the guest worker system does not include a clear path to residency or citizenship.
President Obama described this situation in his recent speech on immigration reform:
Right now, there are brilliant students from all over the world sitting in classrooms at our top universities. They're earning degrees in the fields of the future, like engineering and computer science. But once they finish school, once they earn that diploma, there's a good chance they'll have to leave our country. Think about that.
Current immigration proposals would help to improve the situation for postdoctoral researchers and others by offering green card access to anyone who earned a Masters or PhD in a STEM field in the US. This is a positive step but we also believe it should be expanded since people who earned their degree elsewhere are no less deserving of permanent residency and citizenship than those were educated here.
And as my co-workers fight for immigration reform as well as decent wages and benefits, organized labor has been a critical ally. Before we unionized, our average pay hovered around $40,000 a year, while some of us were paid as little as $18,000. Benefits were not stable, there was no protection against unfair termination and we had no say in determining health and safety protections. After unionizing, our wages have improved, we have secure and comprehensive health benefits and we won protection from termination without “just cause,” improved job security, and better health and safety standards.
Just as my fellow researchers have benefitted from union representation, the labor movement can and must be a positive force for the entire immigrant community. Coming to this country for the first time to work is fraught with difficulty – including convoluted immigration and visa laws, frequent language barriers and all-too-pervasive wage theft and victimization by employers who know their new employees have few places to turn. Organized labor plays a key role in easing this transition by speaking up for decent wages, benefits and working conditions, facilitating the legal hurdles to citizenship and holding employers accountable.
Many of the current immigration reform proposals are a significant step forward – but we will push for modifications to make them even better. We support humane immigration reform policies that do not cast immigrants as criminals or further militarize the border. Deportations need to be stopped to keep families together and our LBGT brothers and sisters should be treated the same as everyone else. And we feel that creating a hierarchy of immigrants where some groups get favorable treatment is counterproductive and unfair.
Labor has a long history of organizing for social justice, from civil rights to LGBT rights to women's rights. Advocating for immigrants is the next step in the civil rights battles we fought over the second half of the last century. We can grow our organizations and our rights together, work towards economic justice for all and help bring millions out of the shadows.
The UAW and labor movement in general is dedicated to forging bonds between multiple struggles to make progressive immigration reform a reality. As UAW President Bob King recently said:
The UAW will work hard with our allies in the labor, immigration rights, women's rights, civil rights, environmental and LGBT movements, and all those who care about a more just society, to ensure that Congress sends a comprehensive reform bill with a path to citizenship to President Obama's desk this spring.
Whether you are a car wash worker or a postdoctoral scholar, you have an ally in the labor movement. We are in this together.