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CommentaryLabor Unions and Immigrant Integration:
New Americans and Old Unions
Asian American and Pacific Islander Caucus (AAPIC) gathered in a penthouse on West 42nd Street on October 30 for an evening of dance, music, and food to celebrate the culture of Southern Asia. The occasion marked the Diwali holiday - the Festival of Lights. This, however, was not just a group of friends. It was the activity of 1199SEIU and was attended by healthcare workers from India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, and other nations. While these had once been lively holidays in the old country, the festivity was reborn by the union. Integration begins with bonding and then moves to bridging, even as integration moves from connecting to belonging.
UNITE HERE, the union of the hospitality industry, has 100 years of history serving immigrants. It may have been Europeans in the early days but today the union is bursting with Haitians, Mexicans, and Central Americans. More than half the membership of 300,000 is foreign born. Of the 12.5 million members of AFL-CIO's affiliated unions, the foreign born are the fastest growing segment, carrying forward a long history of organized labor reaching out to workers whose well-being and rights need collective bargaining and a powerful voice.
Organized labor is one of the great allies in immigrant integration. Historically, the disempowered worker was often from a marginalized group, whether the Great Migration in America from the rural south to the northern assembly line or from County Cork to the construction crew. Unions combined the new women in the workforce, the historically enslaved, and the foreign born into a powerful instrument to seek their common good, fair wages, and improved work conditions. Less heralded, it was often the union that called for English classes, training, and upward mobility.
In 2003, it was working together on the Immigrant Freedom Ride that helped unify HERE and UNITE which merged the following year. The shared work on immigrant rights and naturalization is today a great unifier across most unions.
The AFL-CIO created a Marshall Plan for comprehensive immigration reform, including a pathway to citizenship, a rational system of border control, and an employment visa system that prevents indentured work. Their commitment has included promoting worker rights and a fair wage that would not put the newcomer or native born laborer at risk of lower wages, helping facilitate employment common ground. Considering themselves a movement for justice, there has been solid work on naturalizing new citizens and mobilizing immigrants to vote.
In Chicago, Local 1 put their labor behind one of the nation's most successful naturalization drives, and in Boston Local 26 partnered with the Catholic Archdiocese to assist thousand become New Americans. When meat packers were forced by the Department of Homeland Security to use E-Verify (the government status verification system), it was the union that challenged the practice as a breach of contract and created a notice requirement and thus job protection for thousands of workers. It was the unions that brought their power to the National Labor Relations Board to fight unfair practices when Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) actions were used for union busting. Increasingly union dues are used to protect immigrant workers who are ensnared in labor disputes and they at times are the providers of legal clinics needed to correct status issues and work eligibility. Thanks to union contracts, increasingly becoming a citizen is honored by being a paid day off.
A less noted contribution but one that has been around for more than a century has been the union's recognition of ethnic leaders who were affirmed and given leadership. In Miami today, the forceful leader in the food service industry is a Haitian woman, Rose Gabrielle Metellus Denis. She rose to the top of Local 355 where she is President as officials recognized her organizing skills and provided support, education, and opportunity. In another story, Local 1 honored Veronica Avila, the daughter of immigrants in Chicago for organizing chapters across the country for survivors of the World Trade Center restaurant after 9/11.
A Day for Dignity and Respect, calling on faith groups and government to work together positively for immigrants in our country- hosting 150 events nationwide- is one way that unions have unified various rights issues, let alone helping sanitation workers and housekeepers know their work is valued by others. The unions have rolled out buses and been present to support Dreamers in their quest for equal educational opportunities with their classmates. And it is unions that often find the young talent that felt unable to pursue their full educational goals and foster internal leadership development, sending them to union summer school on organizing.
In sheet metal work or hotel operations, unions are advancing immigrants as they offer English classes and apprenticeships. A paid apprenticeship is a measurable accelerator for a family starting with nothing and needing to reshape skills for the U.S. marketplace. Efforts to meet the needs of new residents in the U.S. are often stimulated by member meetings such as those held by the culinary union in Las Vegas as members born in Ethiopia followed members from Kenya, Guatemala, and the Philippines in telling their stories and learning from each other about success in the U.S. labor force.
Even where the unions cannot organize they have played a role. Day Laborer Centers, there are more than 70, help organize and protect casual temporary workers, worker safety, helping reduce exploitation, abuse, and promote long term solutions. Prevailing wage and other initiatives help raise the standard for these workers too, mostly Latino fathers, who average $10 per hour. Worker Centers are a place in which community is developed. Often this goes beyond work to include mutual care when a family is divided by law enforcement and as the provider of social life, such as the Wednesday night community supper and skits at the New Orleans Worker Center.
Given that over 14 million Americans are self-employed (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2014), prevailing labor practices, from sick time to wages, have an outsized impact on the whole economy. Increasingly it is Community Colleges rather than the labor guild setting up a vocational training program, but the gaps in labor in America are across the spectrum of jobs and unions stand proudly alongside educational institutions as primary providers. Given that 28% of today's immigrants have at least a bachelor's degree, these new Americans are more likely to be found in the National Nurses United than the Ironworkers.
The unions may only represent 11.1% of America's workforce now (compared to 20% in '83) but as allies in the work of building the future American workforce, they hold a singular place.
Westy Egmont, Director
BCSSW Immigrant Integration Lab

1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East is a healthcare workers' union with over 400,000 members in Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, and Florida. 1199SEIU represents healthcare workers by advocating for fair wages, safe staffing, and good benefits including continuing education, paid time off, childcare, and secure retirement. The healthcare sector employs a high number of immigrants, both highly skilled and entry level, which means 1199SEIU must tailor its mission to fit the needs of its immigrant members. In addition to providing benefits such as continuing education and childcare assistance that immigrants are more likely to be in need of, 1199SEIU also has a foreign-trained professionals and a citizenship program. The foreign-trained professionals program assists foreign-trained nurses and doctors in becoming registered nurses in the U.S. The citizenship program provides counseling, workshops, and application preparation to help members apply for United States citizenship, as well as for English as a second language (ESL) and citizenship test preparation classes.
In addition to the many benefits 1199SEIU provides to its members, it also collaborates with agencies that provide services to immigrants, as well as with other unions. 1199SEIU often works with the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Coalition (MIRA) and Project Citizenship to host citizenship application clinics and resource fairs. By pairing multiple labor unions with immigrant advocacy groups, these events encourage and foster both citizenship and proud union membership.

Schneider, D. (2015)
Labor Studies Journal, 40(2), pp. 169-195
Historically, unions have played a critical role in the economic advancement of immigrants in the United States. Most studies on immigrants and organized labor have focused on Latino workers, but it is the Asian American Pacific Islanders, especially of Chinese and Filipino descent, who are the fastest-growing ethnic group in both the United States and the union workforce, and their relationship with the unions remains under researched. Using Current Population Survey Data from 1994 to 2013, Schneider offers a national-level, comparative analysis of different ethnic and immigrant groups in order to deepen our understanding of their unionization patterns and economic integration. Schneider's analysis of Hispanic, Filipino, and Chinese Americans' patterns of unionization and their relationships to organized labor shows that in comparison to Whites, native-born and established immigrant Hispanics have higher rates of unionization; Filipinos (both immigrant and native-born) are more likely to become part of a union; and Chinese immigrants are less likely to join a union and more likely to leave one. The author also explores the factors that affect unionization patterns.
Parks, V. (2014)
Annals of the Association of American Geographers, pp. 329-337
Parks examines how labor unions are shaping the way federal and state immigration policies are being implemented within the workplace at the local level by legally codifying rights and protections for immigrant workers. Looking specifically at a hotel union in Chicago and Los Angeles, the author discusses how the labor union mediates "the implementation of state immigration policies by specifying rules that govern employer actions in response to immigration enforcement activities by the Department of Homeland Security and other federal agencies." The author further asserts that in order to ensure that immigrant workers are afforded the same rights and protections as their U.S.- born counterparts under the federal labor and employment law, the labor union, through both collective bargaining and "shop-floor" implementation, creates nondiscriminatory provisions within the workplace.
Mantouvalou, V. (2013)
Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy, 16(3), pp. 366-382
Mantouvalou argues that domestic workers are unfairly deprived of certain labor rights in national legal orders. She believes that human rights, irrespective of nationality, can complement citizenship rights when both are viewed as normative standards. The example of domestic work, as it has been approached in international human rights law in recent years, shows that certain rights of workers are universal. "Their enjoyment cannot depend on citizenship as legal status or on regular residency. The enjoyment of labor rights as human rights depends, and should only depend, on the status of someone as a human being who is also a worker."
Schmitt, J., & Warner, K. (2009)
Center for Economic and Policy Research, pp. 1-22
In 1983, over half (51.7%) of the unionized workforce were White men. Today, White men account for only about 38% of union workers. In the intervening years, the numbers of women, Latinos, and Asian Pacific Americans in the total union workforce have increased, while African Americans have held a roughly steady share of the union workforce. In this research report, Schmitt and Warner provide a detailed account of current union composition and document how these patterns have changed since 1983, when the government first began collecting systematic annual data on workers' union status. 

Strangers no more: Immigration and the challenges of integration in North America and western Europe
By Alba, R., & Foner, N. 
Princeton University Press (2015)
Strangers no more provides a systematic, comparative analysis on the integration of low-status newcomers and their children across four European countries-France, Germany, Great Britain, and the Netherlands-and United States and Canada. This data-rich comparison of immigrants' experiences shows their progress and the obstacles they face in their efforts to integrate in labor markets, neighborhoods, and educational and political systems, and examines the controversial issues of religion, race, identity, and intermarriage.

Mobilizing against inequality: Unions, immigrant workers, and the crisis of capitalism
By Adler, L. H., Tapia, M., & Turner, L. (Eds.)
Cornell University Press (2014) 
Mobilizing against inequality focuses on collective representation as a critical tool in the improvement of wages and working conditions of immigrant workers. Using a comparative perspective of union strategies toward immigrants, Adler, Tapia, and Turner reveal the challenges of immigrant workforce mobilization and offer insights into the importance of immigrant integration in the host society.  "These insights can inform the debate in the United States at a time when immigration policy is under close examination and change is on the horizon."- Robert P. Deasy, immigration law and policy specialist

Civic hopes and political realities: Immigrants, community organizations, and political engagement
By Ramakrishnan, S. K., & Bloemraad, I. (Eds.)
Russell Sage Foundation (2008)
"The surge in immigration to the United States over the past forty years has occurred in tandem with a steady decline in civic engagement among the U.S. population as a whole. Some scholarly analysts and polemicists have sought to link these phenomena and attribute the decline in civic engagement to the presence of immigrants and their U.S.-born coethnics. In Civic Hopes and Political Realities: Immigrants, Community Organizations, and Political Engagement, S. Karthick Ramakrishnan and Irene Bloemraad analyze the role of institutions-primarily community-based organizations-in training immigrants to participate in civic life and politics, not only in the United States, but also in western Europe."- Louis DeSipio, University of California, Irvine

How the other half works: Immigration and the social organization of labor
By Waldinger, R., & Lichter, M. I.
University of California Press (2003)
"How the other half works solves the riddle of America's contemporary immigration puzzle: Why an increasingly high-tech society has use for so many immigrants who lack the basic skills that today's economy seems to demand. In clear and engaging style, Waldinger and Lichter isolate the key factors that explain the presence of unskilled immigrants in our midst. Focusing on Los Angeles, the capital of today's immigrant America, this hard-hitting book elucidates the other side of the new economy, showing that hiring is finding not so much "one's own kind" but rather the "right kind" to fit the demeaning, but indispensable, jobs many American workers disdain."- Publishers, University of California Press

Follow Professor Egmont on Twitter @wegmont 

EDITORS: W. Egmont, K. Kalliontzi, J. Margolis, K. Medeiros, J. Ozieblowski, C. Palleschi, A. Spalding, & Q. Zhang-Wu