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The power and potential of organized Immigrant Labor: Labor Day Part III

September 4, 2018

In Part I of this series we looked at the growing wealth gap in the US and in Michigan, along with how communities of color disproportionately are impacted by poverty. 

In Part II, we looked at how most major organized labor groups have hitched their cart to the Democratic Party, which has led them to a decline in membership and why they need a new strategy. 

In today’s post, we want to look at the power that immigrant labor has and why it is important for those of us who have privilege in this society to support the organizing efforts of immigrant labor.

In the 1960s and 70s, the United Farm Workers (UFW) demonstrated to the American people that when organized, migrant labor and immigrant labor has tremendous power. Led by people like Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez, the UFW brought the big agriculture to its knees with their grape and lettuce boycotts.

This type of organized labor power is still being demonstrated today, with groups like the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW).  The CIW is not only exposing the exploitative nature of agribusiness, they are showing how migrant and immigrant workers have tremendous power to make change.

Immigrant labor, whether it is in the fields, in the restaurants or other service industries,when organized, has the capacity to bring the country to a stand still. Think about it. Immigrant labor is what give us our food……they pick our fruits and vegetables, the work in the slaughterhouses and they are the fastest growing sector of restaurant kitchen and wait staff.

At the same time, the working conditions of immigrant labor in the food sector, along with the disgustingly low wages, means that agribusiness and the restaurant sector is able to make huge profits. When these workers are organized, like the CIW, they are able to demonstrate the power that immigrant labor has.

In West Michigan, the capacity of immigrant labor is one of the largest in the nation, after California and Florida. There is a large concentration of immigrant/migrant farm workers in West Michigan. The unfortunate reality is that this labor force is not organized and there is no effort on the part of the mainstream unions to provide support for these workers to organize themselves so that they can demonstrate their power.

Imagine for a moment, if the mainstream unions in West Michigan gave the same amount of money they contribute to the Democratic Party every election cycle and instead re-directed those funds to immigrant laborers. Imagine what would happen if these workers who pick, prepare and serve our food in West Michigan had their own union. Imagine how the both white conservatives and white liberals would react. Would people who don’t do this kind of back breaking work, offer their support for such a union?

What would happen during ArtPrize, if those who picked, prepared and serve food would all of a sudden go on strike? What if those who went on strike would also refuse to clean the hotel rooms  and change the linen for all those tourists who are coming to look at art in the coming weeks? What would people do if they couldn’t drink craft beer, because those who harvest the hops in Michigan and beyond, all of a sudden went on strike demanding better wages and working conditions?

If those who work in these sectors went on strike, it would cause the economy to come to a halt AND it would demonstrate the power that immigrant labor has in this community and across the country. Just imagine the possibilities.

Once you are done imagining the possibilities, then do something about it. First, you could support the efforts of Movimiento Cosecha GR, which is always working with immigrant labor in West Michigan and every year is calling for a general strike around May Day. Second, if you are part of a union, propose that the labor union you have a membership in, provide financial and technical support to immigrant laborers who want to organize where they work. Lastly, get your church, your faith community, your neighbors, your co-workers or any other group of people that is not self-absorbed to educate themselves on how dependent we all are on immigrant/migrant labor in the US.

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