by Raymond Pettit
This presidential election season, each week seems to bring new and ever more bizarre developments. But one story has remained a constant: working-class voters angry about immigrants and jobs being sent overseas.
This anger has been used to explain the rise of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, despite being very different candidates. Between stagnant wages and limited job options, blue-collar workers have had it with the current political system and are looking for alternatives. They want Trump, Sanders or anyone else who rejects the establishment and its free-trade economic policies. Hundreds of articles in newspapers, magazines and online have drilled this theme into our heads.
While blue-collar workers' discontent is real, their depiction as fundamentally anti-immigrant hardly tells the full story. In particular, it ignores the fact that the labor movement – unions and their members – are at the forefront of immigrant community organizing, including here in Cincinnati.
This Labor Day is an occasion to highlight the impact that the local labor movement has had in supporting immigrant rights in our city. The best local illustration of this is labor’s engagement with Mayor John Cranley’s Immigrant Friendly City Initiative.
Last year, the mayor met with business, labor and nonprofit leaders to explore ways to help make the city more immigrant friendly. What could have been just another vehicle for boosting business became a broad-based community effort, thanks in no small part thanks to the efforts of local labor leaders and their members.
Labor leaders pushed to include blue-collar immigrant workers into the initiative. Members and activists with the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 75, Service Employees Union Local 1, and the AFL-CIO Central Labor Council recruited blue-collar immigrants to engage in the process by drafting an Immigrants’ Bill of Rights, which was presented to the mayor while he was forming a task force for the initiative. At this meeting, Cranley told the immigrants that he supported their Bill of Rights, and appointed immigrant representatives to the task force on the spot.
Subsequently, these blue-collar immigrant leaders influenced the policy recommendations of the task force, driving the recommendation of a Wage Enforcement Ordinance and a Municipal Identification Card. These two innovations, which have both become a reality in this past year, will directly improve the lives of blue-collar immigrants, as well as many others in the city. It is no accident that these labor-backed and labor-driven reforms became the signature proposals of the mayor’s Immigrant Friendly City Initiative.
Unions and their members, far from being anti-immigrant, recognize that labor rights must be respected regardless of migration status, and that the exploitation of one worker affects all workers. In many ways, labor unions are at the forefront of building communities where all workers, immigrant or otherwise, are respected and given opportunities to succeed.
All of the above is not to discount the past support for anti-immigrant policies that some parts of the labor movement endorsed. Labor, like the rest of us, must be accountable for its past. But whatever can be said of the unions in the labor movement, they have become thoroughly immigrant friendly, and this commitment is making our city more immigrant friendly in the process.
This Labor Day, don’t misinterpret “working-class anger” as simple anti-immigrant sentiment. The labor movement is increasingly concerned about the effects of corporate greed on all workers, and they are organizing for change together with blue-collar immigrants.