A rebirth of organized labor?

Marketplace Staff Sep 4, 2006


TESS VIGELAND: This year, Labor Day came early to the U.S. Remember those massive immigrant rights marches last spring? The biggest ones happened on or around May Day, which is Labor Day in the rest of the world. Sociologist and commentator Ruth Milkman says those demonstrations just might signal the rebirth of organized labor in this country.

RUTH MILKMAN: Labor Day, as the name implies, honors American workers.

President Grover Cleveland made it an official holiday back in 1894, barely a week after federal troops violently crushed a huge railroad a huge railroad strike.

Unions had long demanded a workers’ holiday. Congress feared more labor unrest in an election year, so they rushed a Labor Day bill into law.

That was the height of the Gilded Age. The rich were getting richer and workers were getting squeezed. Unions were under attack.

Back then about 15 percent of Americans were foreign-born. It’s not so different today. Right now, immigrants are 12 percent of the population and growing. Once again, the gap between the haves and have-nots is widening.

Organized labor is weak, but huge immigrant rights marches this spring mean labor’s power could rise again with immigrants leading the way.

The protestors were demanding basic civil rights for the undocumented. Unions were among the marches’ many sponsors. And now the whole labor movement sees the potential for immigrant organizing.

Not long ago, no one thought unions could organize immigrants, especially the undocumented.

After all, they earned so much more than they ever could at home. They weren’t planning on staying here, and they’d probably be terrified of deportation.

Apparently none of this matters much. Immigrant janitors, hotel workers and construction workers and others have joined unions by the thousands.

The risks of unionizing are nothing compared with crossing the border. And most immigrants have a gut-level understanding that they can improve their situation as a group, unlike American workers who are more often looking out for No. 1.

They remind us that this is a nation of immigrants struggling for better lives and unionism has always been their best hope for moving out of poverty into the middle class.

The millions who came out of the shadows and marched in the streets this May Day — Labor Day where they come from — have launched a new civil rights movement and they just might spark the rebirth of organized labor too.

VIGELAND: Ruth Milkman is author of L.A. Story: Immigrant Workers and the Future of the U.S. Labor Movement.

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