Organizing Upgrade

A+ A A-

Global Bargaining for Dignified Work and Empowered Migration

An Interview with Saket Soni, Executive Director, National Guestworkers Alliance

As capital continues to squeeze its way around the globe in search of the absolute cheapest labor markets and raw goods, workers are forced to respond not simply to a local boss but a multinational supply chain.  How do you create a workers’ movement that can eventually overcome the new forms of exploitation under global capitalism?  This interview seeks to describe one potential path.

Why did you and others create the National Guestworker Alliance?  What are you hoping to address?

The National Guestworker Alliance was launched in May 2011 by guestworkers and organizers after five years of organizing guestworkers in the Gulf coast and across the country.  The idea was that the National Guestworker Alliance would be a national vehicle for the over one million guestworkers in this country to fuel a social movement for dignified work in the United States.

We started organizing guestworkers soon after Hurricane Katrina.  Guestworkers were imported to work in construction, in hotels, in restaurants, in shipyards – across the post-Katrina landscape.   They had paid thousands of dollars to labor recruiters who claimed there were no available workers – at a time when unemployment in the region was astronomical.  When they arrived there they were sourced to companies that used their debt and their deportability to use them as captive labor.  While local workers were locked out of work, these workers were (often literally) locked into exploitative conditions.

In 2007 over 150 guestworkers from across the post-Katrina Louisiana held a clandestine meeting in New Orleans where they founded the Alliance of Guestworkers for Dignity.  By the end of 2010 the Alliance had members in ten states and it was time for guestworkers to have a national organization across critical industries, sectors and throughout the country.  So in 2011, the National Guestworker Alliance was born.

We represent guestworkers working in construction and landscaping, service and hospitality, manufacturing and engineering—in all the critical industries in the U.S. where guestworkers are being used to transform those industries from well-paying job industries to temporary work industries.

Guestworker programs are a part of the national debate – they are often  the Berlin Wall of the national debate on immigration – and so part of the mission of NGA is to make sure guestworkers are at the table to argue not only for dignified jobs but for empowered, dignified migration that comes with rights, respect and labor migration that includes a contract.

 

What exactly are guestworker programs, and how have they been used in the U.S.?

A guestworker is someone who faces an impossible choice in a dried up global economy: do I live with the family I love, or do I provide for them?  We are all familiar with low-wage workers going from poor neighborhoods to rich ones every morning to work.  Every day, millions of workers, similarly, go from poor nations to rich nations to work.   In the U.S., migrant workers arrive on visas to work.   They have paid thousands of dollars to labor recruiters who source them to U.S. companies. They are temporary workers, and they are tied to one employer.  A guestworker cannot work for anyone but that employer, and his/her immigration status is tied to that employer.  If that worker is fired or if work drives up, that worker is then deportable.

There are hundreds of thousands of guestworkers in the U.S. – working in critical industries as housekeepers, as landscapers working at a minimum wage in Louisiana and Texas, as computer engineers working for major “knowledge industry” corporations.  They have 3 things in common: (1) they paid to come, often plunging their families into debt to buy the visa; (2) they are a large contingent of deportable labor in the U.S.; and (3) while they often face deplorable conditions without the right to improve those conditions, they are also a part of a bigger business strategy to turn high-quality, living-wage jobs into temporary work.

You asked about history.  Historians say there are three periods in the history of the U.S. guestworker program.

First, the period before and during slavery.  Historically, the first indentured servants arrived in America during the ten years after the settlement of Jamestown in 1607.  In the first few years, the settlers realized they had a lot more land than they could care for.  And only the rich could afford to make the trip across the Atlantic.  So, those wealthy settlers developed a labor program to attract workers.

These workers were vital to the development of Virginia and other settlements.  This was the creation of the an indentured servitude program in the U.S..  These workers worked for housing, food, and a what some have called a “freedom package.”  There were laws governing them.  The workers were highly policed.  But while their lives weren’t easy, it wasn’t slavery.

Then the rich settlers realized they needed something a little harsher than indentured servitude.  So, the next arrivals of workers were Black Africans from the Dutch Settler ships in 1619.  At first they were indentured servants.  And then the slave laws were passed between 1641 and 1661 to take freedoms away from the Black Africans – and turn these servants into slaves.

So you have two things that went hand in hand, given the need for cheap labor.  You had slave laws that took away the rights of Black Africans.  But at the time of slavery, the settlers maintained a population of indentured servants.  These combined are the ancestors to the modern-day guestworker program in the U.S..

The second period was post-slavery.  With the abolition of slavery across the Americas -- in the US, Haiti, Cuba, etc., -- there was once again an enormous need for cheap labor in the Americas and across the world.  Indentured labor was one means of filling those jobs.  In the U.S., former slaves, the Irish and other immigrants were essentially turned into indentured servants.  In other words, they were tied to their employer for legal status, and if they no longer worked there, they were criminalized.

The third period was in the post-war economy.  The U.S. government created the bracero program, importing thousands of men from Mexico to do farm labor because of a labor shortage created by the  war.  The bracero program was abolished in the '60s due to organizing by the United Farmworkers (UFW) and the civil rights movement.  There was a moral outrage around the treatment of braceros.

But industry still needed cheap labor.  And thus the growth of the modern day guestworker program with specific visa categories.  So we come to the present day where the guestworker program exists as an alphabet of visas: 2A, H2B, etc.

The first H2B visa guestworkers arrived in Florida in the 1940 when the sugar industry wanted to import Jamaican sugar cane cutters.  They were the first visa guestworkers in the U.S. in its present form, and in the 1980s they became the first major modern-day guestworkers to go on strike.

In 1986, a large number of Caribbean sugar cutters staged a work-stoppage in south Florida.  They refused to go to work.  The company called the police who brought in dogs and put holes in the buses they were on.  They were eventually deported.  The incident later became know as the “dog wars.”

It is significant to note that the same year, Congress passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA).  So you have the criminalization of “illegal” immigrants while at the same time, “legal” workers on visas were given a clear message—You’re only legal so long as you are tied to your employer and follow his/her orders.  Otherwise, you’re deportable.

This is still the world guestworkers live in today, from the Mississippi labor camps to the factories in Hershey, Pennsylvania.

 

What sort of solutions does the NGA propose?

For the millions of people in the U.S. who want to be in solidarity with the workers of the world and with the global labor movement, it’s no longer necessary to get on a plane and go to another country to do that because the global labor movement has come to every backyard in the country.  So, we have this opportunity now to take a new look at migration and migrant labor and ask ourselves—what kind of migrant labor program in the U.S. would be moral, just and humane?

This brings us to the notion of global bargaining.  If we look at workers in the U.S., in order to have high quality jobs, rights at work, and wages that sustain families, you need a contract, a union, and to fundamentally be able to bargain with your employer on equal footing.  When bargaining rights are taken away, like in Wisconsin and Indiana, we've seen how much those workers suffer and how much overall wages decline.

Workers from other countries coming to the U.S. are no different.  They need to be able to negotiate with employers on equal footing.  The only difference is that these workers are thousands of miles away from home, and there are many more people they need to bargain with.  The welder in Pascagoula, Mississippi needs to bargain with the shipyard in Pascagoula.  But the Indian guestworker in that same shipyard in Pascagoula who was recruited in India has to bargain with the recruiter in India, the Indian government, the recruiter in the U.S., the company in the U.S. (i.e. the shipyard in this case) and the U.S. government.

So what we’re envisioning is that guestworkers should be able to bargain with companies that create the demand for migrant labor, the recruiters who fill that demand, and the governments who create legal sanctions for migrant workers by inventing guestworker programs and guestworker visas.

This type of bargaining is important for the guestworkers because it reduces the chances of exploitation and guarantees dignity at work.  But it is equally important for U.S. workers because without the guarantee of rights for guestworkers, those guestworkers will inevitably be used to undercut American workers.

To give you an example, in the post-Katrina gulf coast, wages at shipyards we were monitoring went from $27/hour to $12/hour, not because of guestworkers but because employers knew that guestworkers had no choice but to work for incredibly low wages because they would be deported if they protested.

So, as we head towards the presidential election, the right thinks that the solution to the so-called “U.S. immigration problem” is “self-deportation.”  And the only kind of consensus on this hot-button issue, from right to left, is the expansion of U.S. guestworker programs.

We have to be really clear that guestworker programs are no substitute for a path to legalization and first-class citizenship.  We also have to be clear that unless guestworker programs come with fundamental civil rights, labor protections, and the right to organize and collectively bargain, they will continue to be used to drive down wages and conditions in every critical American industry.

 

It’s one thing to organize guestworkers while they are in the United States, but how does this relate to worker organizing efforts in their home countries?

The Right frames this issue by talking about guestworkers as the solution to the U.S. “illegal immigration problem.”  What we’re saying is that the U.S. doesn’t have an “immigration problem.”  The U.S. has an economic situation where industries go shopping for the cheapest labor.  In that context, whether those workers are in New Orleans, New York or New Delhi, those workers need to be able to bargain for rights and respect across the worker supply chain so that they can hold up the floor, win the right to organize and win access to justice in the U.S..  And if they’re deported for organizing, there has to be a global strategy to defend them, and both a U.S. organization and a home country organization to defend them.

 

Do you think this work could lead to additional strategies linking US workers with workers in other countries in a strategic way?

Absolutely.  I think the NGA’s work could inspire some political imagination to start organizing towards a new era of migration where migration is a choice, not a necessity.  I think it could also create opportunities for U.S. workers and workers in other countries to fight for regional living wages across different countries, global bargaining agreements, and new forms of organizing across each point in the international worker supply chain.

For example, what if the workers at the Hershey chocolate factory in Pennsylvania, and the workers in Hershey’s factory in Mexico, and the guestworkers being recruited in China and Turkey for Hershey’s logistics work were all part of one strategy to raise wages and conditions across Hershey’s supply chain?

That’s an example of going after one company.  You could also think of strategies that focus not on one company but on one industry.

Let’s look at a concrete example.  The U.S. right now is looking at a vast expansion of the healthcare industry.  Private equity investment in healthcare is increasing.  And in this context, corporations like Walmart and Aramark are trying to get in on the action—trying to become healthcare providers.  That should sound a pretty clear alarm bell because it means that those healthcare jobs won’t be high quality jobs that come with rights, respect and a contract.  They’ll be subcontracted jobs that come with temporary employment and insecurity.  And the logical conclusion of that progression is – you guessed it – guestworkers in healthcare.  Even as we speak, across Asia, labor recruiters are recruiting healthcare workers; and workers are paying thousands of dollars and lining up, hoping that in the future they will be able to come to the U.S. to work in the healthcare industry. In this context it is important that those workers in Asia are organized in joining unions; and that they can arrive into the U.S. to become members of the NGA – and join unions.

You could also think regionally.  What if there were a living wage in the seafood industry across Mexico and the U.S. coast, so that the women guestworkers who go from Mexico to Louisiana and back year after year – so are members of the NGA – could live and work with dignity, and lift up wages in the region?

 

What limitations has the NGA identified in its approach so far?

The biggest challenge to our strategy is the environment of fear and the threat of bosses using immigration authorities to scare workers into submission. Retaliation is not widely understood – although it is a widespread phenomenon.  Retaliatory firings and deportation back into debt are occupational hazards for a guestworker who wants to access fundamental rights.

When the courageous Decatur workers organized in New Orleans in 2006, the worker leading the organizing drive was fired.  When our Indian members started organizing in the labor camps of Signal International in 2007, the company...was advised by immigration agents on how to conduct illegal deportations.  When our Mexican members attempted to organize in Tennessee against their employer, Vanderbilt Landscaping, for trafficking them into Tennessee with stimulus money, the employer deported two leaders. And recently, in Hershey, Pennsylvania, the NGA defended 400 courageous student guestworkers facing threats of deportation because they stood up against a major corporation whose subcontractors were paying them between one and five dollars an hour after deductions and visa costs.

We have to do a better job of turning retaliation into a point of moral outrage in the United States.

In general, there’s a lot more conceptualization that needs to be done by workers and organizers, a lot more thinking outside the box, about new forms of organizing and bargaining that are equal to the complexity of the international worker supply chain.  There’s a need for learning by doing.  And there’s a need for deeper integration of organizing and policy work, so that policy solutions are part of a larger strategy to organize workers into agents of change who can transform the economy.

 

 

What type of campaign work is the National Guestworkers Alliance prioritizing?

 

In the next year, the National Guestworker Alliance is first continuing to surface inspiring, heroic workplace and industry-wide campaigns in key sectors that will continue to make the case for human rights, civil rights and labor protections for migrant workers and continue to argue that the transformation of American jobs from permanent to temporary is a major root cause of all of our problems in this economy.

Secondly, with Jobs with Justice and the National Day Laborers Organizing Network we are building a campaign to expand the right to organize and win access to justice for the millions of undocumented workers in this country.  That’s a campaign that attempts to create a new era of labor protections against retaliation, and in some ways preventing ICE from being used as a union-buster.  The fear of getting fired for attempting to access the fundamental rights guaranteed in this country, is something familiar to U.S. and immigrant workers alike.  And so we’re developing strategies to counter retaliation.

Third, we are in the first phases of thinking through what global bargaining might look like.

If this sounds interesting to you, call us!

Labor Editors

Stephanie Luce is Associate Professor of Labor Studies and has gained national and international recognition for her research on living-wage campaigns and on the impact of globalization on jobs and workers.  She serves on the editorial board of New Labor Forum and is a moderator for Portside Labor.

Erica Smileyis a Senior Field Organizer for Jobs with Justice, with a focus on the southern region.  As a part of this position, she relates to southern JwJ coalitions and engages in strategic campaigns.  She is originally from Greensboro, North Carolina.

Comment via Facebook

Leftist at Work Column

The Leftist at Work column is a space for leftists to talk about the ways in which they organize in their workplace – whether it is how they talk with coworkers about political issues, how they are trying to build or revitalize a union, or how they orient their political perspectives to sync with their daily jobs. Some leftists find themselves confronting issues they didn’t expect would come up in their work. Other people find that they work for a non-profit or union that constrains their range of political activities. We’ll hear from organizers that struggle to balance their radical politics with the realities of working for an organization with more of a reform orientation. We’ll also hear from people who may work in an unionized workplace but try to bring their broader politics into the workplace – such as anti-racism, anti-war, or pro-immigrant rights.

Labor News

Organizing Upgrade 2012 / Built by Union Labor

Register