A new lease on life

by Tony Best
Barbados Nation
March 6, 2000

The action of the American Federation of Labour Congress of Industrial Organisations, AFL-CIO was music to the ears of Bajans and other West Indians in the United States.

Never mind that it took the national large labour organization several decades to have a change of heart.

But as far as many Bajan and other Caribbean immigrants in New York were concerned, it’s a case of better late than never.

For in a stunning reversal of policy, the AFL-CIO not only called for amnesty for millions of undocumented workers in the country, but it urged lawmakers to repeal a flawed immigration system, one which allowedsanctions to be imposed on employers who hire d illegal aliens.

Amnesty for undocumented workers is both responsible and fair. Most of the foreign-born illegal residents of the United States were law-abiding, hard-working and responsible taxpayers who were revitalizing neighborhoods and helping to push this country forward.

If the AFL-CIO’s proposal became law, hundreds if not thousands of Bajans would benefit.

But the AFL-CIO which spent more than 20 years trying to punish immigrants on the grounds that they were taking jobs away from low-income Americans, didn’t decide to reverse itself as easily as it may at first appear.

The vibrant economy, the unfair immigration regulations and the hounding of people by the Immigration and Naturalization Service have all contributed to a situation in which the country simply doesn’t have enough workers to fill vacant jobs. And the situation is going to get worse before it improves.

It was the AFL-CIO, which instigated the employer sanctions law more than 15 years ago, ignoring the pleas of many right-thinking people that employer sanctions wouldn’t work. It was in 1985, that the labour organisation lobbied Congress to enact the “1-9 sanctions” process, which became the law of the land the following year.

But as the labor movement itself now conceded, employer sanctions opened the door to employers penalising workers who wanted nothing more than a decent wage and an opportunity to improve their living conditions.

Quite correctly, such tactics subvert the intent of the law and reduced “working and living standards for all workers – immigrant and non-immigrant in many industries.”

Both the amnesty programme and the repeal of the 1-9 sanctions made sense. People shouldn’t be forced to work under a system which functioned like the proverbial sword of Damocles over their heads. In far too many cases, companies fearful of being hauled into court to face charges that they “knowingly hire” illegal aliens, put up barricades that denied employment to legal immigrants simply because they sounded and looked different from most Americans. In other cases, unscrupulous employers simply took advantage of the undocumented.

The labour movement’s about-face helped to return it to its roots. After all, it was the immigrants from the Caribbean, Europe, Asia and elsewhere who came to the United States in the early decades of the 20th century who formed the bedrock of union membership.

• Tony Best is THE NATION’S American editor.