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The UWA organizes Maryland's low-wage workers to end poverty.  We organize through a human rights framework.  Our goal is to help build a poor people's movement to end poverty.  


Staff, volunteers and the Leadership Committee of the UWA at a recent rally for immigration with dignity in Washington, DC.

Human rights, as articulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other human rights vision statements are by their nature, "universal."  This is important.  Things universal can transcend traditional barriers, such as barriers between races, between language groups and between national and religious divisions.  But human rights are not the UWA's only organizing framework.  The UWA is also, at our core, an organization led by the poor themselves.  While all are welcome to work with the UWA, priority is placed on developing leaders from the ranks of the poor. And this requires class identity.  

The combination of focusing on universal rights for all, and building a leadership base of the poor themselves, makes it possible for us to tackle some of the most divisive issues related to immigrant rights.  This is no small achievement, as poor on poor attacks over immigration as an important division used by advocates of oppressive immigration policies.

The UWA is an historically African-American organization.  Our leadership is currently comprised of English-speaking Black and White current and former day laborers.  As a human rights organization working to unite the poor across color lines, we are currently working hard to break down our internal language and cultural barriers.  We do this to become a truly multi-racial human rights organization.  But becoming such an organization requires more than just translation, multi-lingual outreach and working with immigrant rights allies.  We must overcome our own divisive beliefs, such as "America First," and some of the traditional divisions and cultural tensions that exist within the urban Black and urban Latino communities.

Ignoring these differences will not work.  But so won't dwelling on them.  Instead, we confront the differences by focusing on what the poor have in common.  First, the poor share a common opponent and face common struggles.  Second, most people all share a belief in the universal dignity and sanctity of all persons.  Through class identity and human rights values we create a space to talk about why it is just, moral and pragmatic for our historically African-American membership base to work with other low-wage workers, including undocumented immigrants in the US and low-wage workers in the world's poorest countries.

When the UWA started organizing Baltimore's largest employer of day labor at Camden Yards one of the first tactics of our opponents at the stadium was to shift from primarily African-American day labor agencies to agencies that primarily hired Latino day laborers.  This tactic not only required an immediate expansion of our language resources, but also challenged our current base to consider the rights of Latinos as no different (and less worth fight for) than those of other workers.  

The bulk of American labor organizing has relied on "us first" organizing.  The "us" have been the workers at one factory, or in one trade, or in one industry, or in a single region or nation.  Popular expressions of this way of organizing are "Buy American" and the fight to stop "off shoring."  Rather than focus on the human rights and working conditions of all workers, labor has worked to keep jobs with those currently hired at union factories in the US.  

"Buy American" will not work.  That's because capital will go, if left on its own, to where profits will be maximized.  So long as labor can't move as freely as can capital, products, profits and production, capital will move to where labor is cheapest.  This race to the bottom produces unjust wages for everyone, everywhere.  Appeals to American nationalism won't work to save jobs or to keep wages just.  But these appeals will work to divide workers according to nation, a division that plays into the hands of worker-opponents.

For workers to secure just wages and their other economic human rights, including the right to freedom from poverty, workers must start by fighting for the rights of all workers.  The fight for workers at a US-based textile factory is no different from the fight for workers at a factory in any other country.  This is true because what happens to workers at one factory, no matter where in the world, can happen to workers at any other factory.  And it is also true because all workers are persons.  All deserve just wages, to be treated with dignity and to have their human rights respected.

Pitting workers against workers will only weaken the possibility of ending poverty.  It plays into the hands of those who seek to exploit their fellow human beings by extracting labor for the tiniest amount of payment possible.  If we are to end poverty, if we are to secure the human right to freedom from poverty, we must unite all persons behind the just cause based on the inherent dignity of human life.  We cannot fight amongst each other, working to hold onto our own small piece of the pie.

The UWA knows that this approach works.  It is what allows us to unite with other workers when jobs are shifted from African-African cleaners to Latino cleaners.  Since we are all in the same boat, such a shift requires us to reach out to more cultural and language groups, to expand who we work with.  It forces us to stand with, to learn about and to work with workers once believed to be our opponents, or our competition.  We know it works because our belief in human rights is why our leadership considers the recent immigration struggles as being no different from our own struggles.  And that's why the mostly US-citizen membership base goes to rallies and marches for immigrants, why they speak out to their fellow Black Baltimorians on behalf of workers' centers for mostly undocumented Latino immigrants, and why we have made it a priority for our leadership and membership to communicate in both English and Spanish.

Disclosure: I am on staff with the UWA.

Originally posted to Tom Kertes on Mon Apr 10, 2006 at 06:37 AM PDT.

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Comment Preferences

  •  This immigration thing (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    cotterperson

    isn't really about immigration as much as it is about labor. Cheap labor.

    This is such a strong issue for unions to galvanize around. Raise wages, fair labor laws. If they raise wages, the the immigration flood will ebb, as businesses will be more careful who they hire.

    Think about it like this. Undocumented workers in America, or illegals, are basically the new slave labor for the plantation owners.

    Saying they will do jobs Americans won't is an insult to Latino's as well as Americans.

    Advocate for higher pay, unions, and free and fair trade policies.

    inspire change...don't back down

    by missliberties on Mon Apr 10, 2006 at 06:46:37 AM PDT

  •  Do you have your heels out? (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Carnacki

    Are you going to wear the dress today?

    Thanks Tom!

  •  I Applaud this Group. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    ademption

    Through class identity and human rights values we create a space to talk about why it is just, moral and pragmatic for our historically African-American membership base to work with other low-wage workers, including undocumented immigrants in the US and low-wage workers in the world's poorest countries.

    I'm glad to see the union has reached across ethnic lines.    The largely unspoken issue in the immigrants rights protests is the effect that undocumented workers are having on employment opportunities for poor and working class African-Americans.  The left wing ignores the issue because they think it scores cheap political points by gratuitously throwing out the word 'racist' to those who have genuine concerns about amnesty.  The right wing exploits the issue for purpose of divide and conquer when someone like Pat Buchanan continually raises it.  The Congressional Black Caucus and traditional black leadership is in a quandary over the issue as the response has ranged from Sheila Jackson Lee who has proposed her own progressive legislation to the marked silence by others.

    If unions take the lead and turned the immigrants rights' movement into a workers' rights campaign that cuts across races, indeed borders, then I think that would be the best result.  The internet, technology and globalization has to be used so that those involved in human rights movements throughout the world can work in conjunction.  At the same time we have protests here, I'd also like to see protests in Central America demanding changes in conditions there to diminish the need for workers to migrate thousands of miles for a low paying job.  It's time that globalization means raising the standards of living for workers around the world, rather than lowering the cost of labor for employers throughout the world.

  •  A labor movement push for lower wages? (0+ / 0-)

    The tragedy of much of the most impracticable left-wing idealism is that it is in the service of such lovely ideals. Only a monster I suppose could write against such ideas that all workers are persons and therefore have the same moral claim to individual wellbeing and the recognition of political and social rights. But even though that principle is true, it does not follow that organized labor should support the completely free movement of labor across borders, which is what your post advocates.

    "Buy American" will not work.  That's because capital will go, if left on its own, to where profits will be maximized.  So long as labor can't move as freely as can capital, products, profits and production, capital will move to where labor is cheapest.  This race to the bottom produces unjust wages for everyone, everywhere.  Appeals to American nationalism won't work to save jobs or to keep wages just.  But these appeals will work to divide workers according to nation, a division that plays into the hands of worker-opponents.

    You misstate the problem. The problem is not the movement of work across borders or the movement of labor across borders. It is employers' use of an endless potential supply of labor to depress wages, whether that occurs by opening new factories in nations with cheap labor or by bringing the cheap labor where labor is expensive. The problem is that globalizing neoliberalism sees nothing wrong with putting working class Americans into direct wage competition with people living in absolute poverty in nations like Cambodia. Evidently, on this question you agree with neo-liberalism.

    Of course, this competition which inevitably causes a reduction in the earning power of labor in the first-world will alleviate absolute poverty in some of the neediest countries. But this is not a sufficient policy rationale. The United States is a specific and defined polity. It elects a democratic government to make decisions in the best interests of that polity, as does every other democratic nation-state. And so its elected government is completely right to undertake policies--tarrifs, duties, and restrictions on immigration legal or illegal--that maximize its standard of living. This is not racist. For you to assert that it is is ultimately to dilute the concept ridiculously.

    Pitting workers against workers will only weaken the possibility of ending poverty.  It plays into the hands of those who seek to exploit their fellow human beings by extracting labor for the tiniest amount of payment possible.  If we are to end poverty, if we are to secure the human right to freedom from poverty, we must unite all persons behind the just cause based on the inherent dignity of human life.  We cannot fight amongst each other, working to hold onto our own small piece of the pie.

    Exploiting human beings by extracting labor for the tiniest amount of payment possible is, like it or not, the name of the game here. And you are not articulating an alternative to that principle. And organized labor is in an extremely limited position to do anything about the degree or manner of this exploitation. This is not just the case because of low union density. Most of the nations into which first world industrial productive capacity is being shifted have labor movements that are extremely limited or curbed by fiat of the state. In short, because globalization is shifting productive capacity away from states with mature union movements into states without them, it shifts wealth from the hands of first-world workers and into the hands of the exploiters of third-world workers. Perhaps organized labor has a battle plan for dealing with these economic questions. But that does not mean they are anywhere close to actually winning.

    In short, if organized labor argues for the completely free movement of work across borders and the completely free movement of labor, it will find itself complicit in the depression of working people's wages, a perverse condition indeed.

    Arguing for the justness of this depression of wages by appeals to some abstract ideal of the international brotherhood of workers doesn't change this. And arguing that the opponents of this depression of wages are racist--a tactic deluded and ultimately defamatory--doesn't change this either.

    Grow up.

      •  You're asking for my ideas? Goody. (0+ / 0-)

        Restricting supply can be done by several direct and indirect means.

        I would have no problem statutorily reversing the Supreme Court's Hoffman decision and allow illegal aliens to win damages for violations of the NLRA.  To the extent our current policy of "penalizing" illegal immigrants actually functions to encourage the hiring of those laborers by stripping them of rights held by all other laborers, we should change the policy. This reduces the incentive to import illegal labor, and thus restricts supply.

        Likewise, regardless of what is done with respect to the illegal aliens already in the country we cannot permit a guest-worker program that would likewise create a class of non-citizen workers. The problem here is structural: without the ability to exercise the rights of citizenship, and with the ability of employers to send guest workers home on a whim, they would basically be helots and this system should not exist in the United States. Not allowing it also restricts the supply.

        I would argue that the quotas set for legal immigration into the U.S. should be indexed to year-on-year changes in wages per hour adjusted to inflation. So that in years where wages are increasing for the workers currently in this country, the doors are open to new workers. But in times of stagnant or declining wages, the admission of new immigrants should be limited.

        Simultaneously, aspects of U.S. immigration policy that are racist, such as the higher quotas for countries that proportionately send us fewer immigrants (overwhelmingly European) should be dropped.

        But I see your point goes to a question larger than restricting the labor supply inside the U.S. to create inflationary wage pressure. The question is how we take lower-cost foreign workers out of direct competition with American workers, no matter where they happen to be. Well, Sens. Charles Schumer and Lindsey Graham's proposal for a 27% duty on goods from China is an excellent start, and organized labor should pursue that with all its heart: Chinese workers, not merely because of their sheer numbers or the cheapness of the labor pool, but because of the unwillingness of the Chinese government to allow independent labor unions that would agitate for better pay and conditions, are among the workers who should least be in direct competition with those in the U.S.

        And yes, tariffs against China would hurt these Chinese workers. But perhaps this harm could be mitigated if China were given a set of goals to work towards that would end the tariffs. Schumer and Graham want the Chinese currency to no longer be kept artificially cheap to fuel China's export market, and their tariffs are designed to persuade China to let its currency float. Imagine if this legislation had other conditions requiring the presence of an independent labor movement, a ban on the use of forced labor to produce exported goods, or certain minimum safety standards?

        This would do the trick perfectly.

        •  Here's what I'd do... (0+ / 0-)
          1. Reduce the work week
          1. Increase educational access at university level
          1. Lower retirement age (or not raise it)
          1. Provide family incentives for one parent to stay at home

          I understand that unions have historically restricted labor supplies within given trades, industries, etc.  So long as union organizers can restrict supplies across an entire trade or industry, the companies have no competive disadvantage to pay the higher labor costs that result in the restricted labor supply.  

          By argument is that this can't work now, given that production can move faster than unions can dream of moving.  Yes, I do think that one way to advance labor interests is by ending the competive disadvantage that labor faces since it alone in the global economy can't freely move.  But what my larger point is that labor should use what it has now to advance the interests of workers outside the US, even if at first those interests may be in contradiction with US worker interests.  Wages will either drop globally or they will raise globally.  US labor can no longer rely on its past ability of restricting labor supplies in the US.

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