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The Return of a Racist Union Movement

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The relationship between organized labor and immigration is complicated, to say the least. For many decades, far too long, the labor movement was outright opposed to immigration, partially on the ground of a higher population undermining wages and partly on the grounds of whiteness. In recent decades, that has changed fairly significantly. The United Farm Workers, even if it had very little real impact on the lives of workers in the end, helped start that. The growth of immigrant workers in unions such as UNITE-HERE and SEIU made some of our largest labor organizations also some of our largest immigrant rights organizations. This moved the AFL-CIO into supporting smart, sane, humanitarian immigration policy. But of course the AFL-CIO is a complex maelstrom of a lot of organizations. With the decline of the industrial unions, the building trades have reasserted a lot of authority within the labor movement. And while some of the building trades, especially at the local level in immigrant-heavy places, have embraced a diverse workforce, at the international level and in many, many locals, the old desire to keep America white is still very strong.

This helps us understand why many of the building trades have embraced Trump. It’s not just about pipeline construction. It’s about Make America White Again. One of those unions is the United Brotherhood of Carpenters, long one of the most politically conservative unions in the United States. In fact, it did not endorse a Democrat for the presidency until LBJ and while it was technically non-partisan before that, everyone knew that the Hutcheson dynasty that ruled the UBC for generations openly lobbied for Republicans. The actions of Carpenters leaders in Buffalo concerning immigrant workers are, to say the least, highly disturbing and must be denounced by the rest of the labor movement.

Federal agents are not the only ones trying to remove people from the Buffalo area who have entered the country illegally.

If Bill Bing, a carpenters union official, discovers that undocumented immigrants are working at a local construction project, the union tips off authorities.

That information has led to some raids and arrests, he said, although the detention last month of 32 individuals suspected of being in the country illegally and working at projects was not his tip.

“We were not directly responsible for the information on those two raids,” said Bing, the local representative for the Northeast Regional Council of Carpenters.

Bing said he is glad to see the enforcement of immigration laws and makes no apologies for when he or other union members tip off federal and state authorities.
The jobs should go to American citizens and that it is not a union-versus-nonunion issue, he said.

“There are very good local union and nonunion contractors who suffer the fallout from dirty business,” Bing said. “This directly affects area living standards, not to mention the tax dollars New York State, Erie County and the local municipalities don’t and won’t see.”

Other trade unions, he said, tip off authorities, “but they are not as proactive as we are. The carpenters union devotes a lot of money and resources to this.”

But even as the uniond supply tips, Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials say there have been numerous false reports of federal officers conducting law enforcement actions against immigrants.

“Reports of ICE checkpoints and sweeps are false, dangerous and irresponsible,” said Khaalid H. Walls, an ICE spokesman. “These reports create mass panic and put communities and law enforcement personnel in unnecessary danger,” Walls said. “Any groups falsely reporting such activities are doing a disservice to those they claim to support.”

And how do these random Carpenters members in Buffalo know that a worker is undocumented? The don’t, of course. What they see is a brown-skinned person speaking Spanish. What more evidence do they need? How many people here with documentation are also being harassed by our proto-fascist immigration officials because of openly racist union members?

This is why, as I said in this piece for The New Republic, no one on the left is going to care when Trump signs a bill repealing Davis-Bacon. Even other parts of the labor movement aren’t going to care. Why would SEIU go to bat for the Carpenters over an issue that does not affect them when the Carpenters turn workers into ICE, the American Gestapo, for deportation? They won’t. Losing Davis-Bacon will decimate the building trades as so much of their work is contracted through the government. But that won’t get in the way of their whiteness campaign. I know there are good people inside the Carpenters who disagree with these sorts of policies. But until the international comes out and disciplines local leaders who engage in open racism and until the Carpenters commits itself to alliances with other groups who also care about better lives for workers, the whole union has to be held responsible for actions like what is happening in Buffalo. None of this is to say that contractors aren’t using undocumented workers to avoid using union crews. Of course they are. But the response of the Carpenters needs to be organizing these workers and hiring Spanish-speakers to work in those communities, not seeking to get them thrown out of the country.

Kicking the Chinese out of California in 1882 did not lead to a strong union California and kicking the Mexicans out of Buffalo in 2017 won’t lead to a union town either. The problems are much deeper than immigrant competition. Recognizing and acting upon that fact is the first step to an inclusive labor movement.

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