Indentured Workers Fight Back

by Paul Garver

One of the most welcome shifts in AFL-CIO policy over the last decade has been the wholehearted advocacy of the rights of all workers, including undocumented immigrants, so-called “guest” workers and others among the most vulnerable and exploited groups of workers. Growing ethnic diversity in the ranks of labor, if not necessarily reflected on the Executive Council or top leadership, and the increasing prominence of labor council leaders who champion immigrants rights like Maria Elena Durazo of Los Angeles, safeguard against a return to “nativism.”

I am not thinking so much of the politically more sophisticated resolutions being passed, but of the enthusiastic response by convention delegates in support of the struggles of immigrant and indentured workers. Last year I wrote on this blog about the uprising of the Indian pipefitters at Signal International shipyards in Louisiana and Mississippi. When 23 of these workers who had found their way to Fargo, North Dakota were arrested in an unconscionable raid by ICE officials, it was the head of the North Dakota AFL-CIO who organized a solidarity response. One of the former Signal workers, Aby Raju, together with Saket Soni. Director of the New Orleans Workers Center for Racial Justice and Daniel Castellanos, a New Orleans hotel worker from Peru who has become a leader of the struggle of indentured workers for justice, were among the featured speakers at a breakout session of the Impact of the U.S. Immigration System on Workers Rights. The moderators of the session were Sarita Gupta, Executive Director of Jobs with Justice, and Ray Marshall, who has authored the Economic Policy Institute’s IMMIGRATION FOR SHARED PROSPERITY: A FRAMEWORK FOR COMPREHENSIVE REFORM, which represents the “White Paper” of the AFL-CIO’s (and Change to Win’s) strategic approach to immigration reform.

Right in the Pittsburgh area a new and surprising strike around related issues is being waged with support from the Ironworkers Local 3. Some 35 workers at an unorganized steel fabrication factory in Rankin, W & K Steel, went on strike against unsafe and dangerous working conditions, and to demand an end to discrimination in wages and other treatment against the 14 workers who are refugees from Burma. The refugees, who have legal status and the right to work in the USA, are placed for employment at W&K by Catholic Charities and the Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Pittsburgh, which take no responsibility for the unsafe and discriminatory conditions under which the refugees are placed. A statement from the striking American workers reads: “We feel as Americans that it is our duty to defend the defenseless and expose the wickedness of the unjust.”

More information on this strike is available from the Three Rivers Coalition for Justice, 2201 Liberty Ave, Ste 4, Pittsburgh Pa 15222, phone 412-849-1271.

Such moral solidarity as demonstrated here between American workers and Burmese refugees is the heart and soul of the labor movement in America. If the struggle for the rights of immigrant and indentured workers is becoming considered part of organized labor’s core agenda for workers rights, it is clearly not on the immediate or middle term agenda of the Obama administration. Painful struggles against ferocious resistance by reactionary and nativist elements must be waged. Solidarity for battles like those at Signal and W&K Steel build the heart needed to wage those battles.

3 Responses

  1. […] a website called “Talking Union” a site for the Democratic Socialists of America, an article entitled, “Indentured Workers Fight Back” confirms, at least to me, that the Burmese […]

  2. […] Union has been covering stories about the struggles of immigrant workers over several years. In 2008 we extensively documented the uprising of pipe-fitting “guest […]

  3. […] Union has been covering stories about a struggles of newcomer workers over several years. In 2008 we extensively documented a overthrow of pipe-fitting “guest […]

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