This Saturday, workers of all colors and heritage must unite, not just to honor the history of the labor movement itself, but to continue the much-needed fight that started decades ago.
May First is International Workers Day, the commemoration of the Haymarket Massacre in Chicago in 1886, when local police fired on and killed several workers during a rally for an eight-hour work day. May Day has become an occasion in which we celebrate the historical social and economic achievements of the labor movement in the world, a movement that played a central role in bringing the standard 40-hour work week; safer working conditions; decent wages; collective bargaining; health protection; pensions and retirement; better and more training for workers; and overall, a better environment for workers to speak up for themselves and their families. Those protections led to the expansion of the American Middle Class. And a solid middle class is one of the main characteristics of a developed nation.
As we reflect on this historical evolution of social conditions and labor rights for workers, there is a serious contradiction today where millions of workers in the nation still lack access to any of the benefits that this movement brought. This is especially true for a particular group of workers — Latino and immigrant workers — a community that has been under constant attack from various fronts throughout this nation over the last several years.
Let’s start with the conditions at work. A recent 2010 study from the AFL-CIO, “Death On The Job Report,” reflects some of these unique concerns. Latinos have a high risk of death and injury at work. In 2008, 804 Latinos died from injuries at work and there has been a steady increase of deaths, 51-percent, since 1992 (the first year this report was published). Sixty-three-percent of those Latino deaths (503) were born outside the U.S. The fatality rates for Latinos are much higher than for all workers: the national average is 3.7 per 100,000, while for Latino workers it’s 4.2 per 100,000. In certain professions the Latino share of fatal injuries is extremely high: for carpenters it’s 27%; for roofers, 37%; and for construction laborers, it’s 41%.
That’s not all. Working Latinos have the highest percentages of wage theft, as well as the lowest access to basic health care. There has also been a drastic increase in racial attacks against Latinos in the last years, resulting in a 32-percent increase of hate crimes against Latinos since 2003.
This historical economic crisis has made a lot of people angry. One particular group decided, mainly the extremist right, to focus that anger against Latino immigrants. It’s ironic that we do not see these people protesting against the main forces which actually plunged this nation into a recession: the predators on Wall Street, the Bush administration, or any of the conservative policies that promoted extreme deregulation of corporations.
Nonetheless, the efforts of that confused group have paid off — not by creating prosperity and a stronger economy, but by costing the Latino community an exorbitant price. This in combination with the drastic failure of the administration and Congress to deliver immigration reform has opened access to regional extremists to pass hasty irresponsible anti-immigrant legislation. As a result, discrimination isn’t only practiced behind closed curtains – it’s protected by the law. The policies range from prohibiting rental housing to undocumented immigrants to the legalization of racial profiling, as we’ve just witnessed in Arizona. That law, SB 1070, invites harassment against Latinos, even if they are citizens. It’s a cheap political move aimed at scaring away Brown people, breaking up families, and stripping Americans of their basic rights and dignity. At a minimum, it’s blatant attack on the social advancement that our brothers and sisters in the labor movement have been pushing for since the origins of May Day.
Organized labor has been on the front line defending the most vulnerable and exploited workers. As we celebrate May Day all over the world, this is the time to stand in solidarity with those that are under serious attack in this nation – our immigrant brothers and sisters. The union movement must welcome these workers in a more aggressive way. Furthermore, Latinos and immigrants must embrace the labor movement as a tool for social protection and economic advancement. This is the future of our movement, but more importantly this is the future of a more just and a stronger nation. No one should allow the assault of labor, human or civil rights of any group. It’s just bad political, social and economic policy.
Hector E. Sanchez is the executive director of The Labor Council for Latin American Advancement (LCLAA). He has worked in education and non-profit organizations, and has over 10 years of policy, advocacy research and community outreach experience. The above article was originally published on NPR. We thank Mr. Sanchez for giving us the privilege to post his article.