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"Building a Labor Base for Immigrant Rights in New York City,"

by Jim Perlstein July/August 2008 issue of Poverty & Race

New Yorkers United: A Declaration of Principles for Immigrant Worker Rights

We are committed to fairness for all New Yorkers. We are individuals, labor unions, worker centers, community groups, faith-based and advocacy organizations who come together to re-affirm the following principles:
  • Rights apply to all. The rights of all workers are human rights guaranteed by the United States Constitution and the International Bill of Human Rights.
  • Labor rights are the basis of a just society. All people should have the right to support themselves and their families, to organize and unionize, to bargain collectively, to keep their families together, and to participate in the civic life of their communities. No one should face reprisals for exercising these rights.
  • Safe and healthy communities are a basic right. This includes access to affordable housing, healthcare, education and a clean environment.
  • We cannot live in a two-tiered society. Human, civil and labor rights must be protected regardless of immigration status, the industry in which people work or the community in which they live. A threat to immigrants’ rights is a threat to the standards of all workers.
  • New York must set a progressive example. New York has a tradition of providing opportunity and pioneering social justice that has to be preserved.

Therefore: We commit to work together for a fair and functional immigration system and policies at the local, state and national levels that include a path to citizenship, family unification, civil, labor and human rights.


On June 14, some 200 representatives from many of New York’s largest local unions, including the New York City Central Labor Council, an umbrella organization of more than 400 locals with over a million members, joined with representatives of worker centers, faith-based and advocacy organizations, community and parent groups, and student associations, to roll out a “Declaration of Principles for Immigrant Worker Rights,” at an event hosted by SEIU Local 32BJ. The collaboration intends to use the Declaration as a wedge to begin a grassroots education-action campaign on immigrant rights issues among working-class New Yorkers.

For openers, the joint effort will seek to get individuals and groups to sign pledges to vote or otherwise hold public officials accountable to the Principles, educate themselves and others about them, mobilize around them, and encourage neighbors and co-workers to do likewise. The pledge cards will provide a data bank that can be used for initial outreach to rank-and-file union members and community activists. The organizations circulating the pledges will, in the short term, attempt to recruit to the immigrant worker rights efforts they currently have under way—work such as fighting wage theft, enforcing on-the-job safety, coping with ICE raids, agitating for fair local day-labor legislation, etc. Down the road lies the possibility of a formal coalition with a common and concrete agenda.

The effort grows out of a critical analysis by the Coalition for Immigrants’ Right to Driver’s Licenses of its failure to be able to hold former New York Governor Spitzer to his Fall 2007 commitment to guarantee access to a driver’s license to all eligible New Yorkers, regardless of their immigration status. The Coalition recognized that the support it had gathered in a 4-year campaign was broad, diverse, but paper-thin; and that few organizations had been prepared to invest the significant amounts of time, personnel and political capital needed to build an immigrant rights base that would have enabled Spitzer to withstand the backlash against his driver’s license proposal. The Coalition had to acknowledge that even among the member groups of the coalition, particularly the unions, leaders had gotten out in front of rank-and-filers. Union members, recent polls indicate, are poorly informed about immigrant issues, and many have bought into the mindset that “The Immigrant is The Enemy.”

Recognizing that a two-tiered working class will depress the living standards of all workers, while acknowledging that real divisions do exist, this new education-action, labor-community collaboration hopes to unite New York’s working class over the long term behind genuinely progressive, and comprehensive, immigration reform.

Jim Perlstein is a member of the Executive Council and chairs the Solidarity Committee of the Professional Staff Congress, AFT Local 2334, which represents 22,000 faculty and professional staff at the City University of New York (CUNY). He was a member of the Planning Committee for the June 14 event.

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