Why unions are fighting for undocumented workers

Officials: Everyone deserves to be treated humanely

Brett Johnson//September 6, 2016

Why unions are fighting for undocumented workers

Officials: Everyone deserves to be treated humanely

Brett Johnson//September 6, 2016

Immigration, a huge part of the political rhetoric this election cycle, has ties to labor unions, too.
And not necessarily how you would think.

In fact, unions leaders whose trades are particularly affected by the use of off-the-books undocumented immigrants as cheap labor — including carpenters, cement finishers, bricklayers and others — might be some of the people most interested in creating a system where these workers can gain legitimacy.

At least one of those unions, Building Construction Laborers’ Local 3, has introduced a platform of support for these workers — a plan to organize them and to guide them on a path toward citizenship under its auspices.

“We (help) get them on that path and they feel like they’re part of something and that they’re not hiding in the shadows anymore,” said Al Castagna, business manager of the union.

Jack Kocsis, CEO of the Associated Construction Contractors of New Jersey, says something has to be done.

Kocsis says there are many noncitizen workers still in the shadows, receiving pay under the table — and that the full extent of this underground economy in New Jersey is surprising.

“We’re actually finding that it’s more far-reaching than we ever thought it was,” he said, referring to a study his organization is doing on the issue in partnership with Rowan University.

Kocsis’ organization has contractors that agree to turn to unions when looking for workers on projects, perhaps in recognition of an aphorism seemingly favored by unions in the construction sector — sometimes, cheap is expensive.

Castagna broke it down.

Besides not having access to adequate training, these workers will sometimes be paid at $10 an hour or less with no benefits, no pension and no recourse in the face of potential employer mistreatment, he said.

“Some of these developers are using — often abusing — a workforce that’s available and willing to work for a much lower rate, and that has an effect on our membership,” Castagna said.

These workers are in many cases afraid of the purported visibility joining a union could bring on them as unauthorized immigrants.

Fighting the misperception
Paul Eng, president of Building Construction Laborers’ Local 3, admits he’s heard a lot of vitriol about undocumented immigrants “stealing jobs,” even within union circles.
“You hear it. Immigration’s a touchy subject — almost a taboo, but still you hear it,” he said.
Eng’s take on it?
“These workers do all that they can to make money … and if I’m an employer, I would be paying the person who busts their (butt), too,” he said. “Every once in a while you get (union) guys who want show up late and leave early, sit around on their cellphone and they think they deserve to be paid a prevailing wage for it. They talk about ‘stealing jobs,’ if they aren’t. But you have to be willing to do the job.”

That’s a perception Laborers’ Local 3 have taken to the community to reverse.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re illegal — you can still join the union, and we’ll help you on a path to citizenship,” he said.

Laborers’ Local 3 has been holding citizenship drives as well for members and nonunion workers who are not citizens, providing education on the process to achieving legal citizenship.

The union recently offered assistance to around 30 members who were identified as being eligible for immigration screening procedures that are hoped — but not guaranteed — to give some resolution to their citizenship status.

The local construction union’s larger affiliated organization, the Laborers’ International Union of North America, has led similar initiatives around the country.

The national union also has put forward ideas for a wider immigration reform, which places emphasis on the failures of the current employment-based immigration system set by Congress and the need for a depoliticized system of allocating employment visas.

Lou Sancio, director of New Jersey Alliance for Competitive Contracting, believes there should be certain rights fundamental to workers, regardless of their citizenship status.

“They deserve to be paid a full rate and to receive respect and training — and to be treated decently as human beings,” he said.

Sancio and Castagna both expressed concern that contractors paying cash to workers in the state’s expansive shadow economy are taking dollars away from state and federal programs, and the workers’ lack of access to benefits is putting a drain on the health care system.

They admit the problem is large and that progress is slow on making change, but Castagna feels good about the upshot.

“Organizing them has a big effect,” he said. “And that’s true across the country.”

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