Labor seeks solidarity with immigrant workers in rural Volusia County, Fla.

By Daniel Winters, People’s World and Press Associates

PIERSON, Fla.—In the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump won millions of working class voters by appealing to indignity and insecurity they face. Though Trump’s rhetoric made a show of concern for working-class issues, it was ridden with noxious and divisive themes, including racism, sexism and xenophobia.

Now, in rural areas of Volusia County, Fla., whose most-notable city – though not the county seat – is Daytona Beach, the AFL-CIO is constructing an alternative, through its support for immigrant workers and undocumented people. That support takes several forms, using both national issues and local contacts:

• In March, the labor federation supported California legislation, AB450, to prevent law enforcement agencies such as the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Service from carrying out warrantless searches and demanding workers’ confidential documents without a subpoena.

• The AFL-CIO is publicizing its strong denunciation of Trump’s plans to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border – a wall that congressional Republicans recently reaffirmed.

• Federation support of a pathway to full citizenship for all undocumented workers and people, even as the Trump administration and the GOP-run Congress move to deport ever more of them.

• Working with local civil liberties and Hispanic groups to protect the undocumented people and their rights – and meeting with the local sheriff, who is sympathetic, to discuss cooperation on the issue.

In the rural community of Pierson, Fla., the federation is reaching out to immigrant farmworkers. In an exclusive interview with People’s World, Joshua LeClair, president of the Volusia-Flagler AFL-CIO and Yennifer Mateo, the fed’s field rep, outlined the fed’s initiatives there and why they’re important to labor as a whole.

The two, who are married, talked after a Cinco de Mayo celebration earlier this year hosted by their federation, the Farmworker Association of Pierson, Fla., and the Mexican consulate. The celebration was not just fun and games. Besides food and music, there were discussions of worker rights and a Power of Attorney workshop for immigrant families.

“The farmworkers have been here for generations and the fern industry that they work for here in Volusia County used to be the biggest supplier in the world,” LeClair explained. “For a long time, we have had a relationship with these workers, but because of the current political atmosphere, we decided it was important for us to strengthen that relationship and build solidarity with them around workers’ rights.”

The Farmworker Association of Pierson is not a union, yet, LeClair and Mateo admitted.

“Unionization is a path that we should pursue when working with farm workers in Florida,” LeClair adds. “Though this association is not a union, that is not to say that it isn’t effective, but if the workers can obtain union workers’ rights, that is a big deal.

“It is important for organized labor to become involved with these groups because the farmworkers are part of the working class.  If we talk about history, every non-Native citizen in this country is descended from an immigrant, including myself.  There has been a national push from the AFL-CIO to get involved in the immigrant rights battle. Right after the New Year and around the time of Trump’s inauguration, the Florida AFL-CIO said it would stand with immigrants,” he said.

LeClair singled out LCLAA (Labor Council for Latin American Advancement), the national federation’s constituency group for Latinos and Latinas, for its help with immigrant rights workshops and in meeting “the needs of immigrant communities with events like clothing drives.” He noted “there are multiple other organizations that help with the cause, but they aren’t actual unions.  We are still trying to figure out how to make a broader collection of groups, unions and non-unions, that will fight for workers’ rights.”

For Mateo, the plight of the undocumented is personal. “We, the AFL-CIO are labor and we need to help workers who are being exploited. To me, this really hits home.  My dad was an undocumented worker and so it is natural for me to want to connect with them and see how we can use our resources and connections to help.  It never hurts to have solidarity and build relationships with immigrants and the community in general,” she added.

The federation’s outreach to the farm workers also featured a recent sit-down meeting between the groups and newly elected Volusia County Sheriff  Michael Chitwood. Besides the AFL-CIO, it drew representatives from the local American Civil Liberties Union and the Hispanic Democratic Caucus. Immigration lawyers also attended. “The immigrant community in West Volusia County was very concerned about Trump’s rhetoric on immigration,” LeClair elaborated. “The conversation that took place was one that needed to take place.”

Chitwood, the former police chief of Daytona Beach, reiterated his promises to protect the county’s immigrants. The Trump administration is pressuring law enforcement officials nationally to collaborate with ICE agents on picking up and holding undocumented people.

But Chitwood, Mateo said, “has been known for hiring more Latinos and for being on the right side of history. This is why we wanted to meet him. He wants to build trust with the immigrant community and have them feel safe to call the police if they are victims of crime –without fear of deportation.”

Even so, the undocumented are still fearful. That’s why one workshop at Cinco de Mayo was on Power of Attorney, Mateo said. “When filling out the POA, the parent is asked to pick three people they can count on to keep their children if the parents are deported. The idea came up in one of the monthly meetings. Immigrant women were worried after Trump’s election and wanted to come up with a ‘Plan B’ solution in case they were deported and their children were placed in state custody,” she explained.

Source: PAI