Union Lead Thousands in DC For Comprehensive Immigration Reform

immigreform1.oct11WASHINGTON—For several years now, Lisa Bergmann of New Haven, Conn., has been anxious about many of her Spanish-speaking friends and neighbors.

The former Unite Here member was one of more than 20,000 people – including thousands of unionists — who marched down the Washington, D.C., Mall on Oct. 8 to demand the U.S. House immediately pass comprehensive immigration reform.  Bergmann says the danger to her friends is why she came to the protest.

“I’m a citizen.  I don’t have to worry,” she says.  “But I worry about a lot of my friends who are waiting to get their papers.  And I have friends who are incarcerated” because they’re undocumented.

“And some are afraid to drive” because police could stop them and demand proof of legality – which they lack – on pain of detention and deportation.

Concerns like that — which would be alleviated, if not ended, by comprehensive immigration reform — brought the thousands to the Mall.  And 200, including 90 union leaders and unionists, went one step further at the end of the half-day march: They engaged in peaceful civil disobedience in front of the Capitol and got arrested.

Arrestees included Bergmann, SEIU 1199NE member Delphine Clyburn and activist Joelle Fishmann, both also from Connecticut, Communications Workers (CWA) Secretary-Treasurer Annie Hall and Political Director Yvette Herrera, The Newspaper Guild’s President, Bernie Lunzer, Laborers Local 78 officials Edison Severino and Stephen Benavides – whose local is 92% Latino — and top AFSCME staffer Paul Booth.

“I’m not really worried about getting arrested,” Hall told Press Associates Union News beforehand.  “This reform is long overdue.  And it’s about people who are coming to this country to seek and find economic justice for themselves and their families.”

Unions, led by contingents from the Service Employees and their Local 32BJ, the Laborers and Unite Here, contributed a large share of the demonstrators.  Other unions represented included AFSCME, the Communications Workers/TNG, Labor’s Council for Latin American Advancement, the Teachers and the United Farm Workers.

The rally, which went on with National Park Service cooperation despite the federal government shutdown, was a sea of colorful banners, flags, T-shirts and signs, punctuated by strong pro-reform speeches and lively music.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., pledged to use every method available to get a comprehensive reform bill to a floor vote, where all 200 Democrats and several dozen Republicans would vote for it – over GOP leaders’ opposition.  “We have the votes to pass the bill,” Pelosi declared.

The point of the arrests and the D.C. march, just three days after similar marches in more than 60 cities nationwide, was to force the GOP-led U.S. House to bring that comprehensive immigration reform plan to the floor.  “Let them vote,” was a frequent chant.  But, driven by its Radical Right/Tea Party wing, the House majority is resisting.

That comprehensive reform would include a long – some would say torturous – path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented people in the U.S.

It also would immediately bring them under U.S. labor laws, preventing or lessening the dual exploitation of workers by venal and vicious employers: Hiring the undocumented and paying them rock-bottom wages, threatening them with deportation if they unionize – and using the threat of hiring the undocumented to force native-born workers to accept lower wages and benefits and worse working conditions.

The big march in D.C. and the prior marches on Oct. 5, including several busloads of CWA members who showed up at GOP House Speaker John Boehner’s district office in Springfield, Ohio, that day, are designed to put pressure on the Republicans to budge, CWA President Larry Cohen said.

“This is what democracy looks like,” he said, gesturing to the multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-lingual crowd during an interview.

The public pressure also has indirect focus, another union leader said: The mass movement will grab the attention of Republican moneymen and political operatives. They in turn will pressure the House GOP to pass comprehensive reform, or lose their party’s backing and cash.  “It’s a bank shot around the Tea Party,” the unionist said.

The political machinations were not on the minds of the marchers.  They were there to show enormous public backing for legalizing the undocumented.  “I’m human.  I want people to have good pay, a good job, good health care and respect on the job,” Clyburn said.  “We’ll help people get this if immigration reform is passed.”

“It’s personal for me,” said a marcher named Lauro – he declined to give his last name – from New York City who was carrying a large Laborers Local 79 banner.  “It’s for my family, and it’s for my guys” in the union.  “I immigrated 16 years ago myself.”

“How long will we be here?” Cohen asked.  “One day longer.  There’s a very deep passion.”

By Mark Gruenberg
PAI Staff Writer