Immigration reform is the latest hot topic in Washington, but in the debate, precious little has been said about protecting immigrant workers' right to organize. Earlier this month, my organization, along with the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), went to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit to protect that right.
Too often, abusive employers exploit our broken immigration system in order to break basic labor laws with impunity. They perpetuate illegal working conditions by using workers' immigration status to intimidate and threaten them into silence.
The plaintiffs in our case were subjected to exploitative workplace conditions at Mezonos Maven Bakery. Plaintiffs recount being threatened by an abusive supervisor and forced to work 60 - 75 hours each week without overtime. When they attempted to assert their rights by organizing, they were fired.
Now they've taken their fight to the courts, where we'll continue to push for justice until their case is resolved. But it shouldn't have to come to this -- all working women and men need the legal right to unite when they are confronted with an abusive situation at work. When employers violate the rights of immigrant workers, all workers' rights suffer. If some coworkers are too afraid of immigration-based retaliation to assert their rights, it's the employer, and not workers, who wins.
Both the Senate and the House of Representatives are expected to introduce legislation to revamp our county's immigration policies, providing a road to citizenship for the 11 million aspiring citizens living in this country without documentation, and reducing the wait for visas. As part of that process, Congress should also restore and strengthen workplace protections for all immigrant workers.
Congress can do that by backing up the right to organize with concrete labor protections. They should allow workers who have been victims of workplace retaliation to receive a "U" visa if they cooperate with federal, state, or local authorities in investigating worksite violations. Congress can also protect a workers' basic right to organize by preventing Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) from intervening during a labor dispute.
Instituting these protections would help to create a level playing field for everyone. Abusive employers would no longer be able to treat their workers unfairly and then simply fire them, or worse, report them to ICE, if they protest. Employers who play by the rules would no longer be at a competitive disadvantage to employers who cut costs by ignoring minimum wage, hour, or safety laws. And workers would be able to organize without fear that they would be summarily fired or even deported simply for asserting their rights.
We'll continue our fight in the courts and we call upon Congress to find a more lasting solution through the legislative process. For millions of workers, these commonsense fixes could mean the difference between enduring abusive or dangerous situations and lifting the floor for all workers.