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Working In These Times

Wednesday, Nov 2, 2011, 7:05 am

Alabama Immigration Law May Soon Test Union Solidarity

BY Mike Elk

Alabama's new immigration law—the most restrictive in the nation—could force union workers at government-owned utilities to cut off power for undocumented immigrants. The new law considered the most restrictive in the nation would prohibit any government or government-owned institution from entering into a “business transaction” with undocumented people. Government-owned utilities are traditionally heavily unionized.

The law—which took effect on September 29 after nearly all of it was upheld by a federal judge—could also be interpreted to mean that private utility companies, like Alabama Power, will have to cancel business transactions with undocumented residents as well. According to one report, Alabama Power initially chose to do this, but the company says it never had such a policy. (See note below.)

Pending federal appeals mean that certain aspects of the law are not yet in effect, but already workers—mainly Latino—across Alabama are beginning to take action. Whether or not unionized utility workers will enforce the law will be a test of the newly emerging solidarity that the AFL-CIO and other groups have been trying to cultivate between organized labor and recent immigrants.

Some unions appear slow to develop a public position on whether or not they will potentially shut off power to undocumented residents. IBEW Communications Specialist Alexander Hogan, whose union represents utility workers in the state (including at Alabama Power), said the IBEW would not be issuing a statement on Alabama's new legislation. However, Hogan did not rule that the union would condemn it.

Stewart Acuff, chief of staff of the Utility Workers Union of America, whose union does not represent Alabama workers, has much stronger feelings on the law. "It's completely and terribly wrong that the Alabama law would cut utilities to workers. We know better than anybody how dangerous it is to cut off utilities especially in the winter time. We are opposed to treating immigrants as second-class citizens or in a discriminatory manner," says Acuff. 

The silence of the IBEW on the law stands in contrast to Latino workers who have taken militant action on the jobs to protest the immigration law. Last month on October 12,  thousands of Latinos across the state walked off the jobs in wildcat strikes to protest the immigration law. Six major poultry plants were either slowed down or shut down in the northeast of Alabama, according to the AP and more than 40 businesses were shut down due to the protests according to Labor Notes. Business across the state reported than usual absentee rates at worksites. The actions were not sanctioned by any union and organized primarily through word of mouth and using social media, according to reports.

The militant actions and wildcat strikes demonstrate how deeply unsettling the new immigration law is to Latino workers. Over the past few years, the AFL-CIO has been attempting to build stronger relationship with Latino communities that were in the past not as closely linked to organized labor. This was symbolized by the recent affiliation of the National Taxi Workers Alliance (a largely immigrant workforce) and strategic partnerships formed between the AFL-CIO and the National Domestic Workers Alliance and the Alliance of Guest Workers for Dignity.

At the Alabama AFL-CIO Convention last week, AFL-CIO Secretary Treasurer Liz Shuler, a former top staffer of the IBEW, said

Today, we know an employer can replace trouble-makers with workers who have no rights, no citizenship. We know he can pay that nickel less and get away with it because workers who live and work in the shadows, outside our labor laws, can't complain. Our current immigration system is broken, and is a blueprint for employer manipulation and abuse. ...

Fairness, justice and equality – these are the pillars that unite us – and as we navigate through what we all agree are difficult waters, we must remain focused on the foundational principles that make the labor movement strong.

Will we accept the politics of division, and join those who blame the uninsured for the health care crisis, teachers for state budget problems, the foreclosed for the housing crisis, or immigrants and jobless workers for the jobs crisis? Or will we live by the words we say often enough: We Are One?

If utility companies did indeed agree to shut off power to undocumented workers, Shuler’s former union as well as others would be faced with a challenge: Will unions go out of their way to stand in solidarity with undocumented workers, to say "We Are One"? Or will they go along with the state's new anti-immigrant climate? Answers may be forced soon enough, as the labor movement seeks closer ties with undocmented workers increasingly under attack.

The original version of this story stated that Alabama Power initially had an official policy of shutting off undocumented residents' power. Michael Sznajderman, a spokesman for the company, e-mailed In These Times with this clarification:

"We have not made any changes as to how we handle or treat customers because of the new immigration law. The one incident reported that we may have turned someone away we have never been able to verify, and if it did happen, it is not our policy. Citizenship is simply not a requirement for getting service from us."

Mike Elk is an In These Times Staff Writer and a regular contributor to the labor blog Working In These Times. He can be reached at mike@inthesetimes.com.

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