In the fight for workers’ right to organize in America, a 19-year-old migrant construction worker is on the front lines.
Josue Diaz is a member of the Congress of Day Laborers in New Orleans. After Hurricane Ike struck the Gulf Coast, Josue was taken to Texas to do treacherous clean-up work. He gutted houses, removing toxic sludge with his bare hands. His work allowed families to come home.
Josue was denied the masks and respirators given to the American workers on the site. He was refused breaks, worked to exhaustion, and forced to sleep in a makeshift labor camp. In response, Josue acted in the proudest tradition of labor leaders in America: he led workers in a strike to demand their dignified working conditions. The employer’s response was to fire Josue and his fellow workers and evict them in the middle of the night without pay.
Retaliatory firings are illegal under the National Labor Relations Act. Josue should have been able to go to government agencies to report the abuse. Instead, he was greeted outside by police and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents. They detained Josue, and disappeared with him into the vast darkness of the post-hurricane landscape. He is now fighting removal, and his case has become a national flashpoint for the debate on ICE’s role in undercutting worker power.
Why does Josue’s story matter for American workers? Because across the nation, employers are exploiting immigrant workers — whether day laborers or formal guestworkers on H2A and H2B visas — in a way that undercuts struggling American workers even further.
When brave migrant workers like Josue try to assert their basic rights to full wages and safe, dignified conditions, employers conspire with ICE to turn immigration enforcement into a weapon. The result for U.S. workers is that job opportunities, wages, and working conditions decline every day. Because immigrant workers cannot organize to protest labor abuses, employers have a captive workforce that has no choice but to work for less at lower standards. In the race to the bottom, all workers lose.
Stories like Josue’s — and what they mean for American workers — are what inspired the Protect Our Workers from Exploitation and Retaliation Act, or POWER Act. Senator Robert Menendez re-introduced the bill to the Senate on June 14, and Reps. George Miller and Judy Chu introduced a parallel version in the House. The POWER Act protects the right of immigrant workers to hold employers accountable without fear of retaliation. It would provide temporary protection for immigrant victims of crime and labor retaliation so that employers who are guilty of labor violations may be held accountable. In the process, it would protect the security and dignity of work for American workers as well.
Workers across the country need the POWER Act. In New York, domestic workers face physical violence on their way to winning a domestic worker Bill of Rights. In California, day laborers fear deportation as they combat wage theft. The New York Times has revealed details of how ICE advised a major marine fabrication company on how to carry out illegal private deportations of metalworkers from India who organized to break up a labor trafficking chain.
Protected by the POWER Act, these workers and many thousands of others will be able to organize, without fear, to end the severe labor exploitation that marks our era. American workers would see wages rise, working conditions improve, and their own right to organize become more secure. If the current race to the bottom is one we all lose, the fight to pass the POWER Act — the fight of Josue and his allies across America — is one where all workers win.
Sarita Gupta is executive director of Jobs with Justice. Saket Soni is executive director of the National Guestworker Alliance.