But the rules of the game may be changing. Both agri-business leaders and labor unions are discussing providing amnesty that would grant undocumented workers paperwork to get the authorities off their backs and, ultimately, earn them citizenship. Yet, even though both groups are pushing amnesty proposals, the plans are vastly different in substance.
The amnesty proposal of agri-business is part of two bills authored by Senator Gordon Smith (R-Oregon). But the price tag for Smith's proposal is that the laborers must follow a rigid set of rules. On the other hand, labor's proposal, which the AFL-CIO has adopted as a top lobbying priority, calls for unconditional amnesty for all of the nation's 4 million undocumented workers.
Labor's newly revised position on amnesty has been greeted with wild applause at multilingual forums and rallies from New York to Los Angeles. On Friday, June 23, about 300 workers and activists crammed into a union hall in SE Portland. Ramon Ramirez, president of Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste (PCUN) opened the meeting by leading the crowd into deafening chants of "Si, se puede," the rallying cry of Cesar Chavez's United Farmworkers.
Sixteen workers testified to the crummy conditions that result when workers are less than citizens. A Portland janitor talked about paying his employer to keep him from calling the INS. Farmworkers spoke of pesticides in the fields, constant harassment from INS agents, and no recourse for unpaid wages.
The workers called amnesty a reasonable solution for the imbalance of power at their jobs. "We have a saying in southern Oregon," said fruit picker Dagoberto Morales, a slight man whose voice cracked as he testified: "'We've made the growers rich, now they have to put up with us.'"
Listening patiently as the testimony piled in were some of the top labor honchos in the Pacific Northwest, including Oregon AFL-CIO president Tim Nesbitt. In the '80s, union leaders criticized illegal aliens for stealing American jobs and driving up unemployment. Their dramatic policy reversal 20 years later is testimony to the growing power of Latino workers.
Meanwhile, as labor seeks to build an alliance with workers it once shunned, Sen. Smith's bills await a vote in DC. Backers are sponsoring ads on Spanish radio stations to raise support. But Smith's critics say his promise of amnesty is an illusion.
Smith's bills grant legal entry into the country for "guest workers" and offers amnesty only after five years of labor. His critics point out that migrant workers would only be "guests" as opposed to citizens, leaving them little power to stand up to their bosses. Moreover, few would actually qualify for amnesty.