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Black Trade Union Leaders Make Solidarity Trip to Alabama

Jeremy Sprinkle
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James Andrews joins fact-finding delegation on HB 56

On Wednesday, NC State AFL-CIO President James Andrews traveled to Alabama with other African American labor and civil rights leaders on a fact-finding mission to investigate that state's worst-in-the-nation anti-worker and anti-immigrant law, HB 56.

HB 56 was passed into law on June 2, 2011 and went into effect on Sept 28, 2011. Alabama's right-wing, Tea Party governor and legislature boasted that their law was worse than the Arizona's SB 1070. Its purpose was to have people self-deport, to leave the state and the country.

Given the innocuous title of Taxpayer and Citizen Protection Act, HB 56 "has a nice name with evil intent, much like our 'Right to Work' law," said James. "HB 56 in many ways takes me back to the Jim Crow era."

Under Jim Crow, the white, anti-labor majority in state governments throughout the South used their control over the legislative process to pass laws that perpetuated racial and economic segregation.

"The passage of Alabama’s anti-immigrant legislation invokes the inhumanity of the Jim Crow South," reads a statement on the AFL-CIO websiteWe Are Alabama:

"While our immigration system is broken, our answer as a nation cannot be to terrorize and criminalize families. The delegation will talk with Latino working families and faith and community leaders and witness firsthand the effects of a law that cannot be allowed to stand."

"Jim Crow was wrong, and so is HB 56," said James before detailing his initial findings.

"HB 56 is bad in many ways," said James. "For example, the law turns teachers into immigration agents," by requiring they check the documented status of students and parents. This provision, which is wreaking havoc on Alabama schools, has resulted in thousands of school-aged children no longer showing up for class. That runs counter good education policy, says James:

"Students need to feel good about going to school and learning and to trust the teacher. Making [teachers] ICE officers is wrong. If education is the way to the American Dream, young people without this pathway will lose hope in America and our way of life."

As part of the delegation of national, state and local leaders, James got to hear from the families "directly impacted by the law, document the impact of the law on Latino communities, acquire a better understanding of the civil rights implications of the legislation and assess the impact of the law on workers and businesses," said Brenda Loya, AFL-CIO Media Affairs.

"We hope to put a national spotlight on the conditions faced by the immigrant community in Alabama and make clear where labor stands," said James. "We are in this fight together."

"[HB 56] is just another part of the right-wing agenda, along with Voter ID, attacks on public sector workers and on the 99%. As union members, we should be about protecting the right and freebom of all to work and support a family. By standing against this unjust law, the labor movement will again be on the right side of history."

Testimony of affected workers and families

James and the rest of the delegation traveled to a mobile home park for a meeting with the community. There they heard testimony by people directly affected by the law - mothers, fathers, children and business leaders.

"I was surprised to hear so many of the say how much they have come to love the state and this country and see and feel this is home until this law came about," James said of his visit.

"One business leader talked about his successful construction and grocery businesses. But in a short period of time, he has lost almost everything - over $300, 000. What can one do if you can’t then afford to pay the taxes on your house or get a new tag for your car?"

The law makes it a felony for undocumented immigrants to conduct any business with the state - including paying taxes.

James also heard from undocumented parents who were desperately trying to find church members or friends - even strangers - who could take care of their American-born children in case they have to flee or are caught by HB 56. But the law also makes it a crime for anyone to aid a person who is in the country illegally.

Young children who were brought to this country illegally and have since grown up here are left in limbo by HB 56. "One young man talked about getting good grades in high school with expectation that he will go to college with good recommendations from his teachers," James said.

"He came into the country as a small child. For him, this is his home with his friends and family. The new law will not allow him to go to the university.

"It is so sad to see another member of the human race facing this kind of attack as they fight to provide a better life for their family.

"Destroying the hope and dreams of children is not the American way. Making it a crime to help a person in need and teaching children to be fearful or to hate is not the American way."

The take away

James said this trip made clear to him that "we need a national immigration policy and should not allow states to set [the terms]. "

The trip to Alabama also reminded James that, "An attack of this type is an attack on all of us: workers, labor, business, people of faith, Civil Rights advocates, educators, and many others."

"The labor movement must be a strong voice on the side of justice for all, and we must continue to speak out at every level on this issue."

Update: This post has been revised to reflect that national AFL-CIO President Rich Trumka was not part of the delegation.