Eyeing Immigrants Through A Union Lens
By Ellen Thompson
Gathering under elevated highways and around airports, where black-car drivers often rest for a few minutes between Wall Street and Midtown pickups, the South Asian immigrant drivers discussed the downfalls of their jobs.
Even though they knew it was better than most jobs they could have gotten in their homelands, they had a feeling that something just wasn’t right and that there had to be something they could do about it.
Determined to improve their working conditions, Middle Eastern, East Asian, Eastern European, African and Central and South American drivers from throughout the city began forming organizing committees at many black-car companies before approaching the union.
Since those early 1995 informal meetings, more than 5,000 drivers – documented and undocumented immigrants – have formed unions to demand better working conditions and a reduction in fees assessed by the companies.
“Machinist District 15’s organizing campaign among black-car drivers remains one of the largest unionization efforts in New York City’s private sector,” Professor of Political Science at Brooklyn College and author of Immigrants, Unions, and the New U.S. Labor Market Immanuel Ness has said. “The IAM recognizes the workers need collective union support to maintain drivers’ licenses, address employer and public discrimination, provide health care, respond to unfair ticketing by the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles and have a voice on the New York City Taxi & Limousine Commission.”
Throughout the labor movement’s history, unions and immigrants hadn’t always met on a common ground. According to studies, the stamp of organized labor was on every significant piece of immigration legislation opposing immigration flow from 1864 until the late 1980s. In past decades, the stance of organized labor and unions shifted, no longer viewing immigrant workers as the enemy. Instead the executive council of the AFL-CIO took a compassionate position, arguing that U.S. immigration rules have allowed employers to exploit undocumented immigrants
“The success of the black-car union-organizing effort derives both from the militancy among immigrant drivers who demanded better conditions and from the existence of an established union that provided critical resources but did not interfere with worker control over the direction of the campaign,” Ness said. “The new black-car drivers shared some ethnic commonalities, but more important, they shared a common work culture as super-exploited, so-called independent contractors who could barely eke out a living.”