Last month, 2,000 workers and labor leaders sporting brightly colored shirts and waving “Libertad y justicia para todos” signs marched through Old City under the unrelenting late summer sun to protest the separation of immigrant families at the U.S. border.
It had been a season of protests around immigrant justice — activists and organizers calling for the abolition of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, for Mayor Kenney to stop sharing data with ICE, for the shut down of Berks Detention Center. But this one was noteworthy for how explicitly it challenged the anti-immigrant legacy of American labor. For decades, the movement depicted its struggles as at odds with the struggles of immigrants, saying immigrants kept wages low and weren’t willing to join unions.
Labor leaders changed their stance on immigration policy in the early 2000s, but local resentment has lingered, especially among the largely white, male building trades. In 2010, Pennsylvania building trade union leaders backed a state bill that would crack down on construction companies that hire undocumented workers. In 2016, electricians union Local 98 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers announced it would use drones to identify unlicensed or undocumented workers, a plan one immigrant advocate called “pure racial profiling.”
The building trades are still concerned about immigrants who are “taking jobs from American citizens,” said Frank Keel, spokesperson for Local 98.
And yet, electricians showed up to march on that hot August day.
Labor groups throwing their weight — their time and resources — behind immigrant issues sends the message to those who seek to brand unions as “special interest groups” that their interests are broader than one might think. There’s also a possible strategic advantage, as labor groups look to community support while fighting battles against employers.
“It’s not simply that there’s a race problem here, a gender problem here, and a class or LBGTQ problem there,” said Columbia University legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw, who coined the term “intersectionality” in 1989. “Many times that framework erases what happens to people who are subject to all of these things.”
Why are more groups opting for an intersectional approach? Resources, for one, since many grassroots groups are led by volunteers or tiny staffs. The acknowledgment that there are enormous systems, such as criminal justice or education, that affect everyone in Philadelphia. And as Rick Krajewski, an organizer with the Coalition for a Just DA explained it, the belief that working collectively, with a broad swath of stakeholders — which, yes, comes with its own set of challenges — is a powerful way to earn credibility and win change.
“At our core, the labor movement is about solidarity,” wrote Ken Rigmaiden, national president of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades, who, along with hospitality union Unite Here, proposed the immigration rally to Philadelphia’s AFL-CIO labor council.
Here are nine more examples of local social justice campaigns and movements embodying intersectionality. Add your own suggestions in the comments or on social media.
In 2017, queer Latinx org GALAEI renamed its Trans-Health Information Project to emphasize its focus on supporting those in the trans community who are more vulnerable, like black and brown people. In addition to hosting annual panel discussions of the history of the black trans community, the project raises awareness about violence committed against black trans people, and organizes the Philly Trans March.
A coalition of education-oriented groups like Parents United for Public Education and the student-led UrbEd and Philadelphia Student Union teamed up with immigrant advocacy groups and local unions, like nurses union PASNAP and health care workers union AFSCMEDistrict 1199C, to call for (and win) the abolition of the School Reform Commission and the return of local control to the schools. The coalition has continued to fight for other education issues, like funding and safety.
Joining a national movement calling for the abolition of ICE, lefty political groups like the Philly Socialists, Reclaim Philadelphia, and the Democratic Socialists of America also took up a cause for which immigrant rights groups had been fighting for years: getting Kenney to end the city’s data-sharing agreement with the federal enforcement agency. He did. “It’s honestly a breath of fresh air,” Miguel Andrade, a spokesperson for immigrant rights group Juntos, said at the time, “seeing so many people being galvanized and mobilized” on behalf of immigrant communities.