WASHINGTON (CNS) — The prevailing notion in these days of uncertainty for immigrants living in the United States is that they are helpless and powerless.

While that may be true, the opposite also is true thanks to the efforts of worker centers funded by the Catholic Campaign for Human Development and intended to aid immigrant workers.

Speakers from two such centers discussed their worker and community organizing experiences Feb. 5 during the Catholic Social Ministry Gathering in Washington at a forum called “Protecting Workers and Immigrants in the 21st Century: New Models for Worker Justice.”


Workers’ Dignity, a worker center in Nashville, Tennessee, has been forming coalitions to boost its power on issues that go well beyond the workplace, according to Elizabeth Lopez.

“Many women come into our centers,” Lopez said. “That’s why we created the Just Hospitality campaign,” to ensure that women who work in hotels in the country music capital get paid fairly and without exploitation.

Workers’ Dignity also developed Nashville Community Defense to aid wary immigrants in Nashville. “I would love it if there were another worker center in Nashville,” Lopez said. But when approached, some workers reply, “I don’t want to organize or form a workplace committee because I may get deported,” or “I would rather leave and not get my money (from an employer) than have ICE come after me,” a reference to federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents.

Nashville Community Defense, according to Lopez, finds churches to serve as sanctuary churches and solidarity churches. It also offers workshops for parents on the rights they do have, even as immigrants, including making advance provisions for their children should a parent be seized by ICE agents “so they don’t go into state care,” she said.

Another initiative is Music City Riders United, which was modeled after a similar bus riders’ union in Memphis, Tennessee. Transportation issues are many in Nashville, Lopez said: “There’s no sidewalks to walk on, the buses don’t run 24 hours, and they come once an hour. … People are (working) on the third shifts and they’re not able to get any buses.”

Music City Riders United, she noted, scored some impressive victories, including a fare reduction, the elimination of transfer fees, and the installation of a bill-paying kiosk at the central bus station as the transit authority discontinued a route that had a stop at the local electric utility.


Not done yet, Workers’ Dignity teamed with other organizations to form PATHE, an acronym for People’s Alliance for Transportation, Housing and Employment. Its aims are many: 31,000 affordable housing units by 2025; expansion of bus service; construction jobs that pay a living wage; the preservation of the city’s General Hospital; and a fully-funded community oversight board to investigate the nearly 700 complaints lodged each year against the city’s police.

“The problem isn’t jobs,” Lopez said. “It’s pretty much everything.”

Don Bosco Workers Inc. aids immigrant workers in Port Chester, New York, and partners with five other worker centers serving the Westchester area. “We meet and talk about the problems,” said Don Bosco’s Gonzalo Cruz.

One problem was a contractor who was holding wages back from his immigrant workforce. But the Don Bosco center had enough know-how to get a state investigation launched and suspend the contractor.

The problem of wage theft plagues many immigrants, who may not be in the country legally and believe they can’t trust someone should they make a complaint.

Four years ago, Don Bosco and Communications Workers of America Local 1103 developed a “No Pay, No Way” campaign. Cruz is seen in a video touting the campaign saying, “I was working 72 hours (a week) and no overtime. I didn’t even know what is overtime.”

The effort was judged a success. Within a year of its launch, 70 businesses had taken the No Pay, No Way pledge, which earned them a gold seal to affix to their store window to show customers.

Don Bosco also helped start a pre-apprenticeship program in the building trades. Those in the program get “good wages and benefits, and a good chance too, to get a job in the local community,” Cruz said.

In the 20th century, “I think labor saw workers’ centers as potential competitors,” said Joseph McCartin, executive director of Georgetown University’s Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor. But by 2000, he added, the AFL-CIO had officially declared its stance for immigrant labor and immigration reform.