Labor Leader Roger Clayman Talks About Immigrant Workers

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Long Island labor leader Roger Clayman is being honored by CARECEN on November 15. I spoke with Roger recently about our region’s immigrant workers.

Roger Clayman has helped the Long Island Federation of Labor forge a new relationship with immigrant workers. His background in the labor movement’s struggle for civil rights informs his work in building the union movement.

Roger grew up in a union family in Columbus, Ohio and he has been active in the labor movement since 1973. “I was attracted to labor as a cause for social justice”, he told me.  After working at both the national and regional level, Roger became Executive Director of the Long Island Fed in 2005. He’s been able to build a strong federation here “because of the strong solidarity between the unions on Long Island”, he says, adding “everyone is supporting each other”.
A year after he took the position, the Fed decided to “meet the issue of immigration head on” by developing a policy on immigration. Roger says that “the issue of immigration was becoming very polarized on Long Island, particularly because of Steve Levy. There was even racist talk about the role of immigrants here on Long Island.” The Fed wanted to change that, “we wanted to speak clearly about immigrants and how they are treated in the workforce”, he told me.

According to Roger, “exploitation of immigrants hurts all of us in society.” He stresses that it makes “immigrants’ lives miserable, and it also brings down the conditions for all workers.” The Fed understood that the solution was not to try to deport 11 million undocumented immigrants, but to “normalize their immigration status so they have rights.” The Federation spent months researching and debating an immigration policy and in the end came up with one that unions can present to their members with confidence.

While the labor movement has become a progressively stronger ally of immigrant workers, Roger says that “employers who want to keep a pool of exploitable undocumented immigrants” have funded politicians who fight tooth and nail against comprehensive immigration reform. He sees this as part of a larger trend in our political system in which “the fairness in our system is slipping away”.

Roger says that as Americans are waking up to this the “seeds of social movement to reclaim fairness” can be seen in the street protests of Occupy Wall Stret and other grassroots activism around the country.  He hopes that the conversation will finally drown out the right-wing noise machine that has dominated the political square in recent years.

Roger Clayman believes that immigrants and immigrant issues will play a major role in changing the national civic conversation. He points to immigrants who have courageously risked firing and worse to fight for their rights. This bravery can help revitalize the labor movement.

For information on tickets to the CARECEN Dinner, call CARECEN at 516-489-8330 Monday through Thursday between 9 AM and 5 PM.

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Patrick Young blogs daily for Long Island Wins. He is Director of Legal Services at CARECEN and Special Professor of Immigration Law at Hofstra University. Pat is also a student of immigration history and the author of The Immigrants' Civil War.

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