PUBLISHED BY THE NEW REPUBLIC
Written by Kim Kelly
The labor movement now finds itself at a crossroads on a host of issues, from surviving the climate crisis to navigating the looming specter of automation to outmaneuvering the most anti-labor presidential administration and Department of Labor in generations. One thing that the majority of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations’ (ALF-CIO) sprawling membership seems to agree on, though, is the need for workers to unite against the forces of discrimination and bigotry that have created a humanitarian crisis at the U.S. southern border.
Unions such as UNITE HERE and the Association of Flight Attendants have made it clear that their members will not lend support to ICE’s detention regime. Service Employees International Union 32BJ’s late President Hector Figueroa was adamant about the need to “eradicate this deportation machine” targeting working people. The New York Teamsters declared themselves a “sanctuary union” in order to protect their undocumented members. Even AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, who leans toward the center on many issues, has strongly condemned the current administration’s cruel immigraton policies. He’s also voiced support for the hundreds of undocumented members of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union who were taken prisoner in the recent Mississippi ICE raids at several major food-processing facilities. It seems obvious which side labor is on.
The labor movement needs to continue to protest against ICE’s vicious detention and deportation policies, and to grapple with its own shameful past stances on immigration. Beyond that, though, there’s a critical moment of reckoning for labor leaders seeking to underline their commitment to human rights, and show real solidarity with all workers—namely, by abolishing the ICE union.
It’s not a surprise that ICE agents have union representation, since the 20,000-member agency is a big segment of the federal workforce. Still, the cognitive dissonance here can be staggering. Not only do ICE’s brutal border operatives enjoy the same union protections that generations of leftist radicals fought and died for, they’re also members of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE). AFGE is ostensibly a left-leaning union, one that’s currently marshaling support for Communications Workers of America strikers and tweeting about #BlackWomensEqualPayDay. AFGE was among the first unions to create a Women’s Department and a Fair Practices Department. With a proud history of advocating for inclusion and a diverse rank-and-file (minorities make up over a third of its membership), AFGE represents 700,000 workers in the federal government and the government of the District of Columbia. So it’s unfortunate that people who are actively working against the best interests of humanity—whose violent actions disproportionately target marginalized people—are included among those workers. I’d bet money on the notion that a good number of AFGE’s other members are none too pleased about it, either. (AFGE leaders have not replied to repeated requests for comment about the status of ICE and Border Patrol agents within its membership.)