From its founding in 1886 through the mid-20th century, the American Federation of Labor (AFL) supported restrictions on immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe, Asia, and Mexico. This policy was fueled by nativism, a desire to limit competition for jobs and a fear of communist influence from overseas. Despite legal restrictions, millions of immigrants obtained jobs in the United States and formed new industrial unions. One such union is the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, founded in 1900 by Eastern European Jewish immigrants. This union was a major force within the labor movement throughout the 20th century.
When the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) was founded in the 1930s, it welcomed new members without distinction to race, color, creed, or nationality, recognizing that many of their members immigrated or were from immigrant families. After the merger of AFL and CIO in 1955, a compromise was made to support legal immigration, while tightening restrictions on undocumented workers. Immigrants from Mexico and the Philippines pushed back against this decision and demonstrated the power of organizing all workers, regardless of legal status, by founding the United Farm Workers union.
By the end of the 20th century, the labor movement supported a path to citizenship and opposed the deportation of undocumented workers. Today, all immigrants are welcome in the ranks of labor, validating their long struggle for equality and unity.
This Italian immigrant mother and child represented a new generation of Southern and Eastern European immigrants who played a critical role in building the 20th century labor movement, Ellis Island, New York, 1905, Lewis Hine. AFL-CIO Still Images, Photographic Prints Collection.
In 1965, farm workers of Filipino and Mexican heritage united to organize a strike for higher wages and better working conditions against the grape growers in the Delano region of California. The strike led to the founding of the United Farm Workers (UFW), which successfully appealed to students, religious leaders, civil rights activists, and urban union members. UFW backed the grape boycott, turning support for immigrant workers into a national cause.
After a five-year strike, the UFW signed contracts with the growers that substantially improved the lives of farm workers. In the succeeding years, the UFW has organized farm workers around the country and championed the rights of immigrants, including undocumented workers.
Farm worker leader Cesar Chavez addressing a rally of supporters of the grape boycott during a protest march from Columbia, Maryland, to Washington, DC, 1970. AFL-CIO Still Images, Photographic Prints Collection.