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How Decades of Local Activism Led to the Biggest Dam Removal Deal In U.S. History

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“The Klamath River is the center of our traditions, culture and community, and has always been the centerpiece of our way of life,” says Frankie Myers, vice-chairperson for the Yurok Tribe. “We are connected to the salmon in a really deep way, and there is a belief that their existence is our existence.”

The Yurok people have lived in the 15,700 square miles Klamath River Basin, in what is now called Northern California, for millennia. They are among the key organizers in a coalition of Indigenous groups, environmentalists, concerned citizens and commercial fishers that have joined forces in a decades-long movement to Un-dam the Klamath.

The Klamath was once home to the third-largest upstream salmon migrations (or runs) in the United States. Due in large part to the eight dams that were built along the river between the early 1900s and 1962, in what was called the Klamath Project, fish populations have drastically decreased in recent years. In particular spring-run Chinook salmon, which historically showed up in the hundreds of thousands, is on the brink of extinction, with less than 700 fish counted in their 2019 run. An effort is currently underway to designate the fish “as a distinct population and protected under the [U.S.] Endangered Species Act,” according to a report by National Geographic after it was recently discovered that they are a genetically unique species of salmon.

After years of organizing on the part of tribes, environmental groups and other local activists, the states of California and Oregon announced a historic new agreement on November 17 to move forward with the removal of the four dams that block the lower Klamath River. The agreement is between the Yurok and Karuk tribes, as well the electric utility PacifiCorp, which currently owns the four dams, all of which are hydroelectric facilities built without fish passage.

Over the years the Endangered Species Act (ESA) has played a key role in making dam removal a viable reality, and in 2019, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and federal wildlife agencies reinitiated an ongoing process of ESA consultation for the Klamath Project. Because the dams were built without fish passage, they do not comply with the ESA’s requirements, and retrofitting them to comply with the act would not be cost-effective for the utility corporation.

In 2010, PacifiCorp and other stakeholders initially created and signed the Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement (KHSA) and the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement (KBRA), which together pave a path for removal of the four dams along the lower Klamath River. In 2016, all parties had reached an agreement over dam removal, but that agreement was stalled in July due to a federal regulatory decision. Under the 2020 agreement, however, the states of Oregon and California will take over ownership of the dams during the removal process and are set to apply to remove PacifiCorp from the license in January 2021.

The new dam removal plan hinges on approval by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and may require a new Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). Craig Tucker, a natural resources policy consultant who has worked on the Klamath Dam removal effort since 2003, says he is confident the current agreement will hold, and dam removal will be underway within a year or two.

Tucker says he anticipates FERC will issue a draft approval order in March 2021, which will then require an analysis under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and an EIS. However, he hopes that since two EISs’ have already been published for this dam removal project and the utility corporation is on board with the removal agreement, the project could be fast-tracked with a supplemental EIS, and with the NEPA analysis being completed in 2021.

Meyers says he also expects the agreement to hold and dam removal to begin in the next couple of years.

“We have the utmost confidence that this was going to come to fruition,” he says. “I say that because of my personal experience working on all these campaigns, and my experience with protesting and activism, after seeing the other fights around this country… At the end of the day, this is still America, right? And in America corporations get what they want. And at this point what this [PacifiCorp] corporation wants is dam removal. We feel very confident it’s going to happen.”

PacifiCorp says in a November press release that it believes the “important agreement with the states of California and Oregon, and the Yurok and Karuk Tribes… will overcome the remaining obstacles to advance the Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement and complete the largest dam removal and river restoration project in U.S. history.”

While more than 1,700 dams have been removed in the United States in recent years (90 of them in 2019), the removal of the four Klamath River dams will indeed be the largest dam removal effort in the U.S., as well as the largest salmon restoration project in U.S. history.

As detailed in a recent BBC article by Alexander Matthews, the dam removal and restoration efforts aim to restore 400 stream-miles of habitat for salmon, steelhead trout and other migratory fish. Michael Belchik, the Yurok tribe’s senior fisheries biologist, says in the BBC article that opening up spawning grounds that were previously inaccessible due to the dams will increase genetic diversity and reduce crowding for fish. He also tells BBC that elevated water temperatures—which are a major cause of fish declines—will be reduced as the restoration effort reconnects cold-water springs and tributaries to the larger Klamath River, improving water quality and reducing the risk of toxic algae blooms which have been a major cause for concern along the river. And, cooler water temperatures will help the fish to be resilient in the face of climate change, and free-flowing sediment will help to reduce the habitats for bristle worms that are secondary hosts for C Shasta parasites, which kill salmon, as Belchik explains in the BBC article.

The BBC article also quotes Yurok member Amy Cordalis, according to who the Klamath dam removal and restoration project will be a model for how to approach sustainable river restoration worldwide:

“I think the approach of working together with the company, with states, with tribes, with environmentalists, to reach an agreement that allows these dams to be removed for the tribes and for American citizens to benefit from the restoration of this river in a way that costs less money than it would be to relicense [the dams] – that’s really a model of how you might approach sustainable river restoration across the world,” she says.

Tucker, who has been working on the Klamath dam removal effort since 2003, says a unique set of factors make the restoration of the Klamath River uniquely viable.

“From a biodiversity perspective [the Klamath Basin] is an incredibly valuable place. And, it’s truly restorable in a way that some places aren’t. That’s to say that there are not that many people in the Klamath Basin, there are no real big cities [located there], most of the land is public land, and then you have these permanent stewards of the region that are the tribes, and for those reasons, I think the Klamath has a great chance to really being protected, preserved, restored.”

Guardians of the River

The environmental conservation organization American Rivers, which has been involved with the Klamath dam removal effort for years, recently released the short film “Guardians of the River,” produced by Swiftwater Films. It follows Yurok and Karuk people who live and fish in the Klamath Basin. The 15-minute film details the river’s dwindling health over the last several decades, the toll this has taken on the people who have called the river home for millennia, and their efforts toward renewed food sovereignty.

Dania Rose Colegrove, a member of the Klamath Justice Coalition and Hoopa Tribal member points out in the film that the state of California advises against drinking and swimming in the Klamath River due to the water’s toxicity levels. She says organizing for dam removal is not a choice and adds the 2002 fish kill was the “saddest part” of her life, in the film.

Talking about the obligation of her people to the river in the film, Colegrove says “It’s not because we want to, it’s because we have to.” “It’s an obligation for us to take care of this place, and take care of us.”

Samuel Gensaw, a 26-year-old traditional Yurok fisherman, narrates much of the film. In the film’s opening scene, Gensaw says his “grandpa thought he’d never see the day when he’d catch less than 50 fish when he went fishing.” Now, even with three teams, tribal fisher people are lucky to catch seven.

“Back in the day you did this all year round; you caught fish in the spring, there’s fish in the fall and there’s fish in the summer,” he says in the film. “Nowadays it’s just one time a year that we get a good fish run, and it’s really sad because this fish run is so small there’s not going to be enough fish pulled out of this river to give every tribal member one fish… Without these salmon our way of life is impossible.”

Gensaw is the founder and director of the Ancestral Guard, which is a community organizing network geared toward engaging youth with Yurok cultural values and ancestral knowledge. He has worked as an activist since he was a child, beginning in sixth grade after the local school district shut down the reservation school, forcing native students to travel 45 minutes on a crowded bus to Crescent city for school, where they endured racism from students and teachers. This situation garnered support from the ACLU.

“The ACLU came through and totally tore up that whole system to make the county act right when it comes to the education of Indigenous people,” he says. “They’re still fighting that battle, but it was really empowering to see that and I realized you can actually make a change.”

Gensaw began homeschooling, which provided the chance to connect with his grandmothers and tribal elders. By 10th grade, Gensaw became involved with the Undam the Klamath campaign after meeting Craig Tucker. Over the years he became increasingly interested in getting youth involved with preserving Yurok traditions, and helping them develop connections to the “old school rules” of being on the river and how to “think right” when fishing.

“I spent a lot of time with my grandmothers and luckily I’ve had a lot of elders [who are my] mentors like Archie Thompson, who was one of the last fluent speakers of our [Yurok] language,” he says.

The formation of the Ancestral Guard began with teaching youth about traditional fishing, from boating to treating the fish to making sure elders were fed.

“We did that for about three years until the salmon run population started dwindling,” he says, which was around 2010. “Then we started focusing on activism, asking ‘What can we really do to protect this river?’”

This led to getting more native youth involved with the Undam the Klamath campaign, among other movements to protect the river’s ecosystem as well as Indigenous rights to access the river.

“We fight so hard because we want a whole generation to grow up on a dam-free river,” he says. “We want them to not have to go through the same struggles and traumas that we have had, growing up on a sick river. It takes a lot out of you when you’re taught this place will take care of you for the rest of your life, and then all of a sudden it’s sick. Now it needs you to take care of it. [The river] is like a family member that we have, and the connection to the river is more than a connection. It’s a keystone piece of our existence.”

Gensaw says he never wanted to be an activist but has had to organize out of necessity.

“I never wanted to be involved in this process,” he says. “All I want to do is fish and feed my family. And that’s the same mentality of every fisherman out there. We just want to be able to fish or be able to provide for our families. And we want all the healthy opportunities that come along with living with a healthy river.”

Meyers, vice-chair of the Yurok, has been at the forefront of the effort organizing for dam removal for two decades. He points out that while the dams have destroyed aspects of the Indigenous way of life—contributing to gravely depleted fish populations and making it unsafe to bathe, drink and swim in a river that has been home since time immemorial—the Yurok haven’t even benefited from the electricity generated by the dams.

“For 50 years, the reservations here didn’t have electricity,” he says. “For the vast majority of the time the dams have been destroying our river and our way of life, but we haven’t even been able to get the luxury of electricity.”

He says his own parents, who live in a village along the river basin, just got electricity about five years ago, only because the tribe installed it.

Organizing ‘Undam the Klamath’

In 2002, a devastating event took place on the Klamath, known as the fish kill. Tens of thousands of dead salmon, steelhead and other migratory fish floated on the water. They were killed upon returning to the river to spawn, by disease related to high water temperatures that were likely caused by the culmination of steady habitat degradation created by the dams, water pulled from the river for upstream irrigation of farms and ranches during a drought year, timber sales along stream banks and groundwater withdrawals. The official estimate of mortality by the California Department of Fish and Game was around 34,000 fish, however, they have since reported that that number may have been significantly underestimated, and some estimates are upwards of 70,000.

Meyers says the fish kill took almost 80,000 of the 2002 fall salmon run—and the event likely could have been avoided had the regulators listened to the tribe.

“In 2001 we’d made a case to the Bureau of Reclamation about the importance of river flows to the river, and the importance of adequate flows to species viability,” he says. The bureau at first followed the tribe’s recommendations, releasing water back into the river, but the move caused economic distress for irrigators upstream. In 2002, the Bureau of Reclamation’s policy swung in the opposite direction.

“They augmented our river flows to beyond what we had told them would be catastrophic, and it was catastrophic in that year [2002].”

The fish kill was a call to action for many Indigenous groups in the Klamath Basin.

“It really became clear that we were never going to be able to get our salmon to return [to] any subsistent amount, as long as the dams were [there],” he says. “They cause too many negative impacts to water quality and there is no other way to mitigate that.”

Meyers notes that Indigenous people are not new to activism and organizing, as they’ve had to fight for centuries for most of the rights they have today.

“We had the fish wars in the 60s and 70s; we had the Red Cap War in the 1850s,” he says. “We’ve always been on the river and we’ve always fought for our way of life, we’ve always fought for our salmon and our ability to catch salmon, but it wasn’t until the 2002 fish kill that it became very, very apparent to us that dam removals would have to be necessary for us to continue our way of life. So we began the Undam the Klamath campaign soon after that.”

“We’ve been neighbors with Karuk and Hoopa people for millennia, since time immemorial, so there is some really deep-seated friction between the tribes that play out in all kinds of ways,” he says. “There was this animosity at times between the tribes, but that all was put aside after the fish kill. It was collectively decided… that our past fighting had to be put aside. Whatever problems we had with each other and our governments had to be put aside. This was about our survival as a species here on earth. That night at the river bar, it was all tribal people from the Klamath Basin, and regardless of tribal affiliation, we all started working together because we knew we were in a dire situation. We saw the terrible fish kill together.”

Meyers says the groups also realized the fight ahead would be a long one that would require a systematic shift involving massive hurdles, involving huge corporations and the overarching mentality of resource extraction and the industrial revolution.

“We knew this was going to take more than just consultation, this was going to take more than just government to government negotiations,” he says. “We knew the fight ahead of us was massive, but it was a decision that was made collectively, for the benefit of future generations. This was the fight we had to take up.”

Environmental groups as well as fisheries joined the effort, and over time the coalition-built momentum.

“The years after that really saw a collection of folks within the basin coming together and wanting to work on the solution for all of the communities in the basin,” Meyers says.

In 2006 PacifiCorp’s 50-year license to operate the dams expired, and since then the company has relied on annual licenses. Around 2008, the coalition began to restructure its efforts. They raised funds to hire a reputable firm to do a cost-benefit analysis of dam removal, with the aim to expand the narrative around dam removal from being centered solely on the tribes toward focusing on the financial, fiduciary responsibility of the corporation that owned the dams.

“We changed the message and we fine-tuned it,” Meyers says. “One of the big turning points for the campaign is when [the cost-benefit analysis] came out and we were actually able to show the corporation that at that point [dam removal] was in their financial interest. It sparked a whole other tone for the campaign, where this was not just about tribes, but now this was about the financial and the fiduciary responsibility of the corporation to make sure that their shareholders are getting their best possible return.”

As the Undam the Klamath coalition was able to push the conversation to include a financial and corporate structure debate, Meyers says they began to solidify partnerships and support from within the state governments of California and Oregon.

It has indeed been a long fight. In 2010, Klamath Basin stakeholders, including farmers from the upper basin and fishers from the lower basin, signed two agreements (KBRA and KHSA). In 2014, stakeholders signed the Upper Klamath Basin Comprehensive Agreement(UKBCA). Members of the California and Oregon delegations introduced legislation to Congress hoping to advance the Klamath agreements, but the 2015 U.S. Congress closed without authorizing them. The involved parties amended the KHSA and the 2016 Klamath Power and Facilities Agreement was created. After a federal regulatory decision dismantled that agreement, the states of Oregon and California resolved to make dam removal happen, agreeing to take on liability for the removal process in what is the current dam removal agreement.

“Hats off to Oregon and California for showing some true leadership at a governmental level,” Meyers says.

Tucker says that a coalescence of factors was necessary in order for this campaign to succeed.

“The activism piece is my favorite piece, and it’s the most exciting, sexy piece, but it only works coupled with legal strategy and good science and good policy advocacy,” he says. “We had all of that together. I would make the case that you don’t win by grassroots alone; you don’t win by direct action alone. You have to have these other pieces running in parallel. And that’s something we’ve had, and we’ve managed that because, for one, the tribes have the capacity to bring all of those pieces to the table. And we [have been] very good at coalition-building.”

Tucker says that the partnership between the tribes with commercial salmon fishers and environmental groups has been key.

“That sort of enviro- tribal-labor trinity was one of the winning elements of the campaign,” he says. Tucker notes that it wasn’t so long ago that Indians and commercial fishers were engaged in gunfights along the Klamath over fishing rights at the mouth of the Klamath.

“Commercial salmon fishers were very powerful allies in this battle,” he says. “I was worried that it would be hard to get commercial salmon, fishers, and Indians to work together well but it worked out wonderfully.”

He says the environmental groups involved in the Klamath effort, like American Rivers, Trout Unlimited and California Trout, contributed their prior experience in dam removal as well as nationwide advocacy capabilities.

“These are groups that have a lot of experience removing dams all over the country,” he says. “They brought a lot of that FERC expertise to the table, and helped us raise money. And they have nationwide memberships that we could activate to write letters and petitions.”

Another ingredient in the recipe that has made the Klamath effort successful, he says, is strong leadership.

“We just had some individuals, Frankie Myers being one of them, whose leadership skills and charisma were able to develop meaningful relationships between individuals leading these organizations, and the different constituencies. You have to have some really capable leaders to make stuff happen, and we’ve been blessed with very capable leaders.”

Meyers says the Klamath dam removal agreement marks a significant shift in policy and says the tribes alone could not have brought it about.

“I don’t think any one group or agency has the capacity to get something like this done,” he says. “It really did take a collaborative effort, working with some strategic partners in the NGO world, partners in the environmental conservation world, and also having really strong partners at the state level.”

This article was produced by Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: April M. Short is an editor, journalist and documentary editor and producer. She is a writing fellow at Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute. Previously, she served as a managing editor at AlterNet as well as an award-winning senior staff writer for Santa Cruz, California’s weekly newspaper. Her work has been published with the San Francisco Chronicle, In These Times, Salon and many others.


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United Workers Win WARN Act Victory in Baltimore ESPN Zone Case

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kari-lydersenWhen the ESPN Zone restaurant in Baltimore’s touristy Inner Harbor development closed abruptly on June 16, 2010, about 150 workers lost their jobs. Most were paid low hourly wages with few benefits, barely making ends meet and relying on the busy summer tourist season to get them through the slow winter months. Because they’d only found out about the closing only a week earlier, they had little chance to find new employment for the summer.

In October 2010, United Workers, a grassroots advocacy group running a larger campaign for economic justice and human rights at Inner Harbor establishments, helped some of the laid-off workers file a federal lawsuit alleging violations of the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification (WARN) Act. The lawsuit named the Walt Disney Company—which owned the Inner Harbor ESPN Zone, as well as four other locations around the country that also closed in summer 2010—and its subsidiary Zone Enterprises of Maryland LLC, which operated the Inner Harbor location. On Jan. 3, 2013, more than two years after the lawsuit was filed, a U.S. District judge issued a ruling that United Workers see as an important victory, stressing the importance of the federal WARN Act and launching a process wherein workers will be able to collect additional pay due to them under the act.

The WARN Act requires that companies give workers at least 60 days’ notice of mass layoffs and mandates that if a company fails to give adequate notice it must pay workers 60 days’ worth of wages from the date notice is given. The amount is to be based on the worker’s average wages over the last three years or their pay rate at the time of closing. When the Inner Harbor ESPN Zone closed, Disney gave the workers “notice pay”—in the form of weekly paychecks and an end lump sum—and based the amounts on the employees’ earnings during the previous six months. But since the restaurant closed in June, that meant the notice pay was based on a slow season, not the much higher pay for long summer hours they would have actually received had they worked in June, July and August.

The lawsuit argued that this was a violation of the WARN Act, and U.S. District Judge Catherine C.  Blake agreed that workers were due additional pay, launching a second ongoing legal phase in which the pay due to each individual worker will be determined. Andrew D. Freeman, the attorney representing the workers, said they will also seek class action status, meaning all the laid-off workers could be eligible for compensation.

Emanuel McCray, who was a host at the Inner Harbor ESPN Zone, told In These Times that he loved his job and that it had inspired him to want to open his own sports bar and restaurant some day. But he felt betrayed and disrespected by his employers in the way the closing was carried out. “I felt disgusted with them,” McCray told In These Times. “I grew up as a kid watching Disney movies and dreaming of going to Disneyland. What happened killed all that. Now when I see Mickey Mouse or anything to do with Disney, I get really upset.”

Emanuel said that the not only was the pay rate unfair, but the company’s failure to give the workers advance notice was devastating because they couldn’t seek other jobs for the summer. By the time ESPN Zone closed, he said, “all the summer restaurant jobs were already locked up.”

McCray said some workers lost their homes and had to move to other cities with their families after the closing. He has struggled to find steady work since—he does D.J. gigs and was a service manager at Wal-Mart. He also does work with United Workers and the Waterfront Partnership, a company that works with city officials and business owners to promote sustainable development along Baltimore’s waterfront.  (A silver lining in the ESPN Zone situation has been that McCray thinks he’s found his true calling as a social justice activist, building on his college major in political science. He is considering running for elected office and otherwise working to improve the local community.)

Freeman, the workers’ attorney, told In These Times that the situation laid bare larger disturbing truths about “the disrespect this country shows to hardworking people in low wage jobs.”

“What Disney failed to pay these workers is a couple hundred thousand dollars,” he said. “Disney has probably paid more than that to its lawyers to fight this case—and to my firm in attorneys’ fees. So the lawyers end up making more money than the workers this law was intended to benefit, who have been waiting for two-and-a-half years and will wait some substantial additional time, when they’re the ones who really need the money.”

Freeman told In These Times that about 35 ESPN Zone workers showed up to United Workers’ initial meeting about the situation, and he realized that all of them combined probably made less per hour than he charges as an attorney. “There’s something wrong with our society,” he said, “when you can hire 35 of those workers for the cost of one hour of my time or the time of Disney’s lawyers.”

In its response to the lawsuit, Disney argued that the WARN Act allows temporary pay reductions of up to 50 percent without notice, and said the workers got more in notice pay than they would have in such a situation. But Freeman noted that the pay reduction provision of the WARN Act is only supposed to apply during a temporary downturn when the business is ultimately remaining open—not in a closing situation like ESPN Zone’s. In her decision, Judge Blake agreed with Freeman that the provision did not apply to the case at hand.

Blake also agreed with the plaintiffs in finding that Disney illegally tried to get out of paying some workers the full amount due under its own corporate severance pay provisions, by essentially subtracting the WARN Act pay from the additional severance due the employees (Disney’s written severance pay policy specifically says that notice pay given under the WARN Act will count toward the severance pay the company owes workers). “I found that one of the most offensive parts of this,” Freeman told In These Times.  “They wrote their severance plan in a way that explicitly compensated violating the WARN Act. As the judge said, that’s a violation of both the letter and the spirit of the law.”

Freeman said Blake’s decision should help strengthen the WARN Act for future litigation. “There’ve been arguments that ESPN Zone and some other employers have tried to rely on to avoid giving workers notice that the Act requires, or paying them less than their full wages if they did violate the Act,” he said. “The court in this case made clear that the Act means what it says.”

This article was originally posted on Working In These Times on January 15, 2013. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Kari Lydersen, an In These Times contributing editor, is a Chicago-based journalist whose works has appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Chicago Reader and The Progressive, among other publications. Her most recent book is Revolt on Goose Island. In 2011, she was awarded a Studs Terkel Community Media Award for her work. She can be reached at kari.lydersen@gmail.com.


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Freedom of Movement: Migrant Rights in the Global Economy

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What if lawmakers had the guts to create comprehensive labor legislation for immigrants, enshrining their rights in accordance with international law? What if our legal system recognized immigrants’ freedom of movement, shielded families from unnecessary separation, and allowed real recourse against exploitative employers?

We should know better, of course, than to expect anything approaching that from Capitol Hill, where the hobbling immigration debate is dictated by business interests and xenophobia.

So, it’s a good thing such a law has already been drafted for them. Years ago, in response to the growing intersection between human rights and labor migration, the United Nations developed the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families.

Recognizing that border-crossing is an economic right and necessity, the Convention’s provisions include freedom from discrimination in the workplace and public services, equal protection before the law, and protection from “arbitrary expulsion,” violence and intimidation by groups or individuals.

Yet in another stunning display of American exceptionalism, the United States has not joined the dozens of other countries that have ratified these common-sense principles. Washington prefers to relegate immigration issues to the domestic policy arena, which allows it to capitalize freely on a two-tier labor force.

Chandra Bhatnagar of the ACLU’s Human Rights Program noted last December (in a rather lonely celebration of International Migrants Day) that there are three distinctly vulnerable subsets of migrants in America: Guestworkers, who have employment-based visas, are at risk of being chained to exploitative employers without legal recourse. And undocumented workers, following a controversial Supreme Court ruling in 2002, have lost safeguards in the areas of accessible remedies when injured or killed on the job, overtime pay, workers’ compensation” and other protections. Domestic and agricultural workers have been shut out of the federal Fair Labor Standards Act and other labor laws, deprived of a minimum wage floor, workplace safety protections, and the right to unionize.

In a recent paper on the labor migration and international law, Villanova University law professor Beth Lyon writes that a major obstacle to ratification of the Convention examined the government’s reluctance to open its immigration policy to scrutiny under international law:

It appears that the Migrant Worker Convention has received virtually no domestic attention in the United States from either civil society, domestic or international government, likely because it is assumed that any attempt to define immigrants as rights holders is a political non-starter.

But Lyon argues that ratification of the Convention could “help to break through the current domestic political stalemate and build-up of undocumented immigrants” and

advance agendas important to both the right and the left, including increased national security through enhanced standing with the global south and an improved humanitarian situation for one of America’s most vulnerable groups.

Many immigrants’ rights advocates are bypassing the government to leverage international law on their own. The ACLU, for instance, recently invoked United Nations policies in advocating for hundreds of Indian guest workers imported to as cheap forced labor in the Hurricane Katrina recovery effort. The organization complemented its litigation in federal court with an appeal to the U.N. Spe­cial Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants and the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Contemporary forms of Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance.

U.S.-based activists have worked with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to investigate detention facilities in Texas and Arizona, as well as law enforcement policies toward undocumented immigrants.

Last month, the Commission’s Rapporteurship on the Rights of Migrant Workers and their Families reported, “many men, women and children detained in those facilities are held in unacceptable conditions.” The delegation also criticized reliance on local police in anti-immigrant crackdowns, warning that “the federal government might be unable to hold local law enforcement properly accountable for enforcing immigration laws with respect for basic human rights.”

The Florida-based Coalition of Imokalee Workers has framed the plight of exploited migrant farmworkers as a modern-day international slave trade. Targeting food-industry behemoths like Taco Bell and McDonald’s, the group has combined grassroots labor organizing with massive public education campaigns to pressure employers to improve wages and working conditions.

Advocates for domestic workers in New York City link the struggles of home-based laborers, the vast majority of them immigrant women of color, to global economic dynamics and the country’s legacy of racial oppression. To offset the lack of federal protections, Domestic Workers United is pushing for stronger state-level regulations, like livable wage standards, protection from trafficking, and integration into New York’s human rights laws.

Meanwhile, the leaders of the United States, Canada and Mexico discussed trade agreements and border enforcement at the summit in Guadalajara this week. As usual, officials focused on the movement of goods, not people.

Yet the engines of global capital are greased by the flow of labor across borders. A byproduct of economic “integration” has been economic apartheid in immigrant communities. While the political establishment works to advance the rights of corporations to trade freely, the rights of migrants to basic human dignity are brushed off the agenda.

Michelle Chen: Michelle Chen’s work has appeared in Extra!, Legal Affairs, City Limits and Alternet, along with her self-published zine, cain. She also blogs at Racewire.org

This article originally appeared at Working In These Times on July 10, 2009 and is reprinted here with permission from the source.


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