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Why labor has embraced immigrant rights — and 9 more examples of Philly intersectionality

From labor to education to criminal justice, here's a look at how (and why) social justice groups are working in tandem to fight for issues they believe in.

Members of the clergy lead thousands of union protesters from Penn's Landing to the Custom House on Chestnut Street to protest family separations by the administration on August 15, 2018.
Members of the clergy lead thousands of union protesters from Penn's Landing to the Custom House on Chestnut Street to protest family separations by the administration on August 15, 2018.Read moreMICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer

Last month, 2,000 workers and labor leaders sporting brightly colored shirts and waving "Libertad y justicia para todos" signs marched through Old City under the unrelenting late-summer sun to protest the separation of immigrant families at the U.S. border.

It had been a season of protests around immigrant justice — activists and organizers calling for the abolition of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, for Mayor Kenney to stop sharing data with ICE, for the shutdown of the Berks Detention Center. But this one was noteworthy for how explicitly it challenged the anti-immigrant legacy of American labor. For decades, the movement depicted its struggles as at odds with the struggles of immigrants, saying immigrants kept wages low and weren't willing to join unions.

Labor leaders changed their stance on immigration policy in the early 2000s, but local resentment has lingered, especially among the largely white, male building trades. In 2010, Pennsylvania building trade union leaders backed a state bill that would crack down on construction companies that hire undocumented workers. In 2016, electricians union Local 98 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers announced it would use drones to identify unlicensed or undocumented workers, a plan one immigrant advocate called "pure racial profiling."

The building trades are still concerned about immigrants who are "taking jobs from American citizens," said Frank Keel, spokesperson for Local 98.

And yet, electricians showed up to march on that hot August day.

It's something of a responsibility: Pat Eiding, president of the Philly labor council AFL-CIO, which organized the rally, said the labor community is in a position to stand up for other issues — and should.

Labor groups throwing their weight — their time and resources — behind immigrant issues sends the message to those who seek to brand unions as "special interest groups" that their interests are broader than one might think. There's also a possible strategic advantage, as labor groups look to community support while fighting battles against employers.

But the Free the Children rally is also part of a trend of social justice movements embracing intersectionality, a jargony concept that has gone mainstream since the first Women's March and Trump's inauguration, used to describe how systems of power meet to oppress the marginalized.

"It's not simply that there's a race problem here, a gender problem here, and a class or LBGTQ problem there," said Columbia University legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw, who coined the term intersectionality in 1989. "Many times that framework erases what happens to people who are subject to all of these things."

Why are more groups opting for an intersectional approach? Resources, for one, since many grassroots groups are led by volunteers or tiny staffs. The acknowledgment that there are enormous systems, such as criminal justice or education, that affect everyone in Philadelphia. And as Rick Krajewski, an organizer with the Coalition for a Just DA explained it, the belief that working collectively, with a broad swath of stakeholders — which, yes, comes with its own set of challenges — is a powerful way to earn credibility and win change.

"At our core, the labor movement is about solidarity," wrote Ken Rigmaiden, national president of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades, who, along with hospitality union Unite Here, proposed the immigration rally to Philadelphia's AFL-CIO labor council.

Here are nine more examples of local social justice campaigns and movements embodying intersectionality. Add your own suggestions in the comments or on social media.

Coalition for a Just DA

The group that helped set and push an agenda around court reform included criminal justice advocates like Youth Art and Self-Empowerment Project and Decarcerate PA but also sex workers and immigrant rights groups like VietLead and Asian Americans United.

Black Lives Matter Week of Action

The Caucus of Working Educators, a group within the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers union, organized a program to draw awareness to racial justice in the classroom, as well as advocate for issues like the hiring and retaining of teachers of color.

Trans Equity Project

In 2017, the queer Latinx org GALAEI renamed its Trans-Health Information Project to emphasize its focus on supporting those in the trans community who are more vulnerable, like black and brown people. In addition to hosting annual panel discussions of the history of the black trans community, the project raises awareness about violence committed against black trans people, and organizes the Philly Trans March.

Our City Our Schools

A coalition of education-oriented groups like Parents United for Public Education and the student-led UrbEd and Philadelphia Student Union teamed up with immigrant advocacy groups and local unions, like the nurses union PASNAP and health care workers union AFSCME District 1199C, to call for (and win) the abolition of the School Reform Commission and the return of local control to the schools. The coalition has continued to fight for other education issues, like funding and safety.

Abolish ICE/Occupy ICE

Joining a national movement calling for the abolition of ICE, lefty political groups like the Philly Socialists, Reclaim Philadelphia, and the Democratic Socialists of America also took up a cause for which immigrant rights groups had been fighting for years: getting Kenney to end the city's data-sharing agreement with the federal enforcement agency. He did. "It's honestly a breath of fresh air," Miguel Andrade, a spokesperson for immigrant rights group Juntos, said at the time, "seeing so many people being galvanized and mobilized" on behalf of immigrant communities.

Religious groups like New Sanctuary Movement and POWER Interfaith

Intersectionality is baked into these faith-based groups, which mobilize religious communities to fight for issues like immigrants rights and economic justice. POWER has been a vocal supporter in campaigns like airport workers' yearslong bid to unionize and the 2015 Comcast franchise agreement.

Philadelphia’s March for Our Lives

At the city's version of a national march against gun violence spurred by the mass shooting at a school in Parkland, Fla., speakers (and the media) made sure to also focus on the everyday gun violence experienced by black and brown folks.

Power Local Green Jobs

The environmental justice group EQAT (Earth Quaker Action Team) is working with POWER to pressure PECO to purchase solar power from North Philly rooftops, framing the issue as a way to create jobs for Philadelphians.

Philadelphia Community Bail Fund

Organizations like the media access group Media Mobilizing Project, mentorship group Frontline Dads, and Black Lives Matter Philadelphia worked with criminal justice orgs like #No215Jail Coalition and Decarcerate PA to raise money for people who couldn't afford to get out of jail before their trials.