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Solidarity in Action! Building Trades Unions and Immigrant Rights Groups Work in Steering Laid Off Migrant Workers into Apprenticeships

Where do we go now? This is the question facing nearly 1000 workers that were recently laid off from Abbott Labs, a Covid-19 test manufacturing plant in Westbrook, Maine. A massive hurdle faces many of these distraught workers who are not only out of a job, but fight with a language barrier as they are recent immigrants from Africa and the Middle East. Fortunately, there are some trying to help despite the difficulties presented, local immigrant and community based organizations like the Maine Immigrant Rights Coalition (MIRC) and Trade unions around the state have stepped in to try to help get them some careers with lasting benefits, and also some help bridging the language barriers.

Mufalo Chitambala, executive director of the MIRC, has been sponsoring career fairs to connect these workers with a chance to connect with some of these organizations on a face to face level. Union organizers from the Laborers, Carpenters, Millwrights, Operating Engineers have all attended these fairs recently and some have had great success. “Union jobs would be ideal for these workers” says Chitambla “But in our countries those are very easy, quick money kind of jobs and they don’t have the level of certifications that are required for them to do construction in the US. A lot of them would jump onto that opportunity to work here, but it’s a challenge because they lack the certifications.”

Regional organizer for the Laborers Union (LIUNA) John Shedlock, recognizes the challenges, but says it’s a challenge they are committed to. Shedlock has received over 30 applications for LIUNA so far, and has been using WhatsApp to communicate with the applicants because of its useful translation feature. This kind of clear communication and with help of other organizations like the MIRC, can help get these workers set up with in demand courses like OSHA certifications free of cost, this alone would be a giant step.

“We have worked hard in these communities to build rapport and trust, and will continue to do so. And we are union construction workers after all, so we don’t just build, we also know a thing or two about demolition. That will come in handy as we are committed to working together to remove barriers and break down the walls that may have previously stood between our immigrant population and Maine’s construction industry.” said Shedlock.

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