How Unions Went From Border Hawks To Immigration Doves

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Eliseo Medina, secretary treasurer of the Service Employees International Union and labor’s point man on immigration, has been waiting decades for a moment like this one.

“I think we get it this year,” a smiling Medina told TPM in his office in Washington. “And if we don’t, the discussion won’t be about whether it’s coming afterwards, just what it will look like and when.”

Over his long career, Medina’s witnessed dozens of promising immigration reform efforts, only to see them countered just as often by a restrictionist backlashes — backlashes that sometimes included support from unions. But everything seems to be coming together at the right time in 2013, with a broad coalition of labor, business, religious leaders, Latino groups, and even some prominent Republicans demanding immediate action.

With victory in sight, SEIU is committing the full force of its 2.1 million members to pushing comprehensive reform in 2013, with plans for rallies around the country, education campaigns for members, and an inside game aimed at lobbying lawmakers in Washington towards a final vote. The AFL-CIO, the nation’s largest federation of unions, is on board as well; and the two sometimes rival groups are united around a common set of policy principles after splitting on President George W. Bush’s failed immigration effort. Both organizations identify passing a bill that includes a path to citizenship for the undocumented population as one of their absolute top priorities for the 113th Congress.

“The inequality created by our current immigration system is having a deeper effect on our society then anything we’ve seen in recent history,” Ana Avendaño, director of the AFL-CIO’s director of immigration and community action, told TPM. “We have 11.5 million people who really are not benefitting from the hard fought gains that the labor movement and other social movements have accomplished in this country.”

For labor, the debate may be more than just a policy question, but an existential one. Union membership has cratered in recent decades for reasons ranging from the collapse of the manufacturing sector to improved tactics by business to discourage workers from organizing. To reverse this trend, labor bet big in 2008 on card check legislation that would make it easier to form a union, but that bill languished in Congress — even with 60 Democratic senators. Outside of Washington, things only grew more dire as Republican governors enacted right to work legislation and looked to limit collective bargaining rights in states like Michigan and Wisconsin.

Under pressure from all sides, immigration reform may be labor’s last, best chance at major legislative gains under Obama. Leaders are counting on a comprehensive reform bill to boost living standards for low-wage workers currently vulnerable to exploitation, spur recruitment in growing industries, and bank goodwill with both union members and the public at large.

But it wasn’t always this way. As recently as the 1990s, the movement’s official position was, as Medina put it, “anti-immigrant or at least anti-undocumented immigrant.” And nobody had a better seat for its long shift in attitude than Medina.

From Hawks To Doves

After legally immigrating from Mexico as a child, Medina began his career picking crops in California. Starting as a teenager, he became active with Cesar Chavez’s United Farm Workers of America, moving up the ranks over a multi-year strike and boycott campaign against grape growers to unionize their workers.

As part of his efforts to pry concessions from the agricultural industry, Chavez took a hardline position against illegal immigration, which he viewed as an endless source of scab labor. At one point, the UFW deployed members to form a “wet line” along border crossings in order to harass incoming workers. Lou Dobbs, who covered Chavez as a young journalist, would later cite the campaign as a key experience in crafting his populist, anti-immigration worldview.

Medina told TPM that the UFW faced a difficult dynamic in that the vast majority of its members were legal immigrants at the time, creating natural tensions with undocumented workers who they viewed as strikebreakers.

“The growers exploited the misery of one group against the misery of the other,” he said.

Medina soon would confront an industry facing the opposite challenge. After parting ways with Chavez and the UFW, Medina joined the SEIU in 1986 and worked on Justice for Janitors, a campaign aimed at organizing custodial workers in Los Angeles and San Diego. And unlike the grape growers, a much higher proportion had immigrated to the country illegally.

“The vast majority of them were undocumented, but boy, they were just as tough and willing to fight and courageous as any other set of workers,” Medina said. “But the situation was a huge problem, because you had to deal with the question on a regular basis of what happens if people get raided, arrested, and deported.”

As the SEIU encountered similar challenges in many of its fastest growing industries, such as home health-care work, Medina agitated to revise labor’s longtime stance against undocumented workers. The momentum carried over to the AFL-CIO, which adopted a new position in 2000 calling for blanket amnesty for undocumented immigrants and condemning immigration raids against organizing workers.

For supporters of greater restrictions on immigration, like the Center for Immigration Studies’ Mark Krikorian, labor’s defection was a frustrating loss.

“It’s not just that unions are looking for more warm bodies to recruit, they’ve undergone a basic cultural change at the top to become culturally leftist in ways they weren’t before,” Krikorian said. “Americans have pretty much given up on organized labor, so organized labor is giving up on Americans.”

The AFL-CIO’s support helped boost momentum for reform during the last decade, but getting to a bill still proved a bridge too far. While Bush championed immigration reform in his second term, his plan was centered on a temporary guest worker program aimed at providing agriculture with a steady supply of seasonal labor. When the Senate made its final push at a comprehensive deal in 2007, the AFL-CIO opposed the bill, claiming business would use the guest worker program to undercut unions and that the path to citizenship for existing undocumented immigrants was too difficult. The SEIU, which had recently broken off from the AFL-CIO and whose membership included a much higher proportion of immigrant labor, decided to back the bill despite its own reservations. But in the end it fell well short of the 60 votes needed to break a filibuster, thanks to opposition not only from conservative Republicans, but from pro-labor Democrats like Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and Tom Harkin (D-IA).

What The Future Holds

While victory in 2013 is far from certain, labor leaders believe conditions have improved significantly since their disappointing 2007 effort.

For one thing, Republicans acknowledge they’re on defense this time around in a way that was not true during past reform efforts. It was easier for GOP lawmakers to minimize the role of Latino voters in their 2006 midterm losses, which most blamed on Iraq, and their role in Obama’s 2008 blowout, which many dismissed as Bush fatigue. But the 2012 results, in which Obama racked up record margins and turnout among Latinos around the country despite a sagging economy and mediocre approval ratings, are much harder to ignore.

“I think many of the politicians were saying, ‘You know, we keep hearing about this Latino giant and it’s sort of a myth,'” Medina said. “But the reality finally hit home on November 6.”

For another, the same industry groups that backed a bill in 2007 are likely to be less patient with Republicans this time around. Farmers around the country reported huge crop losses in 2012 thanks to immigration crackdowns that pushed away seasonal workers, especially in states like Alabama that passed their own hardline legislation.

Labor will inevitably butt heads with business groups like the Chamber of Commerce over how to deal with these shortages, which unions believe should be addressed by an independent commission instead of a guest worker program that ties workers to one employer. But the increased urgency should help pressure pro-business Republicans into a final deal, even if its provisions don’t perfectly match labor’s demands.

Avendaño and other labor experts caution not to expect a dramatic reversal of fortune in terms of union recruiting once a bill passes. Most of the same factors fueling labor’s decline will remain in place and undocumented workers are plenty engaged in organizing already, not only through unions but through worker advocacy groups like Domestic Workers United.

“We’re not fixing all of the conditions keeping workers from organizing,”Avendaño said. “It’s a step towards restoring the economy and giving workers a more fair shot.”

But according to Ruth Milkman, a sociologist at CUNY who researches labor and immigration, the emphasis on passing a bill does point toward an emerging focus on low wage workers that’s increasingly defining the movement. It’s not just because immigrant-heavy jobs like janitors and nurses assistants are growing the fastest. By stressing their struggles working in typically low wage jobs, the SEIU and AFL-CIO may have a better shot at winning hearts and minds outside the movement than they would by highlighting workers in industries with more generous wages and benefits.

“In that sense, the moral high ground of the labor movement unionizing efforts is in the low wage workforce and that workforce is growing like crazy even as we have high unemployment,” Milkman said. “There are jobs doing home care for sick people, restaurant dishwashing, domestic work, all expanding. Their future is in that sector — even if that doesn’t mean getting immigration reform will suddenly let them organize people.”

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