Members of the Service Employees (SEIU) in Northern California are demanding just immigration reform. That’s not too surprising. For the past two decades, SEIU has been one of organized labor’s strongest advocates for immigrant rights.
This campaign, however, pits SEIU members not against anti-immigrant employers or politicians, but against their union’s top officials. Dubbing their campaign, “No Worker is Illegal,” members of SEIU throughout California are demanding that their union’s leaders retract their support of immigration reform legislation like the recent Hegel-Martinez and McCain-Kennedy bills.
McCain-Kennedy, which will likely be the model for any immigration reform bill proposed by the incoming, Democratically-controlled Congress, would have established a federal “guest worker” program, under which employers could hire immigrant workers on a temporary basis without providing them a guaranteed path to citizenship.
McCain-Kennedy would have also further militarized the U.S.-Mexico border and leveled sanctions against employers who hire undocumented immigrants.
Renee Saucedo, a member of SEIU Local 790 in San Francisco and a leader of the “No Worker is Illegal” campaign, says that these provisions could have disastrous consequences for immigrant workers and SEIU. She asks, “How are we supposed to organize workplaces with these kind of laws?
“[Guest worker] programs make immigrants more vulnerable and less likely to take the risks that go along with joining a unionEmployer sanctions can lead to discrimination, since some employers will try to avoid hiring immigrants altogether-or anyone who looks or talks like them.”
Frustrated with their international’s position, members of Local 790 began reaching out to members of other SEIU locals in California earlier this year.
According to Local 790 member Brian Cruz, members of Locals 87, 535, 949, and United Healthcare
Workers-West (a statewide health care workers local) became interested in building a campaign.
On October 12, SEIU members and staff from these locals got together and decided they would push the SEIU International Executive Board to address immigration reform at its January 2007 meeting. Their first task was to get the international’s attention.
TAKING IT TO THE TOP
Luckily, SEIU International President Andy Stern was in the San Francisco area promoting his new book, A Country that Works. Saucedo and a few allies attended one of Stern’s readings and persuaded him to meet with them.
Saucedo remembers, “We explained to him that this was not just San Francisco, that [opposition to McCain-Kennedy] was a widespread sentiment. He gave us different responses, ranging from ‘Kennedy-McCain was the only viable bill’ to ‘the SEIU membership is still pretty conservative on this issue.’
“We told him that as a union, we should never be supporting anything that hurts workers-like guest worker, employer sanctions.”
According to Saucedo, Stern next sent out SEIU’s head immigration policy person, Cuc Vu, to meet with the “No Worker is Illegal” folks. Says Saucedo, “We had a five hour meeting with her. She came with the Washington, D.C. lobbying perspectivemade a lot of the same arguments as Stern.”
SEIU’s international office did not respond to multiple calls for comment.
Saucedo doesn’t find Stern and Vu’s arguments convincing. She notes that SEIU took a strong position against the war in Iraq even though there are certainly “sections of the union that were for the war. We want the same thing on immigration.”
More than a fear of backlash, Local 790 member Brian Cruz thinks the primary reason the SEIU international is supporting guest worker is that “SEIU sees building partnerships with employers as the way to build the union.
“It’s the way Andy Stern spells it out in his book. He calls it ‘Team U.S.A., workers and corporations working hand in hand against competitors around the world.'”
Cruz notes that as recently as 1999, “SEIU was a big part of the push to support amnesty for all immigrant workers. When guest worker started coming out, [SEIU Vice President] Eliseo Medina came out against it.
“Now,” Cruz continues, “Medina’s calling guest worker ‘a step in the right direction.'” Cruz believes that beneath the partnership strategy, “There’s a lot of skepticism about the immigrant movement. The feeling is, they don’t believe we can build a strong movement, so we’d better take the best the politicians have to offer.”
For now, No Worker is Illegal plans to pressure the executive board during the lead-up to its January meeting. Whatever happens, Cruz says that SEIU members will continue to push for a general amnesty for immigrants.
As long as there are undocumented workers, says Cruz, “employers will use them as a wedge to thwart any organizing. Trying to build a fair compromise around guest worker is pie-in-the-sky.”
WILLIAM JOHNSON is co-editor of Labor Notes.