Strange bedfellows

National union leaders do the math and switch their position on immigration

While the Spanish-speaking press in Dallas has been paying attention to the new dynamic between these groups, the mainstream media have been slow to report the seemingly sluggish development of dovetailing movements.

"When the AFL-CIO made their announcement in February, CNN came down and interviewed us here. Since then there's been silence, with the exception of the Communist newspaper (the People's Weekly World). They've followed every step," says Paul Kerr, director of the Center for Human Rights in Dallas. Kerr has appointed his group--and himself--as the main liaison between unions and human rights groups in Dallas, an appointment that regional AFL-CIO leaders were quick to acknowledge.

But unionized workers have not been as quick to claim solidarity with immigration-rights groups.

Paul Kerr, director of the Center for Human Rights in Dallas, gives a television interview at a rally for amnesty on the Fourth of July.
Gene Lantz
Paul Kerr, director of the Center for Human Rights in Dallas, gives a television interview at a rally for amnesty on the Fourth of July.

"There is sort of a disconnect between the rank-and file members and the leadership, the kind you could find in most large organizations," says Ira Mehlman, national media director for the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), which advocates tighter immigration and is opposed to amnesty. "There's been some dissatisfaction among workers that have seen the effect of illegal immigration, the workers who have wages at stake here. A good number of union workers are not paying attention to what the national leadership is up to."

For activists like Mehlman, the AFL-CIO's policy shift was a jolt, but not a stunning one.

"We were surprised. Although labor has been on record with us, they haven't been all that active for a number of years," Mehlman says. "In the last 20 years the labor force has been entirely transformed from native-born to immigrant, and over the years these workers have replaced the old union workers."

To illustrate his point, Mehlman said janitors in Los Angeles, a work force that was predominantly African-American, now has a majority of Hispanic workers, many of them undocumented. He said the new reliance on immigrants hampered the janitors' previous attempt at unionizing because employers busted the union by hiring illegal immigrants. The new janitor's union there is now advocating for workplace rights for immigrant workers.

Even for the local AFL-CIO, the change in policy came as a shock--they had no advance warning and were notified via fax at the same time as the media. Within hours of the announcement, local reporters were calling, but the fax detailed what local union heads should say.

"We accepted it. Then as the situation arises, we support it," says AFL-CIO's Freeland. "I agree with the change in policy. It's a thing we do because it's right, not because it helps any union members."

Those who haven't been seeking support from the immigrant-rights movement have seen the numbers of Hispanics swell within their unions and are not too shocked by the new approach. In Dallas the acquiescence of local union leadership to the new policy is driven by a sense of realpolitik.

"Over the past six or seven years, there's been a big influx of Mexicans into our unions, trying to do the right thing," says Johnny Gibson, the business manager for Local 15 of the International Painters and Glazers Union, adding that 20 percent of his union is now Hispanic. "That's the work force."

Gibson says that Hispanics within his union have been rising steadily within the ranks, with many reaching the level of foreman. Gibson is retiring at the end of July--replaced by a second-generation Hispanic man.

Gibson's close working relationships with immigrant workers, both legal and illegal, have given him a front-line view of their work ethic and priorities. He has a sympathetic view of illegal immigrants and does not check too closely to see whether their Social Security cards are forged because, he says, "It's not our job." He has heard the stories of crooked employers stiffing illegal immigrants on their paychecks, with the threat of deportation hanging over any who complains.

But the AFL-CIO's national announcement was not greeted warmly by everyone in his union. "For years and years a lot of your older members would complain about 'wetbacks coming in and cutting wages,'" Gibson says. When news of February's AFL-CIO announcement swept his union, he heard more. "Initially we did, but we don't anymore. Some older members are uttering things. They kind of got racial."

But Gibson is pragmatic. "It's better with them in the union that out of the union. If they are out, then they are really hurting us bad. They're here, and you have to deal with them."

And that's the nut of it. When pundits and activists talk about the growing Hispanic influence in American politics, they are talking about numbers. They are talking about necessities. All of a sudden, the union members who called INS to round up illegal immigrants are supporting their causes and showing up--at least in name--to rallies.

Examples of more tangible joint efforts are not plentiful, but they do exist. When the unions needed a large presence while speaking before the Workers Compensation Board, a politically charged appearance that pitted unions against appointees of Gov. George W. Bush, the unions rented buses to bring immigrant-group volunteers to Austin.

"When you fill the room they listen, no matter what you're saying," Freeland says. "This was something that affects all injured workers."

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