American Renaissance

Organized Labor has a Latino Face

Today’s organizers follow trail blazed by immigrants before them.

Gannett news service, The, Jan. 24

WASHINGTON — Federico Reyes, a union organizer in Reno, Nev., is the new face of organized labor.

In 1976, Reyes left Mexico to become a farm worker in California. He moved to Reno a year later to seek a better job in the city that is a gambling mecca, and worked as a dishwasher and kitchen helper. Twenty years later, he led a bitter struggle to organize one of the city’s largest hotels, the Hilton.

Now the 46-year-old is a top organizer for the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union, and a leader of Local 86.

“Now 60 to 70 percent of the nation’s hotel workers are Latinos,” Reyes said.

“And they, just like everybody else, know that organizing gives you respect as well as economic benefits.”

Today’s immigrants from Latin America are doing what the Irish, Germans, Italians, Jews and others did before them: Organizing to make their issues part of labor’s agenda.

This can be seen in the flip-flops that the AFL-CIO and other labor organizations have done on immigration. Unions that once lobbied for closed borders because they believed immigrant labor would depress salaries and rob their members of jobs now are reaching out to newcomers to this country to swell the rank and file.

“What’s happened is that we have awakened this monster,” said Linda Chavez-Thompson, the second-ranking official at the AFL-CIO.

Nearly 10 years ago, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney and Treasurer Richard Trumka decided they needed diversity in their top ranks and tapped her to be the labor federation’s executive vice president.

“(Unions) recognize that Latinos are a growing population in the work force,” said Pete Maturino, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 1096 in Salinas. “They are training more organizers and business representatives and filling positions at the international level with qualified Latinos.”

Chavez-Thompson said, “The unions need to look like the people they’re trying to organize.”

Labor began to woo low-wage and largely undocumented Latinos about 10 years ago, seeking to organize poultry workers, carpet makers, janitors and construction tradesmen.

At the same time, dozens of Latinos have moved into leadership positions in unions, including Eliseo Medina, head of Service Employees International Union; Miguel Contreras, head of the Los Angeles County Central Labor Council; and Maria Elena Durazo, head of Los Angeles’ hotel employees union local.

In Monterey County, Latinos hold top positions in several union locals representing thousands of workers in agricultural, hotel, restaurant, trucking, health and government jobs.

“We can’t train organizers that speak Spanish fast enough,”

Chavez-Thompson said.

1.6 million union members

The number of Latinos who are union members has grown by 400,000 in the past decade. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, unions had 1.2 million Latino members in 1992 and 1.6 million in 2002.

“Latinos are the largest-growing membership in our rank-and-file,” said Wren Bradley, a Monterey County field representative for SEIU Local 535. “It’s incumbent upon the labor movement to be recognizing these folks.”

But the percentage of Latinos who are union members has declined in the past 10 years because the economic slowdown of the past few years has hit economic sectors such as tourism, manufacturing and the apparel industry that disproportionately hire Latinos.

While all union membership fell in the past 10 years, the share of Latinos who are union members has declined more rapidly.

Even so, Latinos are the fastest growing segment of society and many expect that the decline in Latino union membership will reverse itself, said Michelle Waslin, National Council of La Raza’s senior immigration policy director.

“It also helps that there’s a tradition of strong unions in Latin America,” Waslin said.

Sometimes, labor’s plans to recruit more Latinos have hit bumps in the road.

Rocio Saenz was fighting her toughest battle as a union organizer in summer 2002 — and winning — when she was blindsided.

Then the new head of Boston’s SEIU Local 254, Saenz, 40, was battling for higher wages for the city’s janitors and getting favorable media coverage and strong public support.

But the publicity about her organizing efforts startled a group within her local.

Irish and Italian immigrants founded the SEIU local in Boston. But in the past 20 years, it has become largely Latino — about 70 percent of its members are Latinos — and that did not sit well with non-Latino skilled trade members who worked as custodians at Harvard and Boston’s other colleges and universities, Saenz said.

“They saw the press accounts and said, ‘Wait a minute, who are these people?’“ said Saenz, whose organizing work in California inspired the 2000 feature film about the Justice for Janitors’ campaign, “Bread and Roses.”

Up through the ranks

Saenz said she’s had several rough meetings with non-Latino local members who thought the new members were hijacking their union. She’s still working to tamp down discontent.

Saen’Zs boss, SEIU head Eliseo Medina, also worked his way up labor ranks.

Medina, a native of Zacatecas, Mexico, moved to the United States with his family when he was 8 years old.

Medina tried to help his family by working in the fields. He remembers the first day he met Cesar Chavez, the celebrated founder of the first Latino-led U.S. labor organization, the United Farm Workers. It was Sept. 16, 1965, at a rally.

“I got so inspired,” Medina said. “The next morning, I opened my piggy bank to pay three months of union dues in advance.”

Medina called the United Farm Workers “a breeding ground and training camp for thousands and thousands of Latino activists.”

Social justice ‘embedded’

The UFW movement gave rise to “social justice” issues embraced by organized labor today, Bradley said. “Only in the last 10 years have social justice issues been embedded in the labor movement,” Bradley said.

Arturo Rodriguez, who replaced Chavez as farm workers’ leader, pushed the AFL-CIO to adopt a resolution at its 2000 convention that was a complete turnabout on its immigration stance.

“Standing Up for Immigrant Workers — A Call to Action” urged the legalization of immigrant workers and their families and a repeal of federal sanctions against employers who hire undocumented workers.

“I think,” Rodriguez said, “everybody realizes that it’s a whole new day.”

But President Bush’s plan to temporarily legalize millions of undocumented workers may hurt labor’s tactics. Chavez-Thompson called the president’s plan, which Congress must approve to become law, “a hollow promise for hardworking Hispanics.”

President’s proposal

Chavez-Thompson said Bush’s proposal is “a little bit worse than the old bracero program,” a guest-worker system created during World War II that brought thousands of Mexican farm workers to the United States while America’s young farmers were overseas.

Bush’s plan would allow foreign residents and undocumented workers who can prove they have a job or a job offer from a U.S. employer to qualify for a three-year temporary work visa. Those approved would be able to renew their visas for an additional three years, but they would have to return to their home countries when the renewed visa expires.

“It will create a permanent underclass of workers and undermine wages for all workers,” she said.

Maturino said Latinos want the same things all union members want — “good wages, benefits and working conditions.”