Survival tactic stirs up unions
Survival tactic stirs up unions
Enrolling immigrants, legal or not, is on the rise but rankles some.
By Susan Ferriss - Bee Staff Writer
Published October 1, 2007
IN A SMALL office tucked inside a southeast Sacramento warehouse, a
journeyman with Oakland-based Roofers Union Local 81 told apprentices -- in
English and Spanish -- to listen up.
Teaching a bilingual seminar for union members puts Victor Garrido on the
front lines of his AFL-CIO-based union's push to recruit immigrants,
including the undocumented, with guarantees of better pay, career
development, pensions and health insurance.
It's a survival tactic for unions, whose leaders see their foreign-born
membership increasing and argue that inclusiveness protects all workers. But
it's one that can confound not just outsiders but some union rank and file,
who fear the presence of illegal immigrants in general erodes working
It's also a philosophical shift that has unions increasingly clashing with
the federal Department of Homeland Security, which regulates immigration.
The AFL-CIO -- the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial
Organizations -- challenged Homeland Security last month in a lawsuit that
temporarily halted a campaign to identify illegal immigrants through Social
Security information. The union joined the American Civil Liberties Union in
the original filing, since joined by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
A hearing on that challenge is scheduled today in federal district court in
Unions also have urged Congress to allow long-time, tax-paying undocumented
workers to earn legal status. They've denounced the July indictment of an
Iowa United Food and Commercial Workers union official charged with
harboring illegal immigrants and this year's Immigration and Customs
Enforcement raids at meatpacking plants.
"These raids are almost thuggish," said John Wilhelm, New York-based
president of the hospitality section of the hotel, restaurant and garment
workers' union, UNITE HERE. That union, which split from the AFL-CIO in
2005, has joined the federation's suit against Homeland Security.
The AFL-CIO, the nation's biggest labor network, once supported sanctions
against employers who hired illegal immigrants. But in 2000, leaders
reversed course, concluding that employers could exploit with impunity
because punishment was rare and fines meager.
"We had employers even calling raids on themselves," to get rid of workers
involved in union drives, said the union's immigration project director, Ana
* * *
During Garrido's class, immigration wasn't part of the curriculum. Students
leafed through manuals, in English or Spanish, as Garrido quizzed them on
waterproofing roofs and the hazards of combustible materials. Half a dozen
students, some fresh off the job in tar-stained clothes, were immigrants.
"No se olviden de traer sus talones -- don't forget to bring your pay stubs
in," Garrido reminded them. Later, he reflected on his goal, and the
"We want laborers to come into the union and to set a standard," Garrido
said. "Where you get abuse is where the immigrant comes in and gets paid
Jesus Jasso, an undocumented union roofer from the Bay Area, applauded the
"We're all paying dues and taxes every day," he said in Spanish and fluent
English. "We've got medical and dental insurance, and we perform community
service through the union. ... I may have come without documents. But I have
tried to do everything else right."
But the roofing union's shifting stance was a matter of debate among
After class, Joshua Garcia said he was not entirely comfortable sharing the
workplace with undocumented workers. Employers, Garcia said, "need to get on
the phone" and call the Social Security Administration to see if workers' ID
cards are real. Hiring undocumented workers, he charged, "is just to justify
the laziness of Americans," he said.
Another U.S-born apprentice, Brennan Wade, 20, laughed and pointed at
Garcia, who is Mexican-American, calling him a racist.
Wade said it made sense to him to bring as many roofers as possible into the
union, though he conceded that he was "not too sure what we should do" about
Back at Garrido's union office in Oakland, business representative Doug
Ziegler, a former Marine and roofer since 1960, said he often feels torn
over immigration, too.
"As an American citizen I feel that people born here should get jobs first,"
Ziegler said. "By the same token, I represent young guys who come here
illegally, and they're extremely hardworking."
* * *
The union's change of heart is partly a function of facing facts: Only 12
percent of the U.S. workforce is unionized today, and while the number of
U.S.-born union workers declined 9 percent in the last decade, the number of
immigrants in unions grew 30 percent, according to a new study by the
Migration Policy Institute, a pro-immigrant research group in Washington,
Robert Balgenorth, president of the California chapter of the AFL-CIO's
Building and Construction Trades Department, pointed out that union strength
in the housing-construction industry has waned dramatically as undocumented
workers arrived not just from Latin America but also from places such as
Ireland, Russia and Scotland.
Allowing workers to earn legal status, and be bolder, Balgenorth said, would
help unions replenish their ranks.
Union leaders such as Balgenorth recognize that consensus on immigration
issues is particularly hard to reach in some labor niches. Antonio
Christian, a Bay Area representative of the U.S. Coalition of Black Trade
Unionists, said opinions differ in his union depending on where members live
and what jobs they do.
But his own view, the Teamsters Union trucker said, is that "you should give
people the opportunity to get legal. ... We let this happen."
Union leaders who support the shift generally advocate not just for
understanding historical context, but also for compassion.
"The bottom line here is we are talking about human beings," said Dan Smith,
a San Jose-based business representative for Roofers Union Local 95.
"If everybody who was undocumented disappeared, I think people would be
shocked to see their neighbors gone. They'd say, 'I didn't mean you. I meant
the guy on TV who committed crimes,' " said Smith, who wrote his college
thesis on the issue.
Excluding illegal immigrants from unions, Smith said, also is
"They'll go into the underground economy," he said.
Karl Bik, business representative for the Cement Masons International Local
400 in Sacramento, said he knows some of his union brothers disagree with
him, but he believes, "If they're here illegally, let's immerse them. Make
"I don't know what we'd do without the Mexican labor force," said Bik, 56, a
union member since he was 19. "They're the salt of the earth."
Wilhelm, UNITE HERE's leader, made it clear that he doesn't favor "having
open borders, or no laws at all." But, he said, Americans have fallen prey
to what he called demagogic reactions to illegal immigration.
UNITE HERE is part of a coalition, Change to Win, that includes union
janitors, home health-care workers and farmworkers. Wilhelm argued that
illegal immigration exists partly because jobs in those industries can't be
filled domestically. The current quota of several thousand work-based visas
a year aren't enough, he said.
"I'm all for having them come legally," he said. "The problem is under this
obsolete immigration system we can't admit enough people to meet the needs
of the economy."
* * *
Though the AFL-CIO's suit against Homeland Security is based partly on a
relatively technical legal question -- Does Homeland Security have a legal
right to view Social Security letters? -- the opposition also includes a
dose of reality.
The Social Security Administration long has mailed out routine letters that
inform employers if an employee's name and Social Security number don't
match up. Homeland Security wants to insert notices in those mailings
warning employers that they must fire any employee who doesn't clear up a
no-match situation in 90 days -- or face prosecution.
The problem, according to the AFL-CIO, is that most no-match problems
involve citizens and legal immigrants, who could end up fired.
The unions also argue another fundamental point: Homeland Security has no
legal right to see lists of who receives these Social Security letters, a
contention that Homeland Security now acknowledges is true.
But the bigger question, according to the AFL-CIO's Avendaņo, is whether the
no-match effort will even work.
"Is this really going to stop illegal immigration?" she asked. "No. ...
Unscrupulous employers will just throw those letters away."
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