March 16, 2001

Inn trouble

Unions shape new immigrant strategy

PALM SPRINGS — When Maria Sanchez got a job at Palm Springs' luxurious Palm Canyon residential resort in 1997, her wages came nowhere near the affluence of the establishment and its guests. She and her co-workers cleaned five complete apartments each day for $4.75 an hour.

A willingness to work hard for low pay didn't earn them respect - much the reverse. A supervisor allegedly ridiculed the workers, and it got worse. In the fall of 1999, the hotel took away their vacation pay.

By last spring, Sanchez and her co-workers had had enough. They marched into the office of Hotel Employees & Restaurant Employees (HERE) Local 309 and joined the union. During this heated labor dispute, Sanchez alleges, the same manager then took her into a backroom, and demanded that she spy on her co-workers.

The hotel hired extra security guards, dressed in uniforms the same color green as the Border Patrol. Three union supporters were suspended. Finally the workers organized a silent march outside the hotel. When more employees were fired afterward, the workers prayed in the parking lot, and then refused to go back to work.

Twenty years ago, most unions would have written off Sanchez and her fellow room cleaners. At the Palm Canyon, however, Local 309 backed the walkout completely. In the last two years, unions have done an about-face on immigration, and the attitude they take toward workers like Sanchez has changed drastically. The old political rules and alliances that limited the possibility for immigration reform have also changed. Amnesty for undocumented immigrants, which was off the radar screen in Washington just a few years ago, is now a realistic goal. And employers see opportunity as well. They want new bracero contract-labor programs, which would transform immigrant workers into an even cheaper and more vulnerable labor force than ever before.

Sanchez and her co-workers stayed out on strike for four months. She lost her house and car, and sold personal belongings to survive. The manager swore they would never work in the hotel again. But last spring, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that the hotel had violated their rights, and under the resulting legal pressure, the Palm Canyon negotiated a settlement reinstating the workers with back pay.

It wasn't over yet, however. Just as they were about to return, the hotel announced it was checking everyone's immigration papers, and only those who could verify their legal status would return. The strikers said no, and for another month walked the picket line. Finally, in May, the hotel agreed to rehire everyone. "I didn't care who had papers and who didn't," Sanchez says.

"We had to stand up for our rights. We all deserve to be respected. We decided that no one would go back until we all went back. The union didn't back down, and we won."

Carl Ellis came in as general manager at the Palm Canyon in April, and rehired workers as one of his first actions. "Working conditions here have improved, people are being treated fairly, and they receive fair wages and medical benefits," he says. While any charges of current mistreatment are false, he says, "I don't know what happened before I got here. What's past is past."

The hotel still has no union contract, however, and Maria Sanchez and eight of her coworkers were again fired in the months that followed, firings that Ellis calls "fully justified," but that the workers allege was for their continued union activity.

For labor, Sanchez's pro-union attitude in the face of these tactics looks increasingly like a beacon of hope. "This is exactly what's leading unions to change their attitude towards immigration," explains HERE president John Wilhelm. "Most unions today are at least trying to organize. And no matter what the industry, they run into immigrant workers. Immigrants are everywhere, not just in the service industry, and not just in California and the Southwest. That's what brought home the failure of the AFL-CIO's old immigration policy."

In 1986, the AFL-CIO supported the provision of the Immigration Reform and Control Act that the Palm Canyon tried to use against the strikers: employer sanctions. The law requires fines (low and rarely collected) on employers who hire undocumented workers. The real effect of the law is on the workers themselves, making it illegal for them to hold a job.

AFL-CIO support for sanctions rested on the idea that if it became illegal for the undocumented to work, fewer immigrants would come to the U.S., while those working here illegally would return home. The reality proved far different. Sanctions had almost no effect on halting the flow of migrants into the U.S., but they did drastically undermine their rights once they were here, with devastating consequences. Since 1986, it has become common for companies to break organizing drives by demanding that workers verify their immigration status, and firing those who can't or won't.

Since 1986, the organizing efforts of immigrant workers have become more important to unions. Last year, the percentage of U.S. workers belonging to
unions dropped from 13.9 percent to 13.5 percent, and fell to 9 percent in the private sector. For the overall percentage to stay constant, unions have to organize 400,000 workers a year. To increase by 1 percent, they have to organize twice that number. And the AFL-CIO proposes a goal of organizing 1 million workers yearly, a rate not achieved since the 1940s.

The Palm Canyon scenario is not an anomaly - immigrants represent a section of the work force with a long track record of labor activism. Defending their right to organize clearly benefits unions. "Every period of significant growth in the labor movement was fueled by organizing activity among immigrant workers," Wilhelm says. "We're a labor movement of immigrants, and we always have been."

Last February, the AFL-CIO executive council adopted a resolution calling for immigration amnesty for the country's 6 million undocumented, and the repeal of employer sanctions. The federation also organized a series of hearings to expose the violation of immigrant workers' rights. The last hearing, in Los Angeles in June, drew 20,000 people, who filled the Sports Arena and spilled over into the streets outside.

The hearings were backed up by marches around the country. In January, the Labor Immigrant Organizing Network organized a march of 5,000 people through Oakland's Latino Fruitvale neighborhood - the third labor-backed immigrant-rights march in Northern California in a year, following ones in San Jose and Sacramento.

Given the outpouring of labor support for reform, many immigrant activists assumed that the AFL-CIO's change in position would result in a major campaign for amnesty and for repealing sanctions. Yet no bill was introduced into Congress last year calling for this. Instead, in April, Henry Cisneros, past secretary of housing and urban development, proposed that unions and immigrant communities support expansion of the H-IB program, which supplies contract labor to high-tech industry. In return, he suggested, Congress could be persuaded to pass proposals to end discrimination against Central American and Haitian refugees, to gain fair treatment for late applicants for the last immigration amnesty, and other reforms.

Cisneros' prediction was wrong. The Republican majority in Congress was ultimately able to pass H-IB without those amendments (the vote in the House was unanimous, and only Ernest Hollings dissented in the Senate). No campaign was mounted against H-IB expansion by unions or civil rights groups.

"I don't think the H-IB strategy was the right one," says Eliseo Medina, executive vice president of the Service Employees International Union and a leading immigration strategist. "High-tech was only interested in its own issue, and had no desire to link it to any broader program. We also tried to pass a more limited set of reforms, and in the end, we got a minor amnesty, which may affect 600,000 to 800,000 people."

The administration pledged support to these more limited goals, and for presidential candidate Al Gore, the absence in Congress of a broad amnesty bill repealing sanctions was good news. He didn't have to open himself up to a Republican attack by supporting such a proposal, or lose the Latino vote in states like California by opposing it.

With the Bush administration in office, the political terrain is changing quickly. In January, Texas Senator Phil Gramm, the most anti-immigrant voice in Congress, flew to Mexico City to meet new Mexican President Vicente Fox, a former Coca-Cola executive with close links to major Mexican and U.S. corporations. On his return, Gramm announced that he and Fox had discussed a vast expansion of bracero contract-labor programs. "We have got a lot of people interested in this issue and believe the time has come to stop sweeping this under the rug," Gramm told reporters. "It is delusional not to recognize that illegal aliens already hold millions of jobs in the United States with the implicit permission of governments at every level, as well as companies and communities."

President Bush's visit to Fox last month also led to flowery proclamations of their mutual interest in protecting immigrants. Under the rhetoric, however, the two administrations will probably be able to agree on only one significant change in U.S. immigration law: an expansion of contract labor. Bush is likely to hail such programs as a way of legalizing Mexican immigrants in the U.S., hoping the claim will buy Latino votes in coming elections. At the same time, contract labor gives large sections of U.S. industry (his main campaign contributors) what they want: immigrant workers at guaranteed low wages.

Bush opposes a real immigration amnesty, which is anathema to most Republicans. Fox does support amnesty for the undocumented. But contract-labor programs would also allow it to appear that he's pushing opportunities for legal immigration.

U.S. agribusiness has long sought expansion of its existing guest-worker program. At the end of the last congressional session, agribusiness persuaded farm-worker unions to agree to an arrangement that would have set up a legalization program for undocumented farm laborers, in exchange for relaxation of wage and housing requirements for growers using the guest-worker program. The Republican right wing, opposing any amnesty at all, killed the proposal at the last moment. But guest-worker expansion in agriculture is sure to resurface in Congress.

In the Midwest, meatpackers want contract labor, and Nebraska Governor Mike Johanns has endorsed the idea. "We're going to have a big fight this year," union leader Medina predicts. "The Republicans think that a stolen presidency gives them a free hand, and Gramm's new bracero program is going to be front and center on their agenda. I think they'll introduce a comprehensive bill. Even nursing-home employers want guest workers now."

Opposition from unions and the Latino and Asian/Pacific Islander communities to guest-worker programs stems from the historical record of the old bracero program, under which growers brought contract farm workers from Mexico during the 1940s and '50s. Cesar Chavez was able to begin organizing the United Farm Workers only when workers became free of the contract-labor system. While guaranteed labor rights on paper, so-called guest workers depend on the continuation of a job to remain in the country. Employers therefore not only have the power to fire workers who protest bad conditions and organize, but in effect to deport them as well.

The official position of the AFL-CIO opposes the expansion of existing programs, and calls for labor protections for guest workers. But that position is likely to harden. "I don't think it's possible to have labor protections for contract workers," says Wilhelm, who heads the federation's immigration committee. "To think the law will protect people whose right to stay in the country ends with their job is not living in the real world."

While fighting guest-worker schemes, labor is preparing to introduce its own program. "We're also going to put forward a comprehensive agenda, which will include legalization, repeal of employer sanctions, and workplace protections regardless of legal status," Medina says. At the immigration march in Oakland, the new president of the Laborers International Union, Terence O'Sullivan (also a member of the AFL-CIO immigration committee), announced support for five general proposals, including a broad legalization program, repeal of employer sanctions, opposition to contract labor, and protection for the right to organize. A fifth point, especially important to Asian-American immigrants, calls for increased ability to reunite families in the U.S.

Illinois Congressman Luis Gutierrez introduced one bill at the end of January to end discrimination against Central American and Haitian refugees, and another at the beginning of February to move the immigration-registry date closer to 2001, allowing those immigrants who arrived before to normalize their status. No bill repealing sanctions or containing the other program points has been introduced yet, however.

Despite Republican control of both the White House and Congress, labor strategists think real reform is possible. "There is a coalition out there which can win," Medina emphasizes. "We need immigrant communities to unite. We have to strengthen labor support, and we need churches, especially the Catholic Church, which has historically been the most active. Even some sectors of business will support us."

Wilhelm says, "We're going to go to all members of Congress and ask them to sign on. If we can get the Democrats, and part of the Republicans, we can make a great law. If not, this will be our opportunity to punish those who oppose it on a national level, the way Pete Wilson and the Republicans were punished in California."

He compares the potential impact of the immigrant vote to that of African-Americans. "The Democratic Party can rely on the votes of African-Americans today because some people in it supported the African-American freedom movement. Those who didn't are still paying the price. It's going to be the same with the votes of immigrants."

While immigrant-rights advocates have traditionally seen immigration as a civil rights issue, not all parts of the civil rights movement do so. In part, this is due to the way the U.S. economy pits workers against each other. In Silicon Valley, African-American and Latino engineers have waged a protracted effort to break down discriminatory barriers in high-tech hiring. In the debate over HI-B, civil rights groups pointed out that increasing the number of contract-labor visas makes it more difficult to open up jobs for engineers of color, in an industry where the percentage of African-American and Latino engineers is very low.

In Los Angeles, the wave of immigrants that has provided the votes now changing its political landscape, and that has become the backbone of union-organizing drives among janitors and hotel workers, also displaced an earlier generation of African-American workers in those same industries. "Twenty years ago, our union was heavily reliant on black workers, many of whom were leaders of our locals," Wilhelm says. "Today, hotels and janitorial contractors no longer hire them. The work force should fairly reflect the community. It's not responsible to support the rights of immigrant workers and not support people who've paid their dues, and I don't mean union dues." L.A.'s Local 11 is going to the hotels this year to ask them to address the matter. If they don't, the union plans to organize a campaign to force the issue.

Republican support for bracero programs may actually clarify the immigration debate. Republicans, the AFL-CIO and immigrant-rights activists all agree on one thing: The choice to be made is not over what will or won't stop people from coming across the border, but over their status in the U.S.

Migrant Rights International, based in Switzerland, estimates that 150 million people in the world live outside their countries of birth. Neoliberal economic reforms, and the transfer of enormous wealth from developing to developed countries, make survival impossible for millions of people. Many cope by migrating to countries with greater employment possibilities and higher standards of living.

U.S. investment in Mexico (the source of most migrants to the U.S.), and the low-wage economic climate fostered by the governments of both countries to encourage it, push people north along with repatriated profits. But under the neoliberal rules of free trade, profits and investment have free passage across the border. People don't.

U.S. immigration law and the increasing militarization of the border cannot stop this flow of migrants. Behind the debate over immigration reform lies a larger question: Should immigration law be used to supply labor to industry, on terms it finds acceptable, or is its purpose the protection of the rights and welfare of immigrants themselves?

"The nature of the fight is over what happens to people when they're here," says Medina. "People who are here won't go home. No matter what, we're going to have to deal with their issues."

Reprinted from the L.A. Weekly, March 9-15, 2001

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