Thursday, January 04, 2007

[olympiaworkers] SEIU and Immigration

SEIU Members Push Their Union to Change Its Position on Immigration
No Worker is Illegal

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
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.


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

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

"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

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

"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.

For more information about the No Worker is Illegal Campaign, email or go to

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