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Illegal Immigrants, Unite!
And under the union banner, too

May 8, 2006

At the big pro-illegal-immigration rally on the Mall in Washington on April 10, thousands of demonstrators held aloft dark blue signs that read, “We Are America.” Below those words, in smaller letters, was the name “New American Opportunity Campaign,” and below that was a web address, www.cirnow.org.

Although not obvious at first glance, the small print on the signs said something important about the aggressive new drive to win acceptance of illegal immigrants. A visit to the website www.cirnow.org — those letters stand for “Comprehensive Immigration Reform Now” — leads to a site for the New American Opportunity Campaign, which in turn leads to a request for donations to an organization called the Coalition for Comprehensive Immigration Reform. “Opportunities should be provided for undocumented immigrants currently living in the U.S. to receive work permits and travel permission and access educational opportunities once they undergo background and security checks,” says the groups’ platform. “Those who want to settle in the United States should be eligible for permanent residence and citizenship.” Both organizations list the same address: 1775 K Street NW, Suite 620, in downtown Washington.

As it happens, that is the Washington headquarters of UNITE HERE, the labor union formed a few years ago by the merger of the Union of Needletrades, Industrial, and Textile Employees, and the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union. UNITE HERE — which represents about 460,000 workers in the U.S. and Canada but hopes to unionize millions of newly arrived, low-paid, unskilled immigrant workers — played a major role in organizing the Washington rally, as well as other pro-illegal-immigration events across the country.

Joining UNITE HERE in the immigration fight is the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which represents about 1.8 million workers in the U.S. and Canada. “You need to legalize the 11 million people who are here on an undocumented status,” a top SEIU official told the liberal Air America radio network recently. “Many of them are our members.” The chief organizer and spokesman of the Washington rally was a man named Jaime Contreras, who heads the local SEIU chapter and is also in charge of what is called the National Capital Immigration Coalition, a mix of labor, business, church, and civil-rights groups that staged the event.

In fact, SEIU and UNITE HERE, along with a few others like the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, are key sources of money, talent, and organization in the nationwide campaign to legalize illegal immigrants. “The leadership of organized labor is one of the reasons these marches have been so big,” says Mark Krikorian, executive director of the pro-enforcement Center for Immigration Studies, “because there is [a union] infrastructure everywhere to get people mobilized, to rent the buses, to print the signs. All that stuff is important, and that’s the advantage that organized labor still has.”

The involvement of major unions represents an extraordinary change from just 20 years ago, when labor, embracing the generally accepted proposition that importing millions of low-wage workers would drive down the wages of American workers, still played its traditional role of working to limit illegal immigration and to punish employers for hiring illegal aliens. “Historically, American labor unions have defended the American worker, and immigration has been secondary,” says Vernon Briggs, a professor of labor economics at Cornell University. “The labor-union movement was founded mostly by immigrants — Samuel Gompers was an immigrant — but it never confused the immigrant agenda with the interest of American workers.”

Why the change? It’s all about political power — a labor movement on the decline hoping that a growing immigrant population will help it reclaim the political clout of years past. As recently as the 1980s, the portion of the American workforce that was unionized stood at about 20 percent. Now, it’s 12.5 percent. With that decline has come declining political influence; the plain fact is that union leaders cannot deliver the votes they could in the past. Even with high voter turnout among union households, the unions’ clout is disappearing. To regain some of their old influence, they must have new members.

And where to find those new members? Among the ranks of illegal, unskilled, low-paid immigrants. “This is something where the unions were affected by their shifting base, by the composition of their own memberships,” says the liberal, pro-union writer Harold Meyerson. Looking around at the big crowd on the Mall, Meyerson adds, “That’s what drove this, I think, more than anything else — and the realization that if they are going to continue to grow, given the sectors they’ve targeted, there are lots of immigrants in those sectors. So it’s why Willie Sutton robbed banks. If there are new members to be had, that’s where they are.”

And, should the unions’ program be enacted into law, new members will ultimately mean new — and overwhelmingly Democratic — voters. “Today we march,” Jaime Contreras told the rally in Washington. “Tomorrow we vote!”

The rallies in Washington and Los Angeles and Chicago and Dallas and dozens of other cities — each attended by tens of thousands of people waving American flags — presented a picture of a unity. But that unity does not extend to the entire labor movement, because what is good for unions like SEIU and UNITE HERE is not necessarily good for all unions. Has anyone seen the United Auto Workers at the forefront of the pro-illegal-immigration movement? No, and it’s not likely to happen anytime soon. But the fact is that the UAW is losing influence in the labor movement. In mid-April, the Labor Department announced that the union lost more than 65,000 members in 2005, bringing its total membership to about 557,000 workers — a figure far below its peak, in 1970, of 1.6 million workers. With fewer jobs to protect, and dramatic downsizing among its workers at General Motors and Ford, the UAW — along with other old-line groups like the miners — has little influence on the direction that organized labor is taking on the immigration issue. “They are yesterday’s unions,” says Mark Krikorian. “The membership is older, they are in industries that are having real problems. They are not going to have the same kind of pull within the councils of organized labor.”

So organized labor has moved on. The key event in its evolution came in 2000, when the AFL-CIO executive council abandoned its support of employee sanctions and instead voted in favor of giving amnesty to all illegal immigrants (about 6 million at the time). “The world has changed, and it hasn’t just changed for unions,” John Wilhelm, president of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union (before its merger with UNITE), told the Los Angeles Times in February 2000. “I’m not so sure people aren’t rethinking earlier views. From a cold political perspective, if the labor movement and the immigrant communities and churches can generate sufficient momentum, I’m not so sure that we can’t be successful.”

They have not yet reached their goal — amnesty — but there’s no denying that they have made significant progress. And for unions like SEIU and UNITE HERE, more members will likely mean more progress. “They really do believe that this is their ticket to increased numbers in the future,” says Vernon Briggs. The formula is simple: More immigrants means more members means more influence and, ultimately, more voters. So far, it’s working.

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