Unions Do a U-Turn on Immigrant Worker Issue


California’s labor unions have a history of stomping on Latino and Asian immigrants, blaming them along with exploitative employers for driving down American wages.

In the 1970s, even the revered labor leader Cesar Chavez called illegal immigrants from Mexico a “severe problem,” and he routinely reported undocumented farm workers to federal authorities.

Yet today, the state’s top labor leaders are among the most forceful opponents of Proposition 187, the ballot measure intended to crack down on illegal immigrants by denying them many public services.


What prompted organized labor to stop shunning undocumented workers and instead join immigrant rights activists in fighting the measure, even back when defeating it seemed nearly hopeless?

The reasons reflect a mix of idealism and self-interest and represent both the current political climate along with a gradual evolution in the California labor movement.

All told, blaming illegal immigrants for today’s economic problems “is not the answer,” said David Sickler, regional director of the AFL-CIO district encompassing California, Hawaii and Nevada.

An emerging generation of California labor leaders envisions poorly paid foreign-born workers--regardless of their immigration status--as becoming a booming new base of support for U.S. unions. They are heartened by major union organizing victories in recent years involving immigrant drywallers and janitors, among other workers.

As such, they are more or less following the path taken by Chavez, the late president of the United Farm Workers union, who eventually reversed his position on undocumented Mexican workers and came to regard them as part of the UFW’s natural constituency.

But other factors also figure in organized labor’s decision to fight Proposition 187, a step that has brought together the state’s most conservative and liberal union leaders.

If the measure passes and survives court challenges, such unionized workers as teachers and nurses could inherit the additional burden of enforcing immigration laws--if cuts in federal funds stemming from the initiative don’t eliminate their jobs.

Meanwhile, more traditional unionists are comfortable opposing Proposition 187 because it is so closely associated with Gov. Pete Wilson, a politician they regard as blatantly anti-union.

Perhaps the least likely members of the labor coalition are the state’s building trades unions, which are opposing Proposition 187 even as they continue calling for tougher penalties for employing illegal immigrants.

Tim Cremins, a lobbyist with the state Building and Construction Trades Council, explained that the measure would do nothing to keep job-seeking illegal immigrants from coming to California.

Cremins acknowledged that many construction workers in California are angry about jobs in the industry being taken by illegal immigrants, but he said the frustration “shouldn’t be taken out on innocent people and children” who would be denied non-emergency medical care and public education.

To be sure, the pronouncements of labor leaders won’t dictate how the rank and file vote. A Los Angeles Times Poll completed last week shows union members favoring Proposition 187 by a 47%-43% margin.

Perhaps the most encouraging news from the poll for labor leaders was that the margin in favor had shrunk sharply from a Times Poll taken earlier in October. In addition, the gap among union members was narrower than among all likely voters, who favored the measure 51% to 41% in the latest poll.

While some observers call union leaders courageous for opposing the initiative, others say labor officials aren’t truly risking antagonizing their members. “A tougher issue for us was gun control,” said Cremins, referring to labor’s campaign for Proposition 15, an unsuccessful state ballot measure in 1982 that would have restricted handgun sales.

Over the last two or three decades, many rank-and-file union members have come to expect labor leaders to take positions more liberal than their own and feel no need to vote along union lines.

That’s the case with Waymann C. Carlson, a professor of education at Southern California College in Costa Mesa and a member of an affiliate of the California Teachers Assn. He plans to vote for Proposition 187 because he believes it is wrong for illegal immigrants to receive public services.

Leaders of the CTA, Carlson said, “represent a lot of positions that I don’t hold. . . . I find myself at odds with them on political grounds more often than I’m with them.”

For labor leaders seeking to strengthen the flagging U.S. labor movement, finding common ground with the nation’s growing immigrant communities is a natural strategy. Union leaders “all understand that this is the work force out there, and these people aren’t going back to Mexico, Latin America or wherever if this thing passes,” said the AFL-CIO’s Sickler.

Winning the membership of illegal immigrant workers themselves--not just the legal immigrants and others who support their interests--is a major goal.

“If people are working on a job, it’s not up to us to determine what their status is. But it is up to us to see that they’re getting a decent wage, if there’s anything we can do about it,” Sickler said.

Sickler maintains that the California labor movement’s support of immigrant rights issues has been developing over the last two decades and is reflected in the number of Latinos and Asian Americans rising through the union leadership ranks.

Among others, he cited Maria Elena Durazo, president of the largely Latino immigrant Local 11 of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union. She is the daughter of Mexican immigrants.

Durazo, 41, still bitterly recalls how her local--under another administration in the early 1980s--spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees to fight members who wanted union meetings and newsletters to be translated into Spanish. Today the local conducts business in both Spanish and English, though membership meetings are conducted mainly in Spanish because of the preferences of the rank and file.

The local also accepts both legal and illegal immigrants as members. Durazo said the aim is to prevent employers from driving down wages by exploiting undocumented workers.

“We’re not going to play into those games of pitting workers against each other,” she said.