Unions square off over immigration

Times Staff Writer

Competing demands by two factions of organized labor could sink the latest immigration legislation, dividing congressional Democrats who rely on union support.

The labor divide reflects a deeper rift within the party, which includes a growing constituency of immigrants as well as middle-class workers afraid of layoffs as U.S. jobs move overseas.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. June 8, 2007 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday June 08, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 61 words Type of Material: Correction
Immigration bill: An article June 1 in Section A on how unions view the Senate immigration bill said the AFL-CIO and large industrial unions had historically seen illegal immigrants as unwanted competitors to their membership. However, in recent years, the AFL-CIO has made efforts to reach out to illegal immigrants, including an alliance last year with a network representing day laborers.

On one side of the debate are the AFL-CIO and other large industrial unions whose members have historically seen illegal immigrants as unwanted competitors.


The other side includes the Service Employees International Union, whose members have healthcare, property management and public service jobs, and Unite Here, which represents garment, hotel and restaurant workers. These unions have embraced immigrants, even those here illegally.

“One is thinking in terms of adding members, and the other is thinking in terms of new people coming in and taking jobs from their members,” said Stuart Rothenberg, publisher of a nonpartisan political newsletter.

Some Democratic strategists say the labor divide could be enough to halt the bill, given the amount of added opposition from immigrant groups and businesses. Others predict that the SEIU and Unite Here will succeed in moving the bill forward with their lobbying and organizing of immigrant workers.

Industrial union leaders oppose provisions that would create a temporary-worker program for 200,000 immigrants each year, a transient workforce they fear would erode wages and working conditions.

Service workers’ unions are more willing to accept an amended version of the temporary-worker program because of provisions that would legalize an estimated 12 million people now here illegally. Industrial unions are skeptical of legalization.

Under the legislation, immigrants could begin legalization only after border security benchmarks were achieved, which industrial union leaders say could take years. And once the process starts, immigrants face added barriers; they would have to return to their home countries before they could apply -- a trip many will be hesitant to make, AFL-CIO lobbyists say -- and pay thousands of dollars in fines.


This week, while Congress is in recess, union members are lobbying legislators at home. The Senate will resume debate on the bill next week.

Sonia Ramirez, an AFL-CIO lobbyist in Washington, said the industrial unions had to weigh legalization against the interests of their members, who included electricians, teachers and nurses. “This isn’t just about providing relief to the current immigrant population,” she said. “We represent workers in 56 international unions. It’s not as simple for us.”


‘It reflects a fear’

Opponents say the industrial unions are being protectionist, attempting to defend manufacturing workers who have seen their ranks thin since the 1950s.

“It reflects a fear that’s all across America. There’s a worry about our ability to preserve decent jobs,” said John Wilhelm, president of Unite Here’s hospitality division.

In recent weeks, industrial unions have begun efforts to block the bill, including automated calls, letter-writing campaigns to Democratic lawmakers and advertising by affiliates.

Late last month, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney met with Sens. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Ken Salazar (R-Colo.), key members of the bipartisan coalition that drafted the Senate bill. At a meeting with Kennedy, Sweeney, who represents 10 million union members, was joined by Joseph T. Hansen, president of the 1.3-million-member United Food and Commercial Workers, and Terence M. O’Sullivan, head of the Laborers’ International Union of North America, with more than 700,000 members.


While the industrial unions have not openly threatened legislators who have endorsed the legislation, the message is clear: “We support candidates who support our agenda,” said Ramirez, the AFL-CIO lobbyist. “These votes definitely speak to that commitment.”

The service workers’ unions have launched a counter-campaign. A large number of Unite Here’s 450,000 members -- 50,000 of whom are in California -- are immigrants, according to Tom Snyder, the union’s national political director, and they back legalization.

Local 11 in Los Angeles is more than 80% immigrant, Snyder said, and other big locals in Las Vegas and New York have a majority immigrant membership, many of whom are illegal.

“As the makeup of the industry changed, we were -- and are -- very assiduous about appealing to and reaching out to those workers,” Snyder said. “For us, the welcome mat is out.”

Creating a temporary-worker program would undercut those efforts, Snyder said, because the new workers would be more dependent on employers and less invested in the workplace.

While illegal workers are in a similar position, they have a greater sense of permanence and willingness to fight injustice than temporary workers, labor organizers said.


Mike Garcia, president of SEIU Local 1877 in Los Angeles, said that workers’ illegal status “hasn’t been a significant barrier,” but a temporary-worker program would be. Immigrants make up 65% of the SEIU’s 28,000 California members and 95% of the affiliated janitors’ union, he said.

“How are we going to continue to build power off of a temporary workforce that has a temporary mind-set and doesn’t see the union as a vehicle for improving their lives?” he said. “Why would they sign the union card?”


Temporary-worker plan

Service workers’ unions want the Senate to amend the legislation and create a “path to citizenship” for temporary workers. Even if the temporary-worker program isn’t changed, they want the bill to pass the Senate so that it can be amended in the House, where lawmakers have already submitted legislation they favor.

“We think that this is the best chance that we’ve had in a long time to have a meaningful conversation about immigration reform,” said Eliseo Medina, the SEIU’s executive vice president. “If we don’t take advantage of this opportunity, it’s going to be a long time before we get back to this point.”

These union leaders say legislation proposed this year by Reps. Luis V. Gutierrez (D-Ill.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) could be incorporated into a House version of the bill to address their concerns about the temporary-worker program.

Called the STRIVE (Security Through Regularized Immigration and a Vibrant Economy) Act, the legislation would create an annual pool of 400,000 temporary workers who, after working in the U.S. for at least five years, meeting English and civics requirements, and paying a $1,500 fine and application fees, would be eligible for “conditional permanent residency and eventual citizenship.”


Industrial unions oppose several provisions in the STRIVE Act, said Ramirez, the AFL-CIO lobbyist, including enlarging the program and requiring immigrants to return home to apply for residency or citizenship. They are already lobbying members of the Latino caucus who support it, including Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Los Angeles), and those who might, like Rep. Linda T. Sanchez (D-Lakewood), a union member and labor lawyer who serves on the House Judiciary Committee.

Industrial and service-sector unions are also lobbying other members of the Judiciary Committee, which is likely to be the first panel to consider any House version of the Senate bill. Those targeted include Reps. Howard L. Berman (D-Valley View), Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) and Zoe Lofgren (D-San Jose), who chairs the panel’s immigration subcommittee.

Rothenberg, the political strategist, said efforts to kill the bill would probably fail in the House, where most Democrats in “reliably Democratic districts” such as Lofgren’s are more concerned with passing a legalization plan than with the drawbacks of a temporary-worker program.

“There is a bias in the Democratic Party toward saying, ‘We’ve got 12 million people here, we can’t just throw them out,’ ” he said.