The headline read: “Big Unions and Big Business Agree on Immigration Reform”. For years, unions have been trying to balance the need to reach out and organize the tremendous flow of Hispanic workers immigrating into the United States. Organizing immigrant workers is necessary for membership growth, but this growth has been a slow process for the union leadership because of the historic membership and local union level resentment towards non-English speaking immigrant workers.
Historically, unions have had many problems with minority workers, like the 1941 Ford Motor Company River Rouge Strike against black workers. In fact, the unions did not admit African Americans, Hispanics and Women until the 1940s.
Back in the early 1970s, United Farm Workers president, Cesar Chavez, charged that growers in California were engaged in a conspiracy with some Teamster union officials. This conspiracy involved illegal cash payments in order to crush the UFW in exchange for “sweetheart contracts”. One Teamster official had testified that he witnessed growers paying the Teamsters in order to intimidate members of the UFW into accepting a Teamster contract. The majority of farm workers polled said that they would rather have been part of the UFW, but that they had been pressured into joining the Teamsters. In point of fact, the grape growers signed with the Teamsters Union, which triggered a series of strikes that started in Coachella and rolled up through California's San Joaquin valley. The Teamsters sent hired muscle, including Los Angeles-based biker gangs, in to intimidate and attack strikers. Thousands of farm workers and supporters were jailed, and finally, two UFW strikers were killed on the picket line.
Unions have worked hard to keep two faces on their support of Hispanic worker issues. In the Hispanic community, they have gotten heavily involved with Hispanic organizations like LULAC, La Raza, Hispanic Federation, MALDEF, LCLA and many others. At the same time, they have kept the non-Hispanic membership in the dark about how much support they are giving undocumented Hispanic workers.
Even with the new 844-page bipartisan immigration compromise between Labor and the Business community, the special interest fight is raging on.
Many unions are still fighting to get amendments to the potential bill that would restrict worker visas in their core industries (for example, the United Food and Commercial Workers Union [UFCW] wants restrictions put on visas for the meat and poultry industries). Construction unions say there is an overload of trade workers bringing down wages. The Teamsters want more restrictions on foreign truck driving. At the same time, business groups are fighting for their industries with their respective politicians to bring in more labor options. Senator Marco Rubio is pushing for the Cruise industry to allow for more lower-skilled worker visas in Florida. Senator Graham in South Carolina wants more visas in the meat, turkey and poultry industries. Senator Charles Schumer of New York wants special treatment for workers from Ireland.
Unions separate minority workers into two groups: United States Citizens born in the U.S and foreign-born immigrants; the fact is that in many situations the workers themselves gravitate towards one or the other of these groups. Many times, such job classifications themselves have through the years become known as “immigrant work”, often causing hostility towards the immigrant workforce. The important fact is that there is a difference within the union infrastructure between minority and immigrant members. The tightrope the union has to walk on to simultaneously increase their traditional membership and to absorb the rapidly growing immigrant workforce is shaping the union membership of the future.
In my past life as a union official and, more specifically, as an organizing director, I faced many situations when there was an all out internal struggle in deciding how to embrace the union's future membership and how to integrate them into the traditional membership population. The inability to do this has had the effect of stagnating union membership growth to this point and is something that Richard Trumka has promised to address as he announced a new initiative to aggressively organize workers. Trumka has recently set a 6-month timeline for the unions in the AFL/CIO to figure out a way to reinvent organizing fundamentals. Trumka's intention is to announce a new strategy at the AFL/CIO convention in September.
The direction the unions have taken to confront this divide within their membership has hurt their attempts to migrate their organizing strategies between these American born groups and immigrant groups. In many ways, this has damaged the unions' credibility with the immigrant population. The unions know they desperately need to convince immigrant workers that joining the rank and file membership in the unions will improve their day-to-day lives in order to raise their membership numbers.
While working as an organizing director, I had to routinely split organizing budgets between these two groups with the organizing budget for immigrant membership being a fraction of the traditional membership drives.
In 1993, the Clinton administration created empowerment zones, economically distressed American communities that receive tax incentives and grants from the federal government under the Empowerment Zones and Enterprise Communities Act. The Act provided for the designation of 11 empowerment zones nationwide as well as 94 “enterprise communities”. They were created to stimulate business development through investments; however, many of these zones were in the middle of urban areas where large populations of immigrant workers reside. I put together detailed plans to take advantage of these new investments and open new membership opportunities in areas that were at one time thriving business magnets and union membership was a common reality.
My plans in the empowerment zones created a lot of excitement among the international union. As an international union official, I was charged with taking the plans to the regional directors to sell them on the idea of 50% of their funding resources to be distributed in the empowerment zones. This excitement ended when the demographics of the membership drives were discussed. I would hear:
- “Why are we going to waste our resources to grow our membership with low class workers?”
- “We don't have officials who can speak the language.”
- “They are just going to get deported anyway.”
- “They are creating lower wages.”
- “Our members don't want to support workers who are taking their jobs away.”
Sometimes the comments from these self-proclaimed “leaders of the working man” got racial to the point that I had to remind them that I too was Hispanic and I was forced to direct them to keep the discussion professional.
Another example of the dysfunctional approach the unions have towards embracing Hispanic workers happened when I was asked by the United Steelworkers International to overlook and direct the destruction of an organizing drive started by the International United Food & Commercial Workers (UFCW) Union in Goodlettsville TN at a major meatpacking plant. The USW filed to intervene in the election started by the UFCW union with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). Their goal was to stop the UFCW from getting a major foothold in the region, and also in that particular industry. They went so far as to hire the UFCW organizer who started the campaign in the first place. The campaign was already well in motion when I got on the ground. Of the more than 2,500 workers at the plant, most were Hispanic. The local district that had jurisdiction over the campaign thought the winning strategy would be to get the Hispanic workers fighting against each other, splitting the workers into separate groups depending on what country they were from, pitting workers from Central America against workers from Mexico and other countries. The only result of this heinous strategy was to create an atmosphere of anger amongst the different Hispanic groups. My recommendation was to shut down the campaign, stop the destructive antagonizing tactics and let the workers choose whether or not they wanted to be represented by the UFCW union because the campaign was a loser for us and I felt there was no reason to create bad will for no reason and no obtainable and reasonable end goal. I also knew our participation in this circus would come back to damage our reputation.
I was told the goal was not to organize the plant but to prevent the UFCW union from organizing it. The regional director had jurisdiction over the campaign and he didn't want the headaches of representing non-English speaking members anyway.
I agreed to help supply the manpower needed to correct the organizing strategy at this plant if an honest attempt was made to win the campaign rather than just destroy the opposition union and on condition that the lead district official (ex UFCW organizer) was fired.
Because of a shortage of Hispanic organizers within the union, I had to reach out to local union officers to recruit any Spanish speaking members who would be willing to take a union paid leave to assist on the campaign. One local union meeting I recruited from outside of Nashville was filled with represented workers at a Goodyear tire plant. I tried to recruit some American Hispanic members but within ten minutes of my presentation, there was a small riot in the hall. I was told that foreign-born Hispanic workers (or “wetbacks”, as they called them) would never be part of “their” union. I was besieged by many other racial slurs directed at the targeted Hispanic workers. The District Director was in attendance and appeared to be amused at the spectacle displayed. As I was leaving the meeting, I went to the Director and local officers to verbalize my anger over the open hostility displayed and they told me that I was seen as “a trouble maker trying to force my ideas down their throats”.
I refused to associate with this campaign any further and the district retained the lead organizer and tactics in spite of assurances given to me by the International President that this type of organizing direction would not be allowed, which, of course, resumed as soon as I left.
I received a call from one the organizers on the ground after the vote and he told me the vote was heavily in favor of the company, as the campaign was filled with both unions raiding each other's meetings, workers fist-fighting in the plant parking lots and open hostility inside the plant which resulted in workers getting fired. This was all fueled by both unions' unprofessional tactics ending in a fist fight between both unions organizing teams inside the plant after the NLRB vote count.
Another common example of union mistreatment of immigrant workers that I witnessed was at a ConAgra chicken processing plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee. The plant was divided into 4 facilities. The unit was organized for over 15 years but, in the preceding five years, the working population had quickly diversified to the point where over 90 percent of the workforce had migrated from Central America and Mexico. My responsibility was to bring in bilingual organizers who were directed to work with the local union officers to facilitate meetings with the Hispanic workforce inside and outside the plants. Tennessee was (and still is) a right to work state which means that, before union dues could be collected by the employer, we needed the workers to sign dues checkoff authorization cards. There was a potential 3500 new members to be signed up. The local union leadership was African American and Anglo and, right from the beginning, the local union officers were hostile towards my organizers. There was no desire to represent the Spanish speaking workers and they considered my presence a power play on my part to replace them with Hispanic workers because they were clearly outnumbered. There was never any outreach to these new workers. The issues with the Hispanic workers was that they had absolutely no representation from the local union, they felt like they were second class employees, no one respected them and they knew they were not wanted there.
I tried to do the math for them and show how much money they would bring in with the new members, and that the average cost of an organizing drive in a non-union plant of that size would cost over $300,000 dollars, but we could get it done at a fraction of that cost.
We had over 600 new members signed up and my organizers set up a super dues checkoff meeting at a local conference center. During the checkoff drive, my organizers had to represent the potential new members with management in order to build trust and give them the confidence to sign the cards. The meeting was going to be held in Spanish and I had arranged for International Union officials to attend the meeting to demonstrate their solidarity, dedication and respect to them. I also wanted to make this an example/kickoff for a national effort to grow this industry's union density and take the opportunity to establish a Hispanic to Hispanic organizing team to rapidly increase our membership totals with this fast growing workforce.
The outcry and pushback from the local union membership, non-Hispanic workers, and regional non-Hispanic union leaders and finally from the District Director himself was deafening; so much so that the International Officers who promised to attend the kickoff withdrew their participation.
The meeting was attended by over 1500 potential new dues-paying members. There was excitement in the conference center until over 100 non-Spanish speaking union members and local officials showed up to protest. They were yelling that they were being pushed aside and meetings should not be in Spanish in the United States, and that immigration was called and on their way to deport them. Six months of my hard work was thrown away when nearly 80% of the Hispanic workers walked out.
The truth is that the national union leadership has always pandered to state and local union internal politics; they have had a hard time creating a nationally-lead acceptance of this emerging powerhouse of potential members. Union leaders know they need to organize immigrant workers but they do not want to upset the traditional rank and file membership. They have decided for many years to put their collective heads in the sand. When I was a union official, I was always fighting with the accepted concept that Hispanics only were good working with other Hispanics and I also was pandered to by being told that I was different from “them” when I dared to lead the unions. I was working to change their “tightrope walking” strategy of organizing new members and make a fundamental change in how they educate the regional and local leadership on concepts of membership diversity.
Over the years since leaving my union career and while working with business leaders, I have seen some changes in the national union leadership's views of immigrant membership acceptance. Organizing tactics targeting acceptance are still emerging and are still a goldmine for unions but, after reviewing the ongoing negotiating struggles for a comprehensive immigration policy, I am certain that old habits die hard.
The unions' silver lining in securing major organizing gains is when undocumented workers have no knowledge of the previously mentioned (and ongoing) union atrocities. Unions see a strong success when the fault lies with management's general misunderstanding, mismanagement, and sometimes outright incompetence in employing an immigrant workforce.
I have been contracted many times to assist management teams in organizing campaigns where the workers are composed of a large Hispanic workforce. I always look for the root causes of employee mistrust with management that forced them to reach out to a third party to solve their internal issues. I look for the same issues I looked for when I was an Organizing Director exploiting them for union gain. For example, many times management thinks a basic understanding of English means that there is no language barrier. Most times, we find that the employees do not really understand English, but will never admit this to management for fear of being fired or demoted. Often, company handbooks and rules are not available in their native language and, when write-ups occur, employees are told to sign a disciplinary write-up that they cannot read and, frequently, they are unsure what exactly they did wrong or how to avoid more write-ups in the future. Many companies never promote Spanish speaking supervisors to communicate with workers, and will even go so far as to use a non-management bilingual employee to communicate for them, which puts the person in the position of being an unofficial leader. I have seen all too often that when management does hire or advance a bilingual employee into a supervisor position, the only criterion is that the person speaks the language of the workers. These “de facto supervisors” rarely receive professional supervisor skills training which is regularly a hindrance and causes more problems than are solved, including an exploding turnover rate which is generally just accepted as part of doing business with minority employees. These and many other basic management miscalculations keep the union looking like the answers to communication and basic respect issues that drain employee potential which could contribute to the company's ongoing success.