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How Big Labor went from opposing immigration to backing it

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Politics,Beltway Confidential,Sean Higgins

TPM.com has an interesting article up about the gradual shift of the AFL-CIO and other heavy hitters in the organized labor from viewing illegal immigrants as scab labor to potential recruits for the movement and how that happened. How anti-immigration did Big Labor used to be? Well, United Farm Workers President Cesar Chavez fought to keep immigrants out, as TPM’s Benjy Sarlin noted:

As part of his efforts to pry concessions from the agricultural industry, Chavez took a hardline position against illegal immigration, which he viewed as an endless source of scab labor. At one point, the UFW deployed members to form a “wet line” along border crossings in order to harass incoming workers. Lou Dobbs, who covered Chavez as a young journalist, would later cite the campaign as a key experience in crafting his populist, anti-immigration worldview.

[Service Employees International Union Secretary Treasurer Eliseo] Medina told TPM that the UFW faced a difficult dynamic in that the vast majority of its members were legal immigrants at the time, creating natural tensions with undocumented workers who they viewed as strikebreakers.

“The growers exploited the misery of one group against the misery of the other,” he said.

Medina soon would confront an industry facing the opposite challenge. After parting ways with Chavez and the UFW, Medina joined the SEIU in 1986 and worked on Justice for Janitors, a campaign aimed at organizing custodial workers in Los Angeles and San Diego. And unlike the grape growers, a much higher proportion had immigrated to the country illegally.

“The vast majority of them were undocumented, but boy, they were just as tough and willing to fight and courageous as any other set of workers,” Medina said. “But the situation was a huge problem, because you had to deal with the question on a regular basis of what happens if people get raided, arrested, and deported.”

As the SEIU encountered similar challenges in many of its fastest growing industries, such as home health-care work, Medina agitated to revise labor’s longtime stance against undocumented workers. The momentum carried over to the AFL-CIO, which adopted a new position in 2000 calling for blanket amnesty for undocumented immigrants and condemning immigration raids against organizing workers.

The institutions have been slow to change though. Divisions among the SEIU and the AFL-CIO, not to mention among Democrats and even immigration reform advocates, undermined the effort to pass the McCain-Kennedy comprehensive reform bill in 2007. Medina thinks those divisions are resolved now. We’ll see if that is the case.

 

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Sean Higgins

Senior Writer
The Washington Examiner