Eliseo Medina is secretary-treasurer of the 2.1 million member Service Employees International Union and a key player in the current immigration reform debate.
Washington Examiner: Where do you see the state of play for the immigration reform in the wake of this week's maneuvering in Congress? What is the impact the House Republicans' announcement they will take up their own bill on their on time?
Medina: What I heard the Republicans say is that they want to take a different approach than the Senate in dealing with immigration reform. From our perspective, we are not concerned about process, but about outcome. So, however they get there, I think the goal of fixing this broken immigration system is on the table and - I am hoping -- on the way to a real solution.
Washington Examiner: If the House bill includes a hard "border security first" trigger, is that a deal-killer?
Medina: If there is a need to do more on the border, it should be done. However, let's be clear on who has the responsibility to fix the border. It is certainly not the immigrants. So, therefore, holding citizenship hostage to the bureaucrats in Washington doing their jobs on implementation of security I think is unreasonable and unfair. What they ought to be doing is looking at how to hold the decisionmakers accountable for doing their jobs -- not on punishing the immigrants.
Washington Examiner: Historically, organized labor has not always been friendly towards immigration. What has changed?
Medina: As far as labor is concerned, we have come to the conclusion that we cannot fix the economy, that we cannot fix the conditions for workers, as long as 11 million people are living in the shadows with no rights because then they will be used to undermine standards for all workers.
So from our perspective, in order to make life better for our members and for all American workers, we need to make sure that all workers - regardless of status - have the same rights and the same obligations.
Washington Examiner: One of the long-standing arguments against immigration from labor's perspective has been that it holds down wages overall. Would that happen under the Senate bill?
Medina: Quite the opposite. I think what is holding down wages and what is making conditions worse is the immigration system that we have today. If we fix it, I think -- like the Congressional Budget Office said - we will be in a situation where everybody will come into the formal economy. They will pay taxes. They will be able to demand and receive wages according to the law and they will then be able to also become consumers and help drive our economy.
Washington Examiner: There are still some in labor who oppose the immigration bill. The International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers cites its high-tech visa provisions. What do you say to the others in organized labor that have concerns?
Medina: Everybody is entitled to have their opinion. I understand that they have some issues and concerns. But at the end of the day, they have to take a look at this issue on the merits. When they do, I think that they will find that they, too, support this bill. Regardless, I think the overwhelming majority in the labor movement and the general public is for fixing the broken system.
Washington Examiner: You were involved in the negotiations between organized labor leaders and the Chamber of Commerce that were key to providing the framework for a Senate bill. How difficult were those talks?
Medina: Well, I think it was important to get all of us on the same page because I think we know that fixing this immigration is going to take all of us. So the fact that labor and business were able to get together, have some tough conversations and ultimately come to the same conclusion fighting for commonsense immigration is going to be absolutely critical to success.
Washington Examiner: Was there a ghost hanging over the meetings from the failure of the last effort in 2007 with the Kennedy-McCain bill?
Medina: Yeah, I think we learned our lesson: if we are not working together, we are going to fail. That's what happened in 2007. That is why in 2013 we are working very closely together. We still have our differences, but we are keeping our eyes on the prize. Fixing this immigration is critical to both business and labor and I think for working people in general.
Washington Examiner: Is that cooperation ongoing? You are still in contact with the Chamber and others in Big Business?
Medina: Yes, absolutely. We are continuing to collaborate in carrying our message to the House. We will continue until we get the president's signature on the bill and even after that I think we will still continue. There will still be many challenges in implementing anything that gets signed by the president.
I think this has been a good experience for all of us to collaborate and work together. Who knows? Maybe it will lead to much better collaboration on many of the other issues that are in front of us.
Washington Examiner: What did you think of the president's decision to suspend the Affordable Care Act's employer mandate?
Medina: I wish they hadn't done it, but that is what they chose to do. Now we have to work with it because we still have to make sure that this works. There is still going to be a lot of work to do to sign people up for it. The work has to continue.
Washington Examiner: You sound resigned to it. You don't think you can get the administration to reverse its decision?
Medina: No, I think that decision has been made and now we have got to move forward. SEIU is committed to continuing to work on this in a way that will offer coverage to the most people.
Washington Examiner: Many in organized labor have voiced concerns over what may happen to multi-employer health plans under the Affordable Care Act. Do you share the concerns?
Medina: I know that concerns have been expressed about multi-employer plans but the fact is we have to figure out how to work through that. The vast majority of American people are not covered by multi-employee plans.
Washington Examiner: How many of SEIU's members are in multi-employer plans?
Medina: I would say it is a small percentage. I don't know off the top of my head how many.
Washington Examiner: In These Times magazine reported Wednesday that the United Food and Commercial Workers union is in talks to return to the AFL-CIO. Do you have any comment? If it is true, what does it mean for the Change to Win coalition?
Medina: Oh, I think the Change to Win coalition is going to continue to work because our primary goal has been to focus on how we can continue to bring people the opportunity to organize to protect their own interests. That has been our mantra: uniting people around common issues.
In terms of politics, we work with the AFL-CIO. We do not see ourselves as competitors. We see ourselves as people who share a common vision. We formed Change to Win because we placed more emphasis on uniting workers and organizing, but I think as we go forward I think that kind of working together is going to continue because the American workers need it. We need it.
Washington Examiner: Is the report correct as far as you know? Is UFCW leaving Change to Win?
Medina: I have heard that they are intending to rejoin the AFL-CIO. Each individual union makes its own choices on who they wish to be affiliated with but we will continue working together.
Washington Examiner: Is there any chance that SEIU will engage in talks to return to the AFL-CIO at some point in the future?
Medina: I don't think so, at this point, no.