Making Change: Union Schmooze

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Nibbling on homemade chicken with rice and beans, the 30-odd people gathered in this lower Manhattan office building join in hushed but excited bilingual chit-chat between sporadic bursts of guitar-led activist labor songs. Although most have no activist experience outside their countries of origin, they have just finished collecting 30,000 signatures for the “One Million Voices” campaign, an effort to collect one million signed postcards calling for amnesty for undocumented immigrants who work and pay taxes ($7 billion annually) in the U.S. Liliana Cordova, a Colombian immigrant from Jackson Heights, recounts how she collected 5,000 postcards, by herself, by setting up a card table near a polling booth in her neighborhood.

But this meeting’s organizers are hoping for more than just amnesty. While campaigns like this one have traditionally been the turf of grassroots organizations, the sponsors of this gathering are not only immigrants’ rights groups and community-based organizations. After all, the meeting is taking place at the glittering headquarters of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), Local 32BJ–and, even though they’re nowhere near a bargaining table, three of the main organizers are unions.

The meeting was organized by the recently launched New York Civic Participation Project, an unusual collaboration among one community-based organization, Bushwick’s Make the Road by Walking; one advocacy group, the National Employment Law Project; and three unions–SEIU’s Local 32BJ, hotel and restaurant employees (HERE) Local 100, and District Council 37, New York City’s municipal workers union.

The goal is to increase participation among new immigrants, legal or not, in political, economic and civil processes from the neighborhood level on up. By working on amnesty, as well as two other projects they’re planning–one responding to Social Security number crackdowns and another lobbying for translators at social service agencies–the project aims to merge the concepts of union activism with community advocacy, but on an individual level. “Workers have an experience from unions of participating in a political process, voting and being active,” says Artemio Guerra, the Civic Participation Project’s director of organizing and campaigns. It is exactly this kind of participatory spirit he wants to spread to the city’s immigrant communities.

To do this, the project’s organizers are working to turn active union members into promodores–promoters who will go out and talk to other immigrants, community members and other union members living in their own neighborhoods. They’ve started in Washington Heights, where some 2,000 union members live, some of whom are already involved in churches or advocacy organizations. “It’s natural to begin with them,” says Hector Figueroa, the secretary-treasurer and political director of Local 32BJ. They hope the promodores will lead them to people like Liliana Cordova. “She’s one of those natural leaders,” says Figueroa. “There are all these people from the community and we never knew who they are. They may not have seen the connection between that activism and the activism of the union.”

For their part, though, some immigrants may not be willing to rush into arrangements with unions just yet. In the past, organized labor backed xenophobic efforts to limit immigration, like the Chinese Exclusion Act and other thinly disguised attempts to cut down on competition. Then, in 2000, the AFL-CIO made a dramatic reversal, coming out in favor of undocumented workers’ rights. “What’s intriguing to me is that a lot of immigrant organizing groups we work with often are distrustful of unions, because of maybe a history of not delivering promises made during organizing drives,” notes National Employment Law Project executive director, Jim Williams. “This is an opportunity to address some of those concerns.”

In a time when organized labor is struggling to survive, it’s increasingly rare for large, politically powerful unions to rally for changes that won’t directly benefit their own members’ wages or working conditions. But the Civic Participation Project is, in fact, a rare practical experiment in “social unionism,” which posits that to really serve its members, organized labor must look beyond the workplace–to housing, education, health care and environmental justice. “If you fight for an increase in wages on the upcoming contract,” asks Guerra rhetorically, “what good is that if you get a 30 percent rent increase when you go back to your community?”

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Riding a wave of progressivism, John Sweeney was elected national AFL-CIO president in 1995 on the promise that organized labor would re-commit itself to two cardinal tenets: organizing and political might. Since then, SEIU, and its locals 32BJ and 1199 in particular, have sought reputations as havens for immigrants, progressive agendas and creative outreach strategies. The “One Million Voices” campaign, for example, is part of a broad-based national coalition, backed heavily by the SEIU, called Reward Work.

By tying community and labor organizing together, the theory goes, unions can extend their reach while having more of an impact on workers’ lives overall. But while most unions today pay lip service to it, few can or will commit serious resources to social unionism. Instead, unions, especially in New York, have focused on brokering the one power they have left: their ability to get out the vote.

Such politicking has made gains for individual unions, but it has also scattered labor’s power farther afield with each passing election. While some critics note that labor’s traditional stronghold, the Democratic Party, has failed to keep up with workers’ needs, others blame leaders like 1199’s Dennis Rivera for splitting up the ideological family. Rivera endorsed Republican George Pataki in his last gubernatorial election in exchange for increased wages for the union’s health care workers. (Pataki put the kibosh on a minimum wage hike–exactly the kind of thing a more unified, progressive labor movement might have pushed for.)

Though smaller and less powerful than 1199, 32BJ is not immune to such splintering. In the 2001 mayoral election, although many members wanted to go with Latino candidate Fernando Ferrer, the Bronx Borough President, in the end the local endorsed Public Advocate Mark Green. Figueroa and other 32BJ officers are currently being investigated by a Manhattan grand jury for allegedly pressuring the union’s staff into campaigning for Green on union time and for allegedly making illegal campaign contributions.

If labor’s electoral power is dissipating, Sweeney’s upswing in organizing has failed even more dramatically. Nationally, union membership has dropped to record lows in recent years. Simultaneously, unions are finding that more of their members are foreign-born–in 32BJ’s case, about two-thirds. Unions still need to attract new members, and they’ve come to realize that those members are most likely to be immigrants, especially in low-wage industries. “Over the last seven or so years of Sweeney’s presidency, the most successful unions are the ones that have done that,” notes Immanuel Ness, a professor of political science at Brooklyn College.

Over the past decade, new immigrants made up 50 percent of the increase in the national workforce. In New York, immigrants now constitute almost 36 percent of the city’s population, points out Gouri Sadhwani, the Civic Participation Project’s director of policy.

The project aims to strengthen union ties to this ever-growing immigrant workforce. “It’s unfortunate that in the past, unions that realized how important it was to put at the forefront the needs and aspirations of immigrants were very few,” says Figueroa. “The truth is, demographics are changing. The immigrant workforce is going to be an increasing share of who the union members are.”

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Although the civic Participation Project is only a few months old, the idea has been bandied about for two to three years amongst the five founding organizations. And while it may be a unique collaboration in this city, it’s certainly not a new concept.

In Connecticut, the Stamford Organizing Project began in 1998 as a union organizing drive (which New York’s Civic Participation Project is decidedly not). But when the state Department of Motor Vehicles proposed new regulations that would have made it much more difficult for immigrants to get drivers licenses, project participants–including members of Local 32BJ, 1199, HERE, UAW, and Operating Engineers–protested. Eventually, the DMV rescinded the proposal. “The DMV didn’t have anything to do with organizing janitors,” says Kurt Westby, district chairperson of Local 32BJ in Stamford, “but it had to do with the community.”

In Los Angeles, a nonprofit union-backed voter registration drive, Organization of Los Angeles Workers, has succeeded at mobilizing Latino voters. In 2001, a team of at least 600 doorknockers, mostly UFW, HERE and SEIU members, trooped out into the community to register low-wage Latino workers to vote and to convince them to go to the polls. They also formed a “human billboard” by grouping together at a busy intersection and holding up signs that encouraged voting. Overall, OLAW’s efforts helped triple Latino voter turnout for the city’s mayoral races from 1993 to 2001.

The Civic Participation Project says it will do voter registration, education and turnout work, but leave the partisan campaigns to each union’s own existing political departments. The project’s organizers are positing it as an alternative, not a supplement, to the electioneering that is part of unions’ traditional political activity. “We’re a nonpartisan organization. We are not going to engage in any electoral politics,” says Guerra. “If the NYCPP is successful, it will be able to keep union members active in between contract negotiations, in between the electoral work unions traditionally do.”

With two of the three participating unions recently out from trusteeship, and the ongoing investigation of 32BJ, the project faces an added burden of skepticism. But a cohesive Civic Participation Project campaign might be able to present a unified front on immigration issues–and help show that, especially now, organized labor can still pack a political punch when it transcends every-union-for-itself electoral power plays. Guerra hopes the project will maintain “the union’s presence in the political life of the community, of the city, by union members being increasingly active and militant, fighting for the rights of neighbors in their communities.”

Others are more cautiously optimistic. “We’re trying to mobilize union members who are active in their unions to be active in their communities,” says Sadhwani. “We’re also trying to work through the muddle that is New York City politics. Our project is a very small and humble project.”