US labor unions adrift over foreign workers’ activism


SAN FRANCISCO, USA — JOHN Ford was flipping an egg in his kitchen when union members and immigrant activists in the Bay Area marched down Market Street here.

Ford may have sensed something was up since he paused for a fraction of a minute before going back to cooking.

Ford’s absence in that march bares the ambivalence that have clutched American unions on the issue of immigration reforms, pending bills in Congress that never saw light when legislators recessed October 1.

Union leaders like Ford –he represents iron workers– even stayed at home weeks before lawmakers signed off amid clamors for positive immigration reforms to benefit undocumented and legalized foreign workers (including Filipinos).

Labor union members —as themselves, like some members of Ford’s Iron Workers Bridge Structural, Ornamental and Reinforced Union Local 377— went to Civic Center (the seat of the city of San Francisco’s governance) September 4, but top honchos of unions like Ford’s weren’t around.

Ford’s reason: the union is still discussing some reform measures in the pending immigration reform bills that, because of the recess, would be reverted back to committee hearings.

Traditionally, US labor unions are unsupportive to immigrants, and their officials might need more time to understand immigrants’ concerns in today’s rise of immigration issues, says Oakland, California-based Mexican Lara Casillas of the Bay Area Immigrant Rights Coalition.

While this indecision to support immigrants or not prevails, foreign-born workers in the US are growing in number. The Migration Policy Institute in Washington D.C., in a May 2004 paper citing US Census figures, said there are 17.654 million foreign-born wage and salary workers.

“There is a changing demographic in the workplace: union members now speak English with an accent,” Casillas said.


RALLIES in various US cities, including San Francisco, marked Labor Day holiday over a month ago, though some 1,000-4,000 rallyists were spread out among themselves in their march from Embarcadero Avenue to Civic Center.

That Labor Day rally was no match to the estimated 50,000 that filled Civic Center Plaza last May, at the height of the US immigration reform debate.

And for the first time “in a long while,” observes Casillas, this year’s American Labor Day celebration touched on immigrants’ issues.

Still, San Francisco Chronicle headlined the rally, reporting on September 5 that the affair “(demonstrated) a new alliance between unions and illegal workers—groups that have been at odds”.

“I went here at the rally on my own,” Filipino Bryan Cruz of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 790 said.

Cruz also told the assembly: “I believe the 11-to-12 million undocumented migrants should be legalized. My local union sees (immigration issues) as a cause.”

That day saw immigrant union members –janitors, hotel and garments, and other service workers– wearing colorful t-shirts, hats, and caps.

Ford said two days after that march that some of his union’s members joined the rally, as his local union “has no formal stand yet.”

IWBSOR Local 377, whose members maintain the structural strength of San Francisco’s bridges, has 3,000 members –all paying $40 in union dues monthly.

Foreign workers like Mexicans and some Filipinos already make up 40 percent of Local 377, but whether they’re black, brown or white-skinned, Ford said Local 377 negotiates for them.

“Our union represents all workers, and we are not mindful at looking at them as ‘immigrants.'”


ARGUMENTS against American unions supporting immigrant workers is that they are taking away jobs meant for white and native Americans (the latter covers Americans born in the US to foreigner and American parents).

Ford disagrees, citing the case of iron workers in his local.

“They (immigrants) are not taking away the jobs of Americans.”

But the ongoing immigration debate and the economic situation in the US have somewhat left people “a very unsettling feeling,” said AFL-CIO immigrant worker’s program director Ana Avendano over the radio program Marketplace.

“Unfortunately, both of these things have turned workers against workers,” she said.

The Migration Policy Institute reported that 3.798 million of the total 17.654 million foreign-born workers are union members. The Institute cited some 13.978 million white and native American workers are union members and a total 15.448 million are represented by unions, or those carrying contracts sans union membership as provision.

“Employers even want to hire undocumented immigrants since they can be given six-hour pay rates for 12-hour workloads, sensing a breach in employment arrangements,” explains Ford.

“Those issues are what our local union fights for on their (undocumented immigrants’) behalf.”

Still, union membership in the US is declining while unionized foreign-born workers fail to attract fast-rising membership on an annual basis, MPI’s paper bared.

Support to immigration issues can either be a stand of the labor union’s national headquarters or of the local chapter, while a few locals can be outspoken on their own, said Chris Punongbayan of the 32-year-old grassroots nonprofit Filipinos for Affirmative Action.

The 42,000-strong International Longshore and Warehouse Union (for inland boatmen) are active in immigrants’ issues through its locals.

Amid the unilateral or opposing stands between and among unions and their chapters and members, Casillas said undocumented immigrants have one of the highest workforce participation rates in the US with 25 percent, and 75 percent of these undocumented immigrants pay taxes.

These undocumented immigrants also avail of social security benefits owing to their status, said Punongbayan, FAA’s advocacy coordinator. This gives the US Social Security Administration, he says, some US$7 billion representing their payments.

Unions can even benefit from immigrants, says Punongbayan—being a new membership force, a new source of membership dues, and “political leverage” to muster the strength of the union movement itself.


HOLDING dialogues within service sector unions, at least in the Bay Area, has been a five-year-old endeavor, Casillas and Punongbayan said.

SEIU and the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textiles Employees or UNITE (for hotel/restaurant and garments workers) are among those unions that immigrant rights groups are making dialogues with through a battle-cry: “what is good for organized labor is good for immigrants,” Casillas said.

But if labor unions want to understand and support immigrants’ issues, Punongbayan suggests gaining immigrant workers’ personal trust, having a safe space to talk about their employment and benefits issues, and recognize them.

Filipino nurse Renato Balitian, SEIU Local 790 member, however thinks it will be difficult for unions to defend undocumented immigrants, such as claiming public benefits that they pay and will never avail.

What unions can start working on is to find ways how to legalize the status of undocumented immigrants, Balitian said. “Then steps such as increased salaries and public benefits will be next on the line.”

But US unions such as Balitian’s have made terms to favor worker-members. Apart from negotiating per-hour salary rates in San Francisco General Hospital that are “competitive,” Balitian said SEIU Local 790 was able to reduce employees’ parking rates to US$55 (from US$70), and even lobbied successfully a “no lift” hospital policy for nurses who have contacts with patients (so that nurses avoid back problems).

Those benefits that SEIU members get are what Balitian gets while being deducted US$110 monthly as union membership due.

“I don’t even know that those are what my union does for workers like me,” said Balitian, among the over-5,500 employees of SFGH (80 percent of whom are Filipinos) who admit being too busy working from 10 to 14 hours a day to be mindful of SEIU Local 790’s bargaining power.

After breakfast, Ford relents.

He says his local union will do all it can to give undocumented immigrants legal employment, and for them not to face restrictions.

“Immigrant workers do quality jobs, and they are not a problem.”

OFW Journalism Consortium and the Yuchengco Media Fellows Program, University of San Francisco-Center for the Pacific Rim