Organized labor in California, whose power is heavily influenced by immigrant unions, is facing a major challenge by growing unpopularity over opposition to its role in campaigning for reform of the country’s immigration policies.
Labor and Hispanic power in California have become almost synonymous in recent years, but those Latino labor leaders increasingly face mounting opposition to organized labor.
The Golden State is also home to the largest network of Tea Party organizations in the U.S. who have been pressing Californians to consider the financial impact of illegal immigration.
And the Tea Party is doing so with some success.
A new Field Poll shows that Californians’ negative opinions of organized labor has intensified, with even those who identify as Democrats or have union affiliations indicating their views on labor unions has taken a turn for the worse.
The newly-released poll found that 45 percent of those surveyed say they feel unions do more harm than good, up from 35 percent in a March 2011 Field Poll.
Latino labor leaders
Union officials, however, maintain they will not back off in their support for comprehensive immigration reform in Congress.
“We cannot fix the prosperity of the rest of the country without improving the prosperity of immigrants,” says Maria Elena Durazo, head of the hotel workers’ union in Los Angeles for more than 20 years.
Durazo and other Latino union leaders – among them Eliseo Medina, International Executive Vice President of SEIU and David Sanchez, President of the California Teachers Association – maintain that immigrants have become the back bone of organized labor in California.
While union membership has been declining nationally for year, they say, it has kept growing in California largely because of Latino immigrants.
The heart of that growth has been in Los Angeles where many of the roughly 800,000 union members are in the country illegally.
Many of them have helped make Durazo’s Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, of which she is the executive secretary-treasurer, the biggest of those unions as well as a political juggernaut in the city and state.
It is that power, too, that has led to some of the public resistance, according to insiders.
“You are beginning to see in the most blue, Democratic city people questioning the role of unions,” says Fernando Guerra, director of the Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University. “The phrase ‘I’m a supporter of unions, but…’ That was a Republican phrase. Now I hear all sorts of liberals saying it.
“This is Maria Elena’s challenge. She has to deal with this new reality.”
Los Angeles County has an estimated 900,000 immigrants who are undocumented, more than anywhere else in the country, and they make up about 9 percent of the state’s work force, according to the Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration at the University of Southern California.
“Most of us are only one or two steps removed from a friend or a relative who is undocumented,” says Medina. “We all understand that this is a much more of an entire community issue.
“When people started equating illegal with Latinos, it forced us to come together.”
Labor and politics
The bigger issue, say labor leaders, transcends labor and politics and affects not only Latino workers but their families, especially their children’s public schooling now facing massive cuts because of increasing labor costs.
“There is no more meat on this bone to carve, the only thing left is amputation,” says Sanchez, a one-time Brown Beret activist who has been leading California Teachers union for several years.
“If we do what Mr. Grinch wants us to do, the possibility of shutting down schools is a reality. Is that really what we want to do?”
But the cost of aligning itself so closely to the politically volatile issue of immigration has been steep for organized labor in California.
This drop in union popularity comes at a time of ongoing labor conflicts in the state and the country, much of it involving government employee pensions and retirement benefits.
In California, voters’ view of organized labor has dimmed over the past two and a half years, according to the latest Field Poll.
More than half of whites say unions do more harm than good, up from 39 percent in 2011.
Even those who identify as Democrats or have union affiliations say their views on labor unions has soured.
Some 30 percent of Democrats said unions do more harm than good – more than triple the number from a March 2011 poll.
But Latino labor leaders insist they will intensify their efforts on behalf of workers and immigrants rights in California and on Capitol Hill in the upcoming year.
“What’s wrong with making a middle-class living?” asks Durazo rhetorically. “That’s what we’ve always been proud of in this country… $100,000? That’s barely middle class…
“There’s more and more CEOs making tens of millions, and billions, of dollars.”