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Immigration Rallies: Look for the Union Label By: Byron York
The Hill | Wednesday, May 10, 2006


Did you notice the blue signs that said “We Are America” at the pro-illegal-immigration rallies in Washington and elsewhere?

They might just as easily have said, “We are organized labor.”

If you look at the small print on those signs, you’ll see a reference to an organization called the New American Opportunity Campaign. Find the group’s website and click on the line to send a donation and you’ll be told, “Make checks payable to: Coalition for Comprehensive Immigration Reform, 1775 K Street NW, Suite 620, Washington DC 20006.”

Look up that address and you’ll find it is the Washington headquarters for UNITE HERE, the union formed by the merger of the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees and the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union.

It turns out UNITE HERE is a major player in the battle over illegal immigration. So is the Service Employees International Union, or SEIU.

Both organizations — UNITE HERE represents a little fewer than half a million workers, while SEIU represents 1.8 million — are the new face of labor. And no issue illustrates that more clearly than immigration.

The percentage of American workers represented by unions has been falling for decades. In many industries, that won’t change anytime soon; do you expect we’ll be seeing lots of new autoworkers and miners?

With decreasing membership has come decreasing clout.

Some in the union world, like AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, want to fight that by throwing millions and millions of dollars at political candidates. If they can just get their guys in office, and have them be beholden to organized labor, they’ll get some of that clout back. But that hasn’t been working all that well of late.

So some leaders of unions like SEIU and UNITE HERE want to approach the problem another way: grow strong by actually growing. They want — they need — new members.

And where will those unions, which represent mostly low-wage, unskilled workers, find new members? That’s right. In the large-and-growing-larger pool of illegal immigrants.

That’s a big part of what you’ve been seeing in the streets.

It is unlikely that the immigrants themselves would be able to stage demonstrations of the kind we saw on May Day and on April 10. That’s where the unions come in.

“The leadership of organized labor is one of the reasons these marches have been so big,” says Mark Krikorian, executive director of the pro-enforcement Center for Immigration Studies, “because there is [a union] infrastructure everywhere to get people mobilized, to rent the buses, to print the signs — all that stuff is important, and that’s the advantage that organized labor still has.”

And of course, if those illegal immigrants are unionized, and if immigration reform puts them on the path to citizenship, then in the end there will be a new pool of … Democratic voters. And more money for the party. More union members means more union dues and more contributions to Democrats.

And pretty much only to Democrats. From 1989 to 2006, SEIU made $23.5 million in political contributions, with more than 90 percent of it going to Democrats. UNITE HERE, though smaller, is just as pro-Democrat.

And yet another union involved in the immigration issue, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, gave $37 million in the same period, again with more than 90 percent going to Democrats.

The immigration push could not have come at a better time for the troubled unions. But the fact that it seems limited to unskilled laborers is a problem because labor leaders would prefer their movement to be a broad coalition.

In The Washington Post this week, pro-union columnist Harold Meyerson writes, “Even a sea change among immigrant workers doesn’t necessarily mean that the dark days of American labor could be coming to an end. In the growing high-end, high-tech workforce, said union strategist Jim Grossfeld, who with pollster Celinda Lake has undertaken a study for the Center for American Progress of professional and technical employees, ‘many workers have a problem with the word union and with the old economic rules.’”

It’s hard to organize them, even though there have been a few successes. In the end, Meyerson says, “It’s chiefly immigrant workers who are emerging from the shadows to lead the next generation’s battles for economic equity.”

Now, there is nothing wrong with unions spending a lot of money on politics (although individual members shouldn’t be forced to contribute to a candidate or party they don’t support). And it’s not wrong for the Democratic Party to want new voters.

The mystifying thing in all this is why so many Republican officeholders are going along with liberal immigration reform proposals. Their supporters are against it, and it will mean more voters and more money for the other party.

And, oh yes, there is a long list of policy reasons to oppose it.

So could someone please explain what’s going on?

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