Magazine article The American Prospect

California: An Exchange

Magazine article The American Prospect

California: An Exchange

Article excerpt


In the new workers' movement in Los Angeles, immigrants are playing a crucial part:

* Two years ago, 74,000 home-care workers--many of them immigrants--joined the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) in the largest union-organizing campaign in the United States since 1918.

* Last year, a three-week Justice for Janitors strike won unprecedented public support and led to successful organizing by janitors in previously nonunion Orange County. Many of the religious leaders, community groups, and public officials who joined in rallies and even arrests to support the janitors were drawn by the campaign's moral appeal. Others also understood that as workers join unions they become more likely to be voters who back other progressive causes, such as environmental protection and women's rights.

* A few months after the janitors' strike, more than 20,000 workers from dozens of countries rallied at the Los Angeles Sports Arena to call for immigration reform that would allow hardworking, taxpaying immigrants to achieve legalization. The rally was supported by the AFL-CIO, which a few months before had changed its position on immigration policy to recognize the need to fight for the rights of all workers, regardless of immigration status. Two-thirds of those attending the rally were not union members but were drawn to the event because of their support for immigration reform.

* After the rally, immigrants formed the Organization of Los Angeles Workers to encourage civic participation in their communities. The nonpartisan group has boosted voter registration and galvanized support for immigration reform that rewards work.

Recent reports on data from the 2000 U.S. Census suggest that what's been happening in Los Angeles may spread to many other parts of the United States as recent immigrants become an increasingly important part of local economies. New immigrants can strengthen local labor movements, and unions must become a primary vehicle for immigrants to join with other workers to win living wages, affordable health care, and a retirement with dignity. By supporting these workers, progressives will have an opportunity both to stand up against growing inequality in our society and to help build a stronger foundation for a broad progressive movement in this country.

President, Service Employees International Union


Harold Meyerson is just about always on target and often sees important trends coming long before anyone else does. He's right about California, right about Los Angeles, and right about the labor-Latino coalition.

Organizing is the key to what's been done so far. The Democratic Party in California, as nationally, forgot about precinct organizing and mobilizing voters door to door; it turned politics over to political consultants hooked on TV and direct mail. That resulted in poor turnout among the Democratic base and inordinate focus on "swing voters." The labor movement has begun to rediscover the power of doing political mobilization the old-fashioned way: on the ground, door to door, member to member.

Organizing immigrants is equally crucial. In a historic policy reversal, the AFL-CIO's executive council voted unanimously in February 2000 to put labor foursquare on the side of immigrants. The push for the policy change came from California. The June 2000 AFL-CIO Immigration Worker Rights Forum in Los Angeles was an extraordinary event that brought together 20,000 people, who responded with equal fervor every time a speaker said "amnesty" or "Mexico" or "union." It's just in time: New-citizen voters will dominate politics in the next decade just as immigrants dominated population growth in the past decade. Nationally, Republicans appear to have a better grasp of this reality than Democrats do, even though in California the Republicans left an opening that the labor-Latino coalition seized. …

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