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Unions Helped to Organize `Day Without Immigrants'

Labor planned marches, provided security and paid expenses in a turnabout from onetime opposition to undocumented workers.

May 03, 2006|Teresa Watanabe and Joe Mathews | Times Staff Writers

They figured out the march route and provided the security. They took care of the stages, portable toilets and first aid stations. They raised most of the money needed -- more than $80,000.

While a diverse coalition of community organizations planned and pulled off Monday's "Day Without Immigrants," organized labor's money, muscle and mobilizing expertise played an instrumental role in managing the myriad details involved in the two Los Angeles marches.

Unions representing janitors, construction laborers, drivers, hotel employees, healthcare workers and other industries turned out en masse for the march along Wilshire Boulevard, which drew hundreds of thousands of people pressing for legalization of illegal immigrants and other changes in immigration law. That march was organized by the We Are America coalition, which featured Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, immigrant rights activists and labor leaders.

Unions also played a key role in the march to City Hall, although organizer Nativo Lopez of the March 25 Coalition said Tuesday that grass-roots community members provided most of the volunteers.

And two union leaders -- Mike Garcia of Local 1877 of the Service Employees International Union and Jorge Rodriguez of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees -- managed the connections between the two coalitions.

For organized labor, the stakes in changing the nation's immigration laws are enormous. Garcia said immigrants make up a growing proportion of the workforce -- more than 85% of his Los Angeles janitors union, for instance -- when only 8% of the nation's private-sector workers are unionized. In California, immigrants make up one-third of the workforce.

"Immigrants are the new demographic of America's workforce today," Garcia said. "If labor is to save itself from decline, it has to have an active organizing effort among immigrants."

That stance is relatively new. Although some unions were founded by low-skilled immigrants, others have historically been opposed to immigrants, viewing them as cheap labor competition, Garcia said.

In later years, he said, unions overall adopted that negative stance.

That changed in 2000, when the AFL-CIO embraced amnesty for undocumented workers for the first time.

Manuel Pastor Jr., a UC Santa Cruz economist and professor of Latin American and Latino studies, said migrant workers are more willing to join unions than the native-born -- another reason organized labor sees them as a rich source of new recruits.

Compared to more individualistic American workers, he said, "migrant workers carry a historic experience of having union experiences ... and also bringing more collective traditions where your family is important, your village is important. In the migrant tradition, you're only as good as the network you fall into when you come to Los Angeles."

But the current immigrant rights movement, while showing the clout of organized labor, has also highlighted its internal tensions -- primarily over the issue of a guest worker program.

Garcia's service employees union and others in which immigrants predominate have embraced a guest worker program as long as workers' rights are adequately protected by labor law as part of immigration legislation sponsored by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), and Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.).

But Rodriguez said his union of government workers opposes it as a "two-tiered system of poverty in America." AFL-CIO President John Sweeney has also denounced the Senate Judiciary Committee's proposed guest worker program, saying it would encourage employers to "turn good jobs into temporary jobs at reduced wages and diminished working conditions."

Despite those differences, unions in general agree that immigrants represent organized labor's future, Garcia said.

The crucial role that unions have played in the last two months of marches and rallies was evident this week.

For both Los Angeles marches, union members mapped out the routes. Initially, both coalitions planned to hold one massive march centered at Pershing Square until planners concluded that it would not accommodate the expected crowds, Garcia said. Eventually, each coalition held its own march.

The western edge of MacArthur Park, the launch point for the march down Wilshire, showed the depth of the union influence.

A dozen portable toilets were brought in, paid for by labor. Half a dozen members of the janitors union provided security.

Five members of the United Auto Workers affiliate that represents UCLA graduate students joined the march, along with Michael Ontell, a fourth-grade teacher in the San Fernando Valley and a United Teachers Los Angeles representative, and three other elementary school teachers.

Two members of the Southern California District Council of Laborers, which represents about 8,000 construction workers, helped hand out 45 cases of bottled water.

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