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March 1996, Volume 3, Number 3

Unions and Immigrants

The AFL-CIO met in New York in late October, 1995, and selected John Sweeny of the 1.1 million-member Service Employees International Union to head the 13 million member AFL-CIO. The US had 16.4 million union members in 1995, and union members were 15 percent of the labor force.

Sweeny has made union organizing a high priority. About 35 percent of US nonfarm workers were union members in 1955, 24 percent in 1979, and 16 percent in 1995.

The AFL-CIO pledged to spend $100 million on union organizing in 1996-97, and announced a program under which the AFL-CIO would provide $1 for every $4 that its 78-member unions spend on organizing. The AFL-CIO also welcomed back into the federation the 117,000 National Health and Human Service Employees Union, one of the most aggressive organizers, with 15 full-time organizers.

The number of strikes involving 1,000 or more workers fell to 32 in 1995, the lowest number in 50 years, and far below the 400 per year of the early 1950s and late 1960s. The average duration of strikes has risen to an all-time high of 53 days.

Several cities and unions are spearheading the organizing campaign. Sweeny's SEIU reportedly spends 30 percent of its budget on organizing, has organizers who speak 14 languages, and publishes information in a number of Latin America and Asian languages. The SEIU's organizing drives among janitors and health care aides at the end of the 20th century are sometimes compared to the efforts of manufacturing unions to organize factory workers at the beginning of the century.

The SEIU is targeting health care workers; in many US cities, hospitals are the largest private employers, and the US health care industry employs nine million workers, half as many as US factories. In California, the SEIU is trying to organize the 160,000 home health care aides who, as independent contractors, assist about 190,000 persons who live at home.

The home health care aides have work contracts with the disabled person whom they assist--the disabled person is their supervisor who signs their time sheet. The aides are paid $4.25 per hour and receive no benefits or labor law protections. The SEIU has dues of $7.38 per month deducted from the $300 to $400 that most home health care aides earn.

The unions that represent workers in sewing shops, who are often immigrants, merged in the summer of 1995 in UNITE--Union of Needletrades, Industrial, and Textile Employees, a 300,000-member union headed by Jay Mazur. UNITE runs an immigration assistance center and provides language classes for members.

In Texas, most of the small-town garment shops that employed primarily part-time women to sew garments have closed, with owners and workers blaming everything from free trade and NAFTA to the failure of the US Department of Labor to stamp out urban garment sweatshops. The number of apparel jobs in the US fell to 846,000 in 1995, down more than 10 percent from 945,000 in 1994. Half of the apparel sold in the US is imported.

However, many of the unions that immigrants are most likely to come in contact with have been charged with corruption. The Laborers International Union of North America, the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International; the International Longshoremen's Association, and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters have been charged with being corrupt.

Los Angeles leads the list of cities in which many unions see new members--only about 16 percent of the Los Angeles labor force belongs to unions, versus 27 percent in New York City, and 24 percent in Detroit. Instead of organizing workers company-by-company, unions hope to use community-based organizing--work with churches and other trusted institutions to make immigrant workers aware of unions. Los Angeles is considered ripe because although it depends heavily on immigrant workers, who despite former reluctance to join unions, are now receptive to organized labor.

On February 20, the AFL-CIO unveiled its new $35-million Reclaim America campaign to get out the vote and to spur voters' support for issues important to organized labor. Most of the funds will be collected through a special 15 cent per member assessment that is expected to be approved at a special union convention scheduled for March 25.

Unions are leading a drive to increase the minimum wage state by state. The federal minimum wage was last raised in 1991, to $4.25 per hour, although some states, including California raised their minimum wages earlier. Today, about 20 percent of the states have minimum wages higher than $4.25--New Jersey, at $5.05 is the highest.

Despite President Clinton's call for a $5.15 minimum wage, the Republican controlled Congress is unlikely to act. Thus, unions and other supporters of a minimum wage hike are gathering signatures to put initiatives on the ballots in seven states, including California and Washington, that would raise the minimum wage. The California initiative, for example, would raise the state's minimum wage from $4.25 to $5 in March 1997, and $5.75 in March 1998.

Stuart Silverstein, "AFL-CIO Leaders Describe Plan to Win Voters," Los Angles Times, February 22, 1996. Stuart Silverstein, "Going to Work on LA: In Its Many Low-Paid Laborers; Unions See Big Potential for Organizing," Los Angeles Times, February 22, 1996. Steven Greenhouse, "Unions looking south to find new members," New York Times, February 20, 1996. Kevin Baxter, "Labor of Love; A Passionate Yanira Merino Refuses to Let Fatigue or Threats Stop Her Push to Empower Workers," Los Angeles Times, February 18, 1996. David Bacon, "Unions may give a political voice to social unrest of Latinos in US," Sacramento Bee, January 3, 1996. Steven Greenhouse, "After merger, garment union's heart is still on seventh avenue," New York Times, December 4, 1995. Peter Kilborn, "Union gets the lowly to sign up," New York Times, November 21, 1995. Steven Greenhouse, "New fire for labor," New York Times, October 26, 1995.