New Plans by Labor for Immigration Reform
New SEIU Sec.-Treas. Eliseo Medina Sets Plans for
Organizing, Immigration Reform
by David Moberg
Working In These Times
September 20, 2010
The lives of working people will only improve through
unions, the veteran organizer says in this interview
Eliseo Medina, a former leader of the United Farm Workers, a
highly successful organizer and executive vice-president for
the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), and one of
the labor movement's foremost advocate of immigrant workers'
rights and immigration reform, unanimously won support from
his fellow executive board members last Wednesday to become
the new secretary-treasurer of SEIU.
Medina will serve at least until 2012, filling out the term
of Ann Burger, who resigned in August after losing her bid
to succeed retiring president Andy Stern to SEIU's new
president Mary Kay Henry.
Born in Mexico in 1946, Medina came to the U.S. ten years
later with his parents, who were agricultural workers in the
bracero program then operating. As a teenage farm worker he
joined the UFW during its landmark strike in Delano, Calif.,
in 1965, rising through the ranks. then parting ways with
Chavez and joining the SEIU. He proved adept at organizing,
leading strikes, political mobilization, and advocacy among
fellow trade unionists, who widely admire him. (See Harold
Meyerson's warm biography here.)
Medina, who backed Henry, seems well-suited to her
leadership style, which initially involves extensive
internal discussion of strategy and a greater focus on
fighting corporate power, in a search for solutions to what
she calls the Seven Percent Problem - the frighteningly low
level of unionization in the private sector.
In this edited interview, Medina talks with In These Times
about what he hopes to do on his new job, which includes
special emphasis on greater transparency and accountability
in financial management, increasing the union's organizing
efforts, and winning immigration reform.
What are your major goals for your new office?
One of the primary duties of the secretary-treasurer is
being the financial officer of the union, to make sure the
resources of the union are used in an effective manner, to
make sure we have full transparency to our members, so they
can see their hard-earned dues dollars are used in a way
that will make the future better for them and their
The other thing I want to work on, it's clear things are not
going well for working people. Conditions are worse than any
time in my memory. We've got sit where millions of people
are unemployed, millions are losing their homes, and there's
no hope for a better future. So I hope to be working closely
with our new president and the executive board to turn this
around. The only way we can do that is to engage in renewed
campaigns to organize workers into unions so they can have a
voice in decisions that are being made.
The third thing, I'm involved in and want to expand my
participation in figuring out not only how we fix this
country's broken immigration system but how we integrate
immigrants into the life of country. We are the new
generation of immigrants and have much to contribute, but we
have to eliminate barriers to participation, both in fixing
the broken immigration system but also with problems of
information about citizenship, so people can become full
participants in society, so they can become citizens and
once they re citizens, informed voters.
To take your first task, there's been a lot of concern that
SEIU's budget has not been well managed in recent years.
Have you had any chance to assess the financial shape of the
Yes, and I think we're in good shape, but given the
challenges we face, it's important to go through all of our
finances and make sure all of our money is devoted to our
priorities. That means we have to look very closely at all
of our expenditures and ask, Is this helping the goals of
the union as articulated by our executive board, and if it's
not, we need to reallocate money to our goals. As far as I
can see, we are in good financial shape, but that doesn't
mean we shouldn't review our expenditures to make sure we do
what we want to do.
Are there any indications of where serious amounts of money
were spent where it shouldn't have been spent?
We're a big organization, and a lot of money is spent on
different things. There are some things I want to go into
in detail. For example, if the executive board says growth
is the top priority, if winning on health care reform and
immigration reform are top priorities, we should take a
look at what we're doing and reallocate accordingly. It
doesn't mean they're not all good, worthwhile things, but
we may need to put them on hold while we focus on those
Your second priority is growth. How should SEIU and the
labor movement proceed now, with little prospect for passage
in the near future of the Employee Free Choice Act?
With or without the Employee Free Choice Act, we need to go
out and take our message to workers and give them the hope
that if they join together they will make a difference. I
think the Employee Free Choice Act is a critical component
of change so that workers have a free choice, but we can't
wait until Congress makes those changes.
We've got to set ambitious goals. In SEIU we are trying to
figure out how to deal with this problem. About 7 percent of
private sector workers are in a union now, and that's
untenable. There's no way you're going to be able to create
the kind of movement to reverse the trend we're seeing of
declining wages, healthcare, pensions and all that unless
workers have an organized voice fighting for the common
good. It's going to be a hard struggle, but if we don't do
it, things are only going to get worse for workers.
In recent years the vast majority of growth even in SEIU has
come from public or quasi-public sector. Any ideas on what
to do differently in the private sector?
Large portions of our economy depend on public funding, like
the defense industry. The difference between public workers
and publicly- funded workers is that basically in the public
sector, the employer allows the workers to make their own
decisions. They don't go out and try to convince workers not
to join the union. They don't do captive audience meetings,
or threaten people with firing. They let people make up
their own minds. It's analogous to what we do with our
elections. You don't find presidential candidates
threatening people if they don't vote for him. It's not what
you do in a democracy.
But the publicly-funded employers are the opposite. They
think they can threaten, harass, intimidate people from
having a free choice. One of the things we have to do is
hold them accountable. If they're going to use taxpayer
dollars, they ought to use them in a way respectful of
We found that when you take the employer out and leave it to
the workers, they always opt for an organization. Lots of
employers in the hospital industry agreed to give workers a
choice in a non-threatening way, while making their opinion
known, and in all cases workers voted for the union. We did
the same thing generally, not always, with janitors.
The thing that is going to allow more workers to organize is
that we - and by extension the rest of the labor movement--
have to go back to square one, and do what we need to do to
provide the information and vision for workers to join
You've been responsible for new organizing in the South and
Southwest. How do you assess the success of that effort? Do
you want to continue it?
We had very good success. We went from about 30,000 members
in 2004 in the South and Southwest to about 120,000 members
today. So we've grown by 400 percent. That sounds good but
we just barely scratched the surface, and a lot more needs
to be done. So I think that as we discuss the work we have
to do in SEIU we need to recommit ourselves to organize in a
more aggressive manner in the South and Southwest. Otherwise
it will always be the low-wage alternative for the rest of
country. We've shown it makes sense, but it takes focus, and
it takes commitment.
Does anything make it easier to organize in the South today
compared to the past, like the influx of Latino immigrants?
No question changing demographics have helped us to be able
to organize. Immigrants, when they come to this country,
come with hope for the future and want claim a piece of the
American dream. Organizing a union is part of that.
Everywhere I go there's a lot of interest in joining the
union, but with the economy, I find it with all groups -
African-Americans, Caucasians, Asians and Pacific Islanders.
But because we in the labor movement haven't done our job
well, they haven't had the opportunity to come together and
fight for their share of the pie. What's happening now is
the economy is helping, and changing demographics are
helping. In many ways, the South and Southwest are at a
tipping point in terms of changing, the way they look at
unions and the way things are going on in this country.
Nevertheless, it looks like Republicans will make serious
gains this fall even though a couple of years ago it looked
like there was an emerging Democratic majority for years to
I think people voted for change, and they still want change.
There's not the kind of organizing that brings people
together to talk about how do we get change. That's why
organizing a union matters. It's a way for people to come
together, to have conversations and to move together. A
stronger labor movement, allied with community groups, civic
groups, and civil rights groups that care about the same
issues, will be able to create a constituency for change we
need and we want. One election isn't going to do it.
One of the mistakes made in 2008 is people thought we were
electing Barack Obama king, not president. He doesn't have
power and authority to get the change he wanted. The special
interests are very entrenched. They're not going to give up
their power willingly or easily. It will take citizens who
What's the one biggest mistake the Obama administration
They didn't maintain the coalition that elected him. It was
very broad. Unfortunately - it wasn't just President Obama
- people thought change came as result of an election, not
as a result of a constituency that continues to work for
things they voted for.
You have been one of the trustees of United Healthcare West
[now in a battle with the new National Union of Healthcare
Workers, led by former UHW officials, for rights to
represent members of the 150,000-member local union].
That ceased 6, 7, 8 months ago.
Looking back, do you think there was a better way SEIU might
have handled relations with that local?
You know, that's a really difficult question. I've known the
former leaders of UHW for over 20 years. Unfortunately, I
think they developed a different philosophy, a different
perspective about strategies to make life better for
workers, and they had started to implement their separatist
strategy at least a year prior to the thing coming to a
head. So we tried every way we could.
Quite honestly, I don't know what we could have done
differently. Like anything, it takes two to make things
work. In their case there were decisions made and directions
taken before any conversations with the international. By
the time we became aware a lot of what they were doing and
began to exercise oversight responsibility, it was too late.
Regarding your third task, immigration reform also seems to
be stalled. If very conservative Republicans are elected,
the prospects will be even worse. How do you propose to
You were nice to say it's stalled. Now it's become such a
political and ideological football that I think it's very
difficult to get things done. We're dealing with a pubic
policy issue: We've been working very hard to make the case
of why immigration reform made sense for this country.
Unfortunately our opponents were not dealing with it that
way. Groups of people who are pretty much nativistic will
never agree that this is an issue that needs to be resolved
for the good of this country. Then you combine this with
politics. Unfortunately, the Republican party has always
felt making Latinos a wedge issue was a way to political
power, never mind that if you look back three or four
election cycles, you don't find a single anti-immigration
candidate who has ridden that to political office.
So I think that what we're in for a difficult fight, and the
only way we're going to fix this is to insure that
immigrants continue to become actors in the political
debate. We're going to continue to help people become
citizens, by giving them the information they need to become
citizens, more importantly, why they should become citizens.
Once they become citizens we need to make sure they vote,
and we'll provide information on where candidates stand.
I think that we're going to fix this immigration system
sooner or later - I hope sooner - but the only way we're
going to get this done is to continue to add to the number
of voters and active participants. Given the demographics, I
think it's just a matter of time. In some very key states,
it's going to pretty darn difficult for any candid to be
elected president in 2012 unless they have a story to tell
to the Latino community. It's going be hard for the
Republican party if they have a history of anti-immigrant
activity and identity as the party of Pete Wilson [former
California governor who scapegoated immigrants].
They'll be in difficult situation. If you look at 2012,
Latinos will be the margin of victory in Nevada, Arizona,
Texas, Colorado, Florida, California, Illinois, and New
York. New York and California are blue. Arizona, Colorado,
Florida, and Nevada are not.
The only way we get immigration reform is to keep growing
those numbers and make sure in 2012 that if Republicans keep
going the way they are, they do what Pete Wilson did in the
[anti-immigrant] Proposition 187 years. He won the first
election, but in the long run, he lost a generation of
Latinos, and that's how California became blue. If
Republicans think that in 2010 bashing immigrants is way to
win, they're following Wilson's formula, and they're going
to find that in 2012 this will backfire very badly.
What I'm hoping is that after the election, sanity will
prevail regardless of what party is in power because it's in
both of their interests to take the issue off the table. The
Republicans have no way they can defend [their position] and
Democrats can't win without accomplishing something, having
a record they can point to. Positioning Latinos as
independent voters asking for action on immigration reform
is the best position we could be in.
Political parties and candidates can not write off and
alienate for the long term the fastest growing constituency
in the country. If you look at demographics, it's
inevitable. In 2012 we know there will be many more Latino
voters than there are today. In 2014 there will be more,
even more in 2016. If Republicans say not only are we the
party of no, but hell, no, when it comes to immigration
reform, they are sending an unmistakable message to Latinos.
The last thing I'll say, 20 years ago it really mattered
whether we were Mexican, Puerto Rican, Salvadoran or
Argentinian, but because of all the activities of
Republicans in the last four years, they have created the
greatest unity among Latinos that I have ever seen since I
came to this country in 1956. That's good for us and bad for
[David Moberg, a senior editor of In These Times, has been
on the staff of the magazine since it began publishing.
Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a
Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and
worked for Newsweek. He has received fellowships from the
John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation
Institute for research on the new global economy. He can be
reached at [log in to unmask] ]
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