Progressives and the New Immigrant Movement

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.

    --Andrew L. Stern
    President, Service Employees International Union

    Don't Celebrate--Organize!

    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.

    What has been done in California is absolutely replicable. Political organizing that focuses on mobilizing and turning out a greater proportion of the working-class/progressive/ immigrant base and reaffirming solid links to the African-American community would unleash the same power anywhere. It would give Democrats the opportunity to quit chasing the mythical "swing voter" and return to core values.

    But the future is by no means secured, in California or in other states. Again, the key challenge lies in organizing. The labor movement must turn political progress and the immigrant-labor coalition into large numbers of new union members. And we have to make sure that we include all immigrant groups, not just Latinos.

    A national progressive politics requires a much bigger labor base than 13.5 percent of the workforce and only 9 percent of the private sector, as does a continuation of progress in California. So as usual, Meyerson is right. Our response should be "Don't celebrate--organize!"

    --John W. Wilhelm
    President, Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union

    Chairman, AFL-CIO Immigration Committee

    Not Only in California

    Harold Meyerson has been an enthusiastic and persuasive analyst of the L.A. labor-Latino alliance, but we should be careful not to fall into the trap of believing that this can happen only in Los Angeles. L.A. exceptionalism was the wrong way to cut the story when we first started worrying about the emergence of right-wing antitax racism, and it's the wrong way to look at it now that Los Angeles is in the vanguard of progressive action. Thankfully, because of the hard work of thousands of union and community organizers and leaders, elements of the L.A. story are cropping up in many U.S. cities; all of these transformations hold great promise for progressive renewal on a national scale.

    As Meyerson points out, Los Angeles is home to a vibrant community/labor coalition that has come together on a range of issues, including what many regard as a signature accomplishment: a series of victorious living-wage campaigns. But what is most exciting here is how widespread these coalitions are and how many of them have won passage of living-wage ordinances. At last count, the living-wage movement had notched close to 60 victories nationally--many in cities every bit as conservative as Ventura County. And as we have seen in the living-wage campaigns that ACORN (the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now) has been part of, these fights have brought community organizations, church groups, and unions together to alter the political landscape in city after city: They have put issues of class and income disparity front and center and have forced politicians to declare which side they are on. ACORN member Ted Thomas, the leader of Chicago's living-wage coalition, was elected to the board of aldermen on the back of that city's campaign, with the support of Chicago's community/labor alliance. The vast majority of New York City's current candidates for city council, and each of the Democratic candidates for mayor, have pledged support for ACORN's living-wage proposal.

    Los Angeles is not alone in seeing the political benefits of changing demographics. Latino and African-American majorities are fast becoming the rule in many of the nation's largest cities, with consequent shifts in political power. ACORN is rapidly expanding into most of the nation's top 100 cities as we see opportunities to bring low-income and working families into community organizations that can effectively contest for power. (For more information, go to

    Finally, we shouldn't forget the crucial link between union power and union density. Los Angeles is like most cities in that the percentage of union members in the population is higher than in the country as a whole. And in the hands of effective local leadership, this density translates into real power. Nationwide we are seeing labor councils and locals begin to wield this power. Even in traditionally anti-union New Orleans, campaigns to organize the city's tourism industry are gaining momentum as unions and their allies move strategically to force politicians to support their demands.

    Los Angeles is an inspiring story, but equally inspiring are the stories being told in cities across the country. Our challenge now is to unite these fights into a truly national progressive movement.

    --Steven Kest
    Executive Director, Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now

    The Unsung Story

    "New labor" often gets the credit for the progressive turnaround in Los Angeles. But while it was great to see Beverly Hills home owners cheer when striking janitors stopped traffic on Wilshire Boulevard last year, new labor is only half the story. The other half--the unsung, unheralded half--is community organizing in low-income, immigrant communities all over Los Angeles.

    In the past 10 years, Los Angeles has become home base to some of the most impressive community organizing in the country. The living wage, now a national movement and household word, owes its success to smart research, innovative community organizing, and media outreach.

    Since the 1992 unrest, Los Angeles has seen novel experiments in multi-ethnic organizing unlike anything elsewhere in the United States. A community-based Koreatown restaurant campaign brought together Korean and Latino workers to win better wages and safety conditions. Organizers at Los Angeles's Garment Worker Center, which opened this January, advocate on behalf of garment employees in six languages.

    What's happening in Los Angeles could happen elsewhere, but it wouldn't be easy. Making it work has required a convergence of seasoned leaders and new strategies. Los Angeles's new economic-justice movement has combined broad-based social change with long-term vision. Its leaders know the necessity of organizing, coalition building, and keeping their eyes on the prize. Many have decades of experience working together.

    Leaders young and old have drawn on a fresh, unorthodox arsenal of creative tactics. They've been willing to try new approaches and unwilling to succumb to the progressive Achilles' heel--political correctness. There isn't One True Path. Engage small businesses in solving community problems? Why not! Fight for better wages, but not just through unions? Let's see if it works. Incorporate street theater into organizing for clean-fuel buses? You bet.

    In California we've overcome that stale tradition of political purism. We've reinvented organizing.

    --Torie Osborn
    Executive Director, Liberty Hill Foundation