Varsha Patel works in the stockroom at the Cintas industrial laundry plant in Piscataway, N.J., sorting dirty uniforms as they come in for cleaning. For eight hours she remains standing as she separates the damaged cloths from the merely dirty; at the end of the day, she says, "My hands, feet and legs are sore." For this she is paid a princely $7.94 an hour.
Varsha Patel (not her real name) has worked for Cintas, America's largest uniform rental company, since 1997, and it has not been the happiest of associations. Six months ago, her co-workers who hang clothing on racks positioned well above their heads had to hang 1,700 uniforms a day. Now they have to hang 2,000. And if she or her fellow workers take more than six sick days in a year, they'll be summarily fired.
The work force at Piscataway isn't notably young; most of the plant's 145 production workers are women in their 30s, 40s and 50s, almost all of whom make between $6.50 and $9 an hour. Many, like Varsha Patel, are immigrants from the Indian state of Gujarat (virtually all Gujaratis have the surname Patel); the other workers come from Punjab (another Indian state) and Vietnam, with a smattering of Latinos, Pakistanis and African Americans.
Earlier this year, the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE) sent Seema Patel, a daughter of Gujarati immigrants who'd recently graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, to Piscataway as one of four staffers organizing the plant's workers. Cintas, which last year had revenues of $2.3 billion, employs 17,000 workers in its far-flung laundries, few of whom make more than the $9 hourly ceiling at Piscataway. Eighty percent of those workers are immigrants, says Jen Roitman, whom UNITE has assigned to head up the 150 organizers it plans to put on its nationwide campaign to unionize the company.
Seema Patel grew up in the largely white, upper-middle-class community of Mission Viejo in California's Orange County, so when she started making house calls on the Piscataway plant's workers in nearby Edison, N.J. -- home to the nation's largest Gujarati community -- she quickly discovered she'd entered a very different culture. Like most first-generation immigrant communities throughout American history, the Gujaratis of Edison have neither fully assimilated nor flourished. The overwhelming majority of workers Seema Patel says she spoke with "would actually like to go back to Gujarat, but they stay here for their children."
The dawning of pro-union sentiment among the Piscataway workers was slow to come. Cintas told its new hires that it was a nonunion company, which many immigrant workers initially took to mean that the firm had some kind of legal status that forbade its employees from unionizing. UNITE has dispelled that misconception in the Gujarati community through a multipronged organizing campaign, calling on workers at their homes, holding meetings in Edison's Hindu church, getting stories in the local Gujarati press and on TVAsia, enlisting local elected officials of Indian extraction to come on house calls with their organizers and bringing down Gujarati UNITE members from a unionized Liz Claiborne plant elsewhere in Jersey.
These are all modern-day versions of tactics that unions used with immigrant workers during the last great wave of immigration, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. On New York's Lower East Side, for instance, the Yiddish-language daily Forward would explain unionism and its benefits to Jewish immigrants, and Jewish elected officials would take prominent roles in support of strikes and organizing drives. The garment unions based in New York and then the great CIO unions -- the United Auto Workers, the United Steelworkers of America and others -- sunk their roots into southern and eastern European communities all across the land.
But by the 1980s, when Gujaratis began coming to New Jersey and when a flood of immigrants from Latin America and Asia began to transform America and its workplaces, the union movement was triply unprepared. It had long since ceased to organize immigrants (or anyone at all, for that matter) and had few if any roots in the new communities; what's more, it favored a range of policies that could only be described as anti-immigrant.
Today unions have become the most politically powerful champions that immigrants can claim. Among the few unions successful at organizing in the private sector -- notably UNITE, the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union (HERE) and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) -- the laundry workers, hotel housekeepers and waiters, and janitors that these unions respectively represent are predominantly immigrants.
Not surprisingly, it was leaders from these unions (most notably HERE President John Wilhelm and SEIU Executive Vice President Eliseo Medina) who led the fight to reverse the AFL-CIO's policy on immigration. For years the federation had supported employer sanctions -- a policy in which the Immigration and Naturalization Service would raid a workplace, detain and deport the undocumented immigrants working there, and levy a small fine on the employer.
But with the great immigration wave of the 1980s and '90s transforming entire industries, employer sanctions became management's tool for union busting. Unions would try to organize a workplace only to see the employer call in the INS to deport key activists. Early in 1999, Wilhelm made the case to his colleagues on the AFL-CIO's executive council that the federation's policy no longer made any sense, and in early 2000, the AFL-CIO reversed its stance completely.
From a policy essentially favoring deportation, labor became the most significant advocate of amnesty for undocumented immigrants. In 2000, a pro-amnesty rally sponsored by the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor drew 20,000 immigrants to that city's Sports Arena. In the early months of George W. Bush's presidency, unions were negotiating with the administration, Congress, business lobbies and the government of Mexico on a megadeal that would have eased immigration restrictions, offered amnesty to undocumenteds and ensured their rights in the workplace. All such discussions ceased, however, in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks.
In fact, unions now are far more important -- indispensable, actually -- to this wave of immigrants than their predecessors were to the wave that came to the United States from the 1880s through the 1920s. The Slavs, Poles, Jews, Italians and others who arrived in those decades had two significant champions: some (by no means most) of the unions and, more importantly, the big-city, largely Democratic political machines. Organizations such as New York's Tammany Hall gave immigrants jobs and regularly steered them to the polls (to vote for Tammany's candidates, of course).
But between 1930 and 1960, the machines dwindled and died. In the 1980s, when America's cities began to fill up with Mexicans, Central and South Americans, Dominicans, Nigerians, Koreans, Filipinos and others, no existing mainstream political organizations saw an interest in taking up their cause; there were only unions. And of all the unions active within immigrant communities (there are still far too few), the SEIU's janitors stand out for raising workers' living standards, just as the Los Angeles AFL-CIO provides the model for turning immigrant workers into a political powerhouse.
Among America's unions, it may be the SEIU's janitorial locals where élan is highest. During the mid- and late-1980s in many cities, the union's old locals crumbled as building-maintenance companies replaced their unionized workers with new, nonunion immigrants who worked far more cheaply than their predecessors. At a time when few unions were organizing at all, John Sweeney, then the SEIU's president, decided that his union would commit major resources to rebuild its endangered janitorial sector. Thus was born the Justice for Janitors program.
Hiring Spanish-speaking organizers was just the beginning. Winning the support of parish priests and, eventually, cardinals; securing public sympathy through raucous, mediagenic public events that dramatized the David-and-Goliath nature of their contests with management; persuading elected officials to back the workers; harnessing the dedication of enough members so that there could be crews of pickets around hundreds of far-flung office buildings during the nighttime cleaning hours; shaming the mega-rich corporations that own the high-rises in America's downtowns -- through these and many other strategies, the SEIU rebuilt the janitors into a powerful network of locals.
This spring the janitors did something remarkable: With unemployment rising and with the costs of health insurance everywhere being shifted to employees, they won raises and improved family health coverage in one city after another. The pattern was set this winter in Boston, where the local had planned a strike precisely because the union felt it could win a signal victory there. With the accustomed bells and whistles and street theater, the union dramatized the inherently Dickensian nature of the conflict, and to great effect: Polling taken for the union showed that 66 percent of Massachusetts voters supported the janitors while just 9 percent supported management. When the strike was done, the janitors had won a 30 percent raise over five years, and even more remarkably, part-time janitors (the majority in Boston are part-timers) won employer-paid health insurance for the first time.
"We're restructuring the industry to full-time work," says Steven Lerner, who heads the SEIU's building-services (that is, janitorial) division. Winning more hours for members in some cities, health coverage for part-timers in others, the union is moving an entire work force toward full-time, full-benefit jobs -- at the very moment when benefits and workweeks are declining throughout the economy.
Some of the industries in which immigrants cluster, however, all but defy organizing. Still, that doesn't mean that unions can't improve the workers' lives. In Houston, in a right-to-work state with perennially low rates of unionization, the Central Labor Council has tried to organize, if not exactly into unions, the vast day-laborer sector of the construction work force. "You had people from all different countries; they'd separate themselves, they'd line up in different places down the block to be hired first," all of which drove wages steadily downward, recalls Richard Shaw, the council's secretary-treasurer. So Shaw worked with the city government to establish indoor day-labor sites that could serve as hiring halls where workers could amass some bargaining power. It was the beginning of a relationship that put the council at the center of Houston's immigrant community struggles.
With the urban democratic machines long gone, unions have become the primary vehicles through which immigrant communities are socialized into American politics. Nowhere has this process gone further or faster than in Los Angeles. Until the mid-'90s, L.A. was a politically moderate city where the union role in politics was negligible. It took Proposition 187 in 1994 -- the initiative backed by then-Gov. Pete Wilson denying such public services as schools to undocumented immigrants and their children -- to shock the immigrant community into political action. Once the campaign ended, however, it became clear that there were no standing institutions to help naturalize and mobilize the community, and that no one knew how to activate the more than 1 million undocumented immigrant Angelenos to concrete political ends.
In 1996, Miguel Contreras, an organizer who'd learned his trade with the United Farm Workers (UFW) and perfected it at the HERE, became the chief executive officer of the L.A. County Federation of Labor and immediately turned his attention to those conundrums. Several months later, after consultation with various SEIU, HERE and UFW officials, he'd figured it out. A state assembly seat had come open in a district that was heavily immigrant, and Gilbert Cedillo, the former head of the county employees' union, was waging an uphill campaign against the Latino establishment's candidate. Maria Elena Durazo, head of Local 11, the HERE's main chapter in Los Angeles, realized that most of her members, noncitizens though they might be, lived within the district. Local 11 began a program explaining to its members the stakes in this election, teaching them how to walk a precinct and work a phone bank. The county federation inaugurated a program for getting out the vote of union members, and of the nonunion new voters (both groups mostly immigrant) who lived in the district. The two locals that turned out the most members for the program were Durazo's local and the SEIU's janitorial local -- another union composed chiefly of undocumenteds. When the votes were counted, Cedillo stunned the political community by winning handily.
In the years since, the L.A. County Federation of Labor has won election after election by mobilizing union and immigrant voters. By my count, the federation is the dominant player in nine of the city's 15 council districts and roughly two dozen state legislative districts. It has a sophisticated mail and media program, but what sets its operation apart are its precinct walkers and phoners. "The backbone of the operation is the janitors and HERE," Contreras says. The two locals put in more volunteers than any of the more than 300 locals that belong to the federation.
The payoffs for the locals are clear: Both have received massive political support in their strikes, bargaining and organizing drives. But the payoffs for the larger immigrant community are clear as well. Under pressure from the union movement, the city has enacted and repeatedly expanded the scope of living-wage legislation. The state legislature is poised to enact (and Gov. Gray Davis committed to sign) legislation by now-state Sen. Cedillo that would enable 2 million undocumented immigrants to obtain drivers' licenses and auto insurance.
This September, buses will embark from 10 cities in the West, Midwest and South for what its organizers have termed the Immigrant Workers Freedom Rides. Immigrants -- some citizens, some not; some documented, some not -- will wend their way to Washington, stopping en route at the meatpacking houses of the Plains states and the barrios and city halls of myriad cities. After a lobbying day in Washington -- not for specific legislation but for the concept that people who've worked in the United States for years should be given a way to earn legal status -- the riders will roll on to a massive public rally in New York City on Oct. 4.
The rides were conceived by the HERE, which is staffing the project (Durazo is in charge). They've been endorsed by the AFL-CIO and numerous unions and civil-rights groups. They've also galvanized the immigrant communities of many cities. Mexican "hometown associations," says the SEIU's Medina, are participating in the planning for the ride -- their first plunge into U.S. politics.
The freedom ride, Medina adds, helps "organize the immigrant community to advocate for itself." That is what Seema Patel is doing as she knocks on workers' doors in Edison, and it is what the labor movement needs to do more of if unions are to survive -- and if this wave of immigrants are to move up in an economy that doesn't have the ladders it once had.