'The Power of Their Numbers'

By Harold Meyerson
Wednesday, May 3, 2006

This morning, for the first time in two months, it will be a day with immigrants at the University of Miami. On Monday the university's janitors -- almost all of them immigrants, and the vast majority refugees from Fidel Castro's Cuba -- won a nine-week battle with the university and its janitorial contractor over their right to be represented by a union. Today they report back to work. When the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) set out to organize the janitors, it didn't anticipate its campaign would turn into the struggle it eventually became. "Given who the president of the university is," said Eliseo Medina, SEIU's executive vice president, "we actually expected this to go rather smoothly."

It seemed a reasonable expectation. The president of the University of Miami is Donna Shalala, secretary of health and human services in the Clinton administration and a longtime proponent of greater equity for the poor. Nonetheless, when the strike began, it was hard to find Miamians much poorer than the university's janitors. Maritza Paz, who was admitted to the United States 13 years ago as a political refugee from Cuba, hired on at the university 11 years ago at $4.35 an hour. When the strike began, she had worked her way up to a sumptuous $6.70 hourly wage with no benefits, for which she cleaned 17 bathrooms and 20 offices every day.

But as weeks dragged into months, both the university and its contractor refused to deal with the union. Workers and students embarked on a hunger strike, and SEIU enlisted the help of its numerous Democratic allies. Behind the scenes, a number of Shalala's former Clinton administration colleagues worked to mediate a solution. A few weeks ago a Shalala-appointed commission recommended raising wages and establishing health benefits (recommendations that Shalala promptly enacted), but it did so without ever having met with any of the striking workers. Convinced that they still had no channel to talk to management, the workers stayed out. Medina embarked on a hunger strike that ended only Monday, when the university agreed to a procedure that enables the workers to get their union.

Coincidentally, Monday was also a landmark day in the struggle for immigrant rights -- a struggle in which Medina has long played a pivotal role. In 1999 Medina led the successful fight to persuade the AFL-CIO to reverse its historical opposition to immigrants and embrace their cause. His union, SEIU, has been the principal funder and logistical coordinator for many of the recent legalization demonstrations. And Medina sees the current tsunami of immigrant activism as a portent not just of political change but of union growth.

"My guess is that 90 percent of the people in the street have never done anything like this before," he said. "Fear of taking part in public actions is now less of a factor for them."

After Monday's job boycott, their fear of taking part in job actions may be diminished as well. Perhaps the most economically significant shutdown came at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach -- combined, the nation's largest harbor and its primary entry point for Asian-made imports -- where roughly 90 percent of the almost entirely immigrant workforce of truckers who drive those imports all over the country stayed off the job.

The truckers' tale is one of the most appalling in American labor. With trucking deregulated, neither the trucking companies nor the shipping lines will claim them as employees. Instead, the companies hire them as "independent contractors," and on average, these poverty-wage entrepreneurs clear about $20,000 a year. Over the past decade, several campaigns to organize the drivers have fallen flat, but now the Teamsters, with the help of the new Change to Win Federation, to which SEIU also belongs, are taking another run at it. This time, though, the zeitgeist has changed. Immigrant workers, Medina said, "are feeling for the first time the power of their numbers."

Even a sea change among immigrant workers doesn't necessarily mean that the dark days of American labor could be coming to an end. In the growing high-end, high-tech workforce, said union strategist Jim Grossfeld, who with pollster Celinda Lake has undertaken a study for the Center for American Progress of professional and technical employees, "many workers have a problem with the word 'union' and with the old economic rules." Nonetheless, he points out, in a time of rampant economic insecurity, such unions as the Communications Workers of America have even managed to organize techies.

But it's chiefly immigrant workers who are emerging from the shadows to lead the next generation's battles for economic equity. "Our victory," said Maritza Paz, speaking of her struggle in Miami but also about this transformative moment in American immigrant life, "shows workers they can overcome their fears. It has opened the doors."

meyersonh@washpost.com


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