Union card for green card: The radical vanguard in the Los Angeles labor movement

By Lloyd Billingsley
web posted August 14, 2000

Last February, the AFL-CIO's executive council reversed its longtime policy on immigration and called for a blanket amnesty for the estimated 6 million illegal aliens currently working in the U.S. The federation's executive council also called for repeal of the 1986 law crim-inalizing the hiring of undocumented workers. Because labor unions had been the principal proponent of employer sanctions, their reversal is a dramatic shift in policy. Historically, unions have opposed any increase in immigration, viewing immigrants as competitors for scarce jobs and as potential strikebreakers. Why did the AFL-CIO reverse course? The jobs and wages of union rank and file are threatened by an enormous influx of undocumented workers, but today's union leadership has concluded that only by shepherding tens of thousands of low-wage service workers onto membership rolls can it reverse the decline in union membership.

This strategy disregards existing union members by depressing the wage rate and increasing the likelihood that current members will face layoffs during an economic downturn. Moreover, a blanket amnesty for undocumented workers undermines the integrity of U.S. immigration law and inevitably creates a surge in illegal immigrants hoping to obtain citizenship in any subsequent amnesty. Union leaders have placed the workplace interests of their rank and file behind the political influence an increase in members may bring. To raise the wages of low-wage service workers while preventing the use of immigrants as replacement workers, the unions' answer is, not surprisingly, government fiat: they hope to remove wages from the market through a government-mandated "living wage" and legislate a ban on the use of permanent replacements.

The interests of union leaders and Hispanic-American activists are particularly intertwined in Los Angeles, site of this month's Democratic convention and an emerging labor stronghold. The Los Angeles Times has reported that undocumented workers account for 50 percent of the work force in some industries in California. If union leaders are to win organizing drives, they must organize these workers. These dramatic social changes in Los Angeles may offer a glimpse into the future of organized labor in America.

The AFL-CIO Holds a Rally

Jorge Sepulveda, a worker in a Los Angeles automobile repair shop, paints his face green and wears a Statue of Liberty crown on his head. He also wears handcuffs and a white T-shirt emblazoned, "Do You Know Where the Liberty Is?" That question would not occur to anyone watching him march though downtown Los Angeles. Sepulveda and thousands of other immigrants, most from Mexico, parade through the streets of Los Angeles on June 10 to an overflow gathering at the Los Angeles Sports Arena, marching and chanting:

"Que queremos? Amnestia, sin con-diciones!" ("What do we want? Amnesty, without conditions!") and "Aqui estamos y no nos vamos." ("We are here and we are not leaving.")

The 17,000 packing the Sports Arena—and the 3,000 more on the sidewalk—have come to an AFL-CIO immigration forum to show their support for the blanket amnesty and end to employer sanctions proposed by the executive council of the AFL-CIO last February. The raucous crowd, whose number exceeded the most optimistic predictions of its organizers, was largely from Los Angeles. Signs identified their countries of origin: Mexico, Panama, El Salvador, Paraguay, Equador and Peru. Miguel Contreras, head of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, stood with immigrant rights activists and sympathetic community groups, looked out over the thousands of faces and said, "You are seeing the birth of a powerful new alliance."

He may be right. Los Angeles has suddenly turned into a hotbed of union militancy, with a bitter strike by the Screen Actors Guild against advertisers, rallies by teachers, marches by janitors and home healthcare workers, and strikes by nurses against Catholic Healthcare West and Sutter Health hospitals. Aside from the actors' strike, the common thread apparent in these actions is the marriage of Latino immigrants—many of them illegal—and union activists. In fact, the driving force behind the AFL-CIO flip-flop on immigration was Eliseo Medina, head of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) in Los Angeles. There are currently an estimated 6 million undocumented workers in the U.S. Many are in Los Angeles, but they are also settling in cities like Milwaukee and in small towns throughout rural America. Medina knows firsthand that immigrants are a potent power base. The SEIU is one union that has reversed years of decline by intensively organizing Latino low-wage service workers. Union leaders in Washington have taken notice.

Of course, there have been mass meetings before in Los Angeles. In October 1994, 70,000 gathered to wave Mexican flags and denounce Proposition 187, a ballot measure that would have made illegal immigrants ineligible for most state services. During the June 10 event, the usual interlocking directorate of Ford Foundation-supported activist groups such as the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF) arrived in force, but the key difference that day was the AFL-CIO's sponsorship.

"Los Angeles is the major R&D center for 21st-century trade unionism," says left-wing writer Mike Davis, in his new book Magical Urbanism: Latinos Reinvent the U.S. Big City. Kent Wong, a labor expert at UCLA, recently said, "I think John Sweeney is really looking to California to lead the American labor movement." The labor federation's Contreras gave reporters some clues about the L.A. labor movement's direction when he spoke at the immigration forum rally.

"Amnesty is a means to an end—the elimination of poverty and a better redistribution of wealth," Contreras said. "L.A. is a county in crisis: 50 wealthy families have assets of $60 billion, more than the wages of two million of the city's lowest-paid workers, who are mostly immigrants."

The June 10 speakers lineup was also revealing: AFL-CIO vice-president Linda Chavez-Thompson; California Assemblyman Gil Cedillo, a former leader of the SEIU; and Antonio Villaraigosa, former Assembly speaker, union organizer, and now candidate for mayor of Los Angeles. The keynote speaker was Bert Corona, an Old Left stalwart venerated by these state politicos. For years he has urged labor to change its position on immigration. The AFL-CIO's shift on amnesty is only its latest move to position itself to the left and, on this issue, its ideological interests dovetail perfectly with California's Latino immigrant rights activists. The leadership of the Left in California is increasingly Latino and practices what might be called "roast beef" activism: brown outside, red inside. The strategy adopted by this leadership stands to change the role of unions, alter the meaning of citizenship, and corrupt the political process.

California's Own PRI

Labor has moved into the member import business, and it is attempting to substitute union cards for green cards to solve its nagging problem of supply. Compulsory unionism isn't connecting with workers in the digital age of telecommuting and stock options, and unions have been forced to develop new strategies for finding members.

In 1970, about 35 percent of California workers were union members. That dropped to 27 percent in 1980, 18 percent in 1994, and around 16 percent today, compared to 13.9 percent nationally. (The Los Angeles Federation of Labor, which claims 350 unions representing 800,000 workers, says state union membership is 19 percent.) In California, public sector workers and home healthcare workers help swell unions like the SEIU. But immigrants, particularly illegal ones, are the mother lode for organizers today, the biggest potential membership source since the days of Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers.

"The AFL has made a Faustian bargain," says Pepperdine University's Joel Kotkin, author of Tribes and a longtime observer of the California labor scene. "In order to grow they need to include these low-paid workers. These people don't have much in the way of dues. The AFL is buying quantity at the expense of quality."

Kotkin says the AFL-CIO is dividing the labor movement between middle-class high-tech unions, such as aerospace workers, and radical service unions like the SEIU. Moreover, tension between the labor movement and the taxpayer results, says Kotkin, because with government workers, "labor must dragoon the taxpayer into paying these people." Differences over the immigration issue and the endorsement of Vice President Al Gore are also apparent between traditional trade unions, such as the Teamsters and the United Auto Workers, and the increasingly powerful public sector unions. Unionized professionals like teachers and civil servants have less to fear from an increase in unskilled labor than their less-educated industrial brethren. In fact, the increasing power of public sector unions contributed to the change in policy on immigration within the AFL-CIO. In addition to being insulated from competition with illegal aliens, government employees and teachers may have a stake in the amnesty proposal. Dan Stein, executive director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), notes that public sector unions would actually benefit from a "larger ‘clientele' of poor immigrants."

California's labor movement is now so politicized and dominated by public employees that, as in Mexico, it often appears that unions and labor federations are instruments of government policy. Journalist Alan Riding observed in his study, Distant Neighbors, that by controlling labor, the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI), until June Mexico's ruling party for the last seventy years, created the foundations for the country's entire system—what Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa called "the perfect dictatorship." The Confederacion de Trabajadores Mexicanos (CTM) was integrated into the official party, and government support for workers was exchanged for political loyalty. Newly-elected president Vicente Fox of the Partido Action Nacional (PAN) promises to change that pattern in Mexico. But California's Democratic Party now controls both houses of the state legislature and the governor's office, and it is increasingly acting like the PRI, using the mechanisms of the state to reward supporters.

A prime example is the $50 million funneled through the state Department of Education to so-called "Community Based Organizations" that have registered illegals to vote. The primary beneficiary of this process was Bert Corona and his Hermandad Mexicana Nacional. Gov. Gray Davis—elected in 1998 with heavy union support—recently made his own contribution to this trend. He reversed privatization by dumping the private contractors who cleaned government buildings and hiring state workers who can more easily be herded into unions. Davis also has promoted agency shop arrangements, in which unions collect dues money from all workers, whether or not they are union members. (See Megan L. Dively's article on the status of paycheck protection efforts in California and around the country on p. 3.)

Instead of representing all citizens, California politicians, both state and local, more and more represent the interests of unionized public employees, a group with a stake in expanded and inefficient government. In melding government with unions, says Kotkin, "there's a danger of becoming a quasi-worker soviet, with government controlled by public employees." Labor's new stance on amnesty enhances that process.

The California Democratic Party, like its national counterpart, likes the prospect of new voters who are expected, or told, to vote Democrat as a payback for immigration favors. By facilitating the influx, unions such as the SEIU are effectively transformed into instruments of state policy.

On May 27, Bert Corona appeared at an SEIU event in Los Angeles hosted by Assemblyman Gil Cedillo, former head of L.A.'s SEIU Local 1877. SEIU Local 1877 is a statewide janitor's union with 8,500 members in Los Angeles County. It is composed almost entirely of Latino immigrants, between 98 and 99 percent. That kind of membership, Kotkin notes, has given rise to the notion that union bosses represent the "Latino community," which is actually as diverse as any other and in some ways more conservative.

Cedillo is sponsoring a bill that would allow illegal immigrants to obtain a California driver's license. Corona says the current law forbidding illegals from obtaining licenses is an "economic attack against our community." He also wants undocumented immigrants to have the right to vote. Although physically frail at 80 years old, Corona whipped his followers into a frenzy, as he did at the June 10 AFL-CIO immigration forum where he was the star of the show.

"There is no mine, no bridge, not a row in the fields nor a construction site in all the United States that hasn't been watered with the tears, the sweat and blood of immigrants," he said that day. "We demand an amnesty for the workers who have made the wealth of this country possible. Amnesty is not a gift, but a right, for those who have contributed so much."

Few in the crowd at the AFL-CIO rally knew anything of Corona's career on the far reaches of the Left or of L.A.'s turbulent labor history. Corona's life-long campaigns against employer sanctions and INS raids would have made him unwelcome at union events in the past. But the current AFL-CIO leadership under Sweeney has moved toward Corona ideologically, making the Latino strategy indispensable and, as Democrats convene in Los Angeles to nominate Al Gore, threatening to rekindle Los Angeles' history of labor violence.

L.A. Labor Wars

In From West to East: California and the Making of the American Mind, writer Stephen Schwartz observes that the confirmation rite of Los Angeles was a "forty-year war" between labor and business. When Harrison Gray Otis, publisher of the Los Angeles Times, broke a strike by the Typographical Union, he helped make Los Angeles a company town. Workers retaliated. On October 1, 1910, the Times was firebombed, leaving 20 people dead. John McNamara, treasurer of the International Association of Bridge and Structural Workers, his brother James, and one Ortie McManigal were charged with the crime.

Labor leader Samuel Gompers rallied labor to their defense and hired the famous Clarence Darrow as their attorney. But the bombers pleaded guilty, dealing Los Angeles labor radicals a blow from which they would not recover until the Depression. During the days of the Popular Front in the mid-1930s, the Communist Party saw labor as a natural ally. It founded its own unions and succeeded in "boring from within" to capture others.

In the late 1940's, the Party used a front group, the Conference of Studio Unions (CSU), to launch a series of violent jurisdictional disputes. It planned to organize Hollywood studio labor into a single union it could control, and it nearly succeeded. The Party's West Coast front man was Harry Bridges. The head of the Longshoremen's union who spearheaded the great Maritime strike of 1934, Bridges was a man much praised by Bert Corona.

Corona is an important but little-known figure. Originally from El Paso, Corona went to the University of Southern California on a basketball scholarship, but dropped out to organize warehouse workers for the CIO, then dominated by the Communist Party. Corona admits working with Communist Party groups, but unlike ex-Trotskyites turned neo-conservatives, his authorized biography makes no mention of his youthful views on the Nazi-Soviet pact—when the Party called the war in Europe a "capitalist war"—or his activities during that period. Years later, his Stalinist past became a public relations problem for United Farm Workers leader Cesar Chavez, with whom he marched. But, as Corona's current fame attests, a record of Stalinist labor activism need not be a career impediment.

Corona ran the Mexican American Political Association (MAPA) and, in 1965, California Governor Edmund "Pat" Brown appointed him to the California Civil Rights Commission. Corona delivered a nationally televised address at the violence-prone 1968 Democratic Party convention in Chicago, but then broke with the Democrats and backed the separatist La Raza Unida party. It was based on the irredentist concept of Aztlan, the notion that an occupied Chicano nation in the southwestern U.S. needs to be wrested from the occupying "Anglos."

In 1969, Corona founded Hermandad Mexicana Nacional, an advocacy group for immigrants' rights. (See the June 1997 issue of Organization Trends for more on Hermandad Mexicana Nacional.) Immigrants proved convenient for other causes and Corona brags about using them to protest U.S. involvement in Vietnam. After receiving a teaching appointment in Chicano studies at Cal State LA, Corona, whom the Los Angeles Times has described as "an energetic man with a booming voice and a Marxist-Leninist viewpoint," surrounded himself with a bodyguard of radical students. A supporter of Fidel Castro, Corona is one of the few to lament the fall of the Berlin Wall.

"Renewed class struggle in these societies will lead to new forms of social arrangements," he said. "The workers of East Germany, for example, aren't about to give up easily many of the supports they had under socialism, such as low rents and free education for their children." With his stirring defense of socialism, Corona earned icon status with the left wing of the Democratic Party, becoming a hero to state politicians such as Tom Hayden, Sheila Kuehl, Assemblyman Gil Cedillo and Assembly speaker Antonio Villaraigosa, among others. He maintains a residence in Washington and has been entertained and praised by Bill Clinton.

Under Corona's helmsmanship, Hermandad had become a kind of domestic Third World dictatorship in style, tactics and fiscal policy. During the later 1980's and 1990's, it secured a staggering $35 million in grants. By 1997, Corona's Hermandad was $8 million in debt, including $4.2 million on its new Los Angeles health clinic. In 1995, Hermandad was evicted from its North Hollywood office and sued for $400,000 in back rent. Rank-and-file employees complained they had not been paid and Corona, whose own lifestyle did not appear to suffer, told reporters that the group used employees' withholding taxes to pay bills, a violation of state and federal law. These derelictions did not stop the California Department of Education (CDE), headed by Delaine Eastin, former Bay Area Democratic assemblywoman, from channeling nearly $10 million in adult education funds to Hermandad. The CDE punished the whistleblowers, one of whom was threatened by Corona and his enforcers.

The U.S. Attorney subsequently raised the possibility of criminal violations, but to the astonishment of many, particularly the whistleblowers, no charges have been filed. Some suspect that the Department of Justice has ordered the U.S. Attorney to go easy on Corona, who has escaped serious scrutiny from California journalists. The press is similarly lax with Corona's apprentices in the labor movement.

Labor's New Balkabarians

If Corona is a founding father of Latino activism, then its radical son is Fabian Nunez, who until mid-June was the political director of the powerful Los Angeles County Federation of Labor. Nunez left the federation when the Los Angeles Unified School District, the second largest in the nation, appointed him head of government relations.

"We don't have economic power because we don't own the means of production," Nunez told a rally in January 1995, where he urged the crowd to "bring Washington to its knees." A year earlier, in October of 1994, Nunez and his militant colleague Juan Jose Gutierrez of the group One Stop Immigration, coordinated a rally of 70,000 immigrants against Proposition 187. Protestors waved Mexican flags and displayed an American flag with only 13 stars. They called Governor Pete Wilson a pig, compared Prop. 187 to Hitler's laws against Jews and told "Anglos" to go back to Europe. Gutierrez is now Senior Political and Community Organizer for the SEIU.

Nunez is a fevered partisan of Aztlan. Unlike old leftists like Corona, who rejects the idea that Mexicans are a "mystical race" or a "special people," Nunez sees class struggle on ethnic lines, not economic divisions. For Latino radicals today, the proletariat is entirely Latino and "raza" (race), while the ruling class is "anglo," "gringo" and "redneck." Their dedication to the irredentist cause raises the specter of the organized labor movement marshaled in the service of Chicano radicalism. With blood-and-soil rhetoric, Latino activists cultivate a menagerie of resentments that go back to the Spanish Armada, the 1846 war between Mexico and the United States, and 1930's-style "Mediterraneanism." Fueled by a general resentment of the United States, the raza-ist Latino left explains the economic disparity between the U.S. and Mexico by charging that Mexico's wealth and land were "stolen" by gringos.

The Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan (MECHA) distributes what would be called hate literature if it were handed out by other groups. "Mi Raza Primero"—"my race first"—reads one publication. MECHA is active on hundreds of high-school and college campuses. Its alumni include former California Assembly speaker Antonio Villaraigosa, a candidate for mayor of Los Angeles. He is on the record stating that as mayor he would not allow the police to be involved in immigration issues.

Mario Obledo, who headed California's health and welfare agency under Gov. Jerry Brown, says it is inevitable that California will be a "Hispanic state." When a caller on a radio show suggested that this might be a racist statement, Obledo responded, "No, because that's a reality. California is going to be inhabited mostly by Hispanics." As for the others, "they ought to go back to Europe." A cadre of irredentist intellectuals believes likewise.

One Chicano studies professor, Charles Truxillo of New Mexico State, calls for an Hispanic "Republica Del Norte," including California, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and parts of Colorado. This state is "inevitable," says Truxillo, and should be brought about "by any means necessary." Civil war is not out of the question, he says.

The possibility that organized labor could be used as a vanguard in California to advance such ideas is disturbing. The AFL-CIO courts disaster by adopting policies and strategies that play into the hands of radical Latinos. David Sickler, a former regional director of the AFL-CIO who was involved in the campaign to organize drywall workers who are 95 percent Latino, shrugs off the separatist cause as the province of a few self-promoting extremists. But California labor cannot easily be disentangled from radical causes. In southern California, the SEIU has participated in many rallies with Corona's Hermandad and a broad left-wing coalition. These rallies denounce U.S. policy and push for expanded immigration. As one poster put it: "Immigrants are not the root cause of the U.S.'s problems. The Free Market System is."

The Ethnic Vanguard

Southern California is one of the most cosmopolitan places on earth, but its labor scene now features unions whose leaders charge that an "anglo" elite is hoarding wealth which needs to be redistributed. The Latino rank and file, largely comprised of immigrants, is indebted to their leaders for assistance and prey to demagogic appeals to class and racial solidarity. Any dissenter can be labeled a union scab and a traitor to one's people. These are powerful weapons that the Latino Left wields with great effect, and they could be a recipe for serious disturbance, especially during an economic downturn. Joel Kotkin notes that the predominance of unions in the service sector gives them the means to "really shut things down."

In Magical Urbanism Mike Davis makes a case that "the labor-Latino alliance is the prime mover to realign California politics over the next decade." The Marx-quoting author calls for "class organization in the workplace" and says that "labor militancy is the only viable moral alternative to poverty-driven expressions of rage and frustration like the 1992 Rodney King riots," which he elsewhere calls an "insurrection."

The Left also sees criminals as an oppressed minority, something Orwell noted in Animal Farm, where the revolutionary beasts voted that "rats are comrades." Mike Davis hails L.A.'s violent gangs as proletarian revolutionaries. This is no new idea. As Bert Corona explained to his biographer Mario Garcia, the CIO "developed a very important relationship with the growing number of Mexican youth gangs in the barrios."

Labor's New Exploitation

Labor's current position on immigration is a long way from Samuel Gompers' view that "America must not be overwhelmed." Likewise, the claim of Linda Chavez-Thompson that the AFL-CIO is "on the side of working people everywhere" invites scrutiny. While rhetoric about sweatshops abounds, one finds little labor criticism of sweatshop nations such as Cuba, North Korea, or even Mexico, whose heavy-handed rule, corruption and economic ineptitude drives its own citizens to flee abroad.

With apologies to L.A. protestor Jorge Sepulveda, immigrants know where liberty is, and where jobs are. The vast majority of those who come to the United States, as in the past, are simply seeking a better life for themselves and their families. Labor's effort to exploit their disadvantages to further its own interests will encourage immigrants to dwell on the injustices of the past rather than seize present opportunities.

Immigrants want jobs, but labor unions want new members, and the leftist militants now leading the movement want troops who can really "shut things down" to advance their class-struggle visions. Unions, shut out by middle-class Americans, are attempting to import a "new proletariat," and Los Angeles is ground-zero for their experiment. That dynamic promises to make California an ever more turbulent place in the years ahead. How much will California's government officials, beholden to unions for their electoral success, aid the union cause? One recent development worth noting is the appointment of Linda Sanchez to head the Orange County Central Labor Council. She is the sister of Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.), who defeated Republican Congressman Bob Dornan. Dornan took on Bert Corona's Hermandad Mexicana Nacional—and lost. Are politics-led union organizing drives the wave of the future?

Lloyd Billingsley is editorial director at the Pacific Research Institute in San Francisco, Calif. (www.pacificresearch.org). He is the author of Hollywood Party: How Communism Seduced the American Film Industry in the 1930s and 1940s (Prima, 2000).

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