Immigrants Add Energy to Union Membership

Published on December 27th, 2007

By Julia M. Scott, Los Angeles Daily News
September 2, 2007

Ingela Dahlgren enjoyed the benefits of a strong nursing union in her native Sweden before becoming a U.S. immigrant nearly 30 years ago.

For more than two decades after her arrival, Dahlgren worked nonunion hospital jobs, but she was intent on one day using her experience with unions in Sweden to organize American nurses.

She eventually got her chance, and in 2002 a nurses union she helped start at the Northridge Hospital Medical Center negotiated its first contract.

"I was always taught that having a union increases your voice," said Dahlgren, 56, of Thousand Oaks. "One has no power. Fifteen has much more power."

As Dahlgren did, immigrants are joining unions in large numbers. Once the declared enemy of organized labor, immigrants are now its lifeblood.

In the past decade, the number of immigrants who joined unions increased 30 percent while membership among their U.S.-born counterparts dropped 9 percent, according to a recent study by the Migration Policy Institute. Overall, union membership declined.

The findings speak to a fundamental shift in union attitudes and show just how close the issues of organized labor and immigration have become. Previously, major unions shunned foreign-born workers because of a perception that they were taking jobs from those born on U.S. soil.

That stance began to change as unions wised up to the law of supply and demand. Nonunion workers willing to work for lower wages and scanty benefits would put pressure on higher-paid union members. If other people would work for less, why couldn’t they?

And as union ranks shrunk, organized labor saw it was losing strength and, in turn, the ability to fight for the workers who remained.

Immigrants were an untapped labor pool. With families to support, many prized job security. Those without proper documents saw that airing grievances with the backing of a union could be safer than fighting an employer alone.

Major unions saw the chance and took it. In 2000, the AFL-CIO, which represents about 10 million union workers across the nation, formally announced it supported unauthorized immigrants in the work force. It reversed its long-standing policy and began to actively recruit and target immigrants for membership.

"If you want to be able to survive, that’s who we have to recruit to join the unions," said Rick Icaza, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 770, based in Los Angeles and Lancaster.

The reason immigrants have joined unions in such large numbers goes deeper than the law of supply and demand, said Steven Pitts, an economist and labor policy specialist at the University of California at Berkeley.

Immigrants may be prone to join unions because of their specific line of work, their cultural background or their migrant experience, Pitts said.

Foreign-born workers are often funneled into security details, care-giving and construction work – jobs that are currently hard to outsource. Unions looking for long-term members target industries that aren’t going anywhere.

Other immigrants may come from countries with a history of activism, such as Mexico or El Salvador, or may have belonged to a union in their native land.

Immigration fosters solidarity, a sentiment dear to unions.

"You’re by yourself," Pitts said. "You’re forced to stay together because of isolation from general society."

Unions have responded to the rise in immigrant memberships by hiring bilingual staff, printing fliers in multiple languages, and holding open sessions in which workers can learn about one another’s background.

"You have to be patient," said Mike Warner, president of United Steelworkers Local 8433 in Chatsworth. "They are trying to learn English, so you have to take your hat off to them."

Of his 110 members, he estimates 15 percent are immigrants. A decade ago, he put that number at 10 percent.

The proportionate increase in immigrant membership has not been as drastic among local unions partly because Los Angeles has long been a diverse area, several leaders said.

At Service Employees International Union Local 121 RN in North Hollywood, Executive Director Sue Weinsten said half of her members hail from abroad. It’s been that way for years.

"The hospitals have been actively recruiting from India and the Philippines, England," Weinsten said. The union has 7,000 members across Southern California and about 3,000 from the San Fernando Valley.

Cultural clashes have not been a problem for the local because of the nature of nursing.

"We take care of the public and people from everywhere, so we’re used to totally different cultures and places," Weinsten said. "It just seems natural."

Since embracing immigrants, the AFL-CIO has not been shy about its stance. The AFL-CIO sued the federal government Wednesday over its plans to crack down on employees who hire illegal immigrants. Now, companies receive notices if Social Security numbers do not match the names of workers and may pay a fine.

Starting Sept. 14, those rules will change. After receiving a "no-match" letter, employers will have 90 days to resolve the issue or risk fines and criminal prosecution.

The new plan has support from Californians for Population Stabilization, based in Santa Barbara. The group wants to end illegal immigration and reduce legal immigration.

"Drying up the job magnet is certainly at the top of the list," spokesman Ric Oberlink said. "With `no-match’ letters, people will self-deport."

The Migration Policy Institute study examined Census data collected each month from 50,000 households dating back to 1996 and also found:

The number of employed foreign-born wage and salary workers increased 66 percent since 1996.

Although the percentage of immigrant workers joining unions increased more than that of native workers, migrants are less likely overall to belong to labor unions.

Immigrant wage and salary workers were underrepresented in manufacturing, construction and mining unions when compared with their union representation in leisure and hospitality, professional and business services, wholesale and retail, and agriculture-related industries.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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