As head of the 800,000-member Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, Maria Elena Durazo is one of the nation’s most powerful union leaders, and a key player in the ongoing immigration reform negotiations. But before her current post, she led a hotel workers’ union. She said one of the hardest parts of the job was convincing workers who were in the country illegally to organize. They feared they could be easily fired, and she said that fear had rippling implications.
“The fear in one group created this fear in everybody, even if their immigration status was not an issue and not a problem,” Durazo said in an interview Monday outside the Hilton in San Diego’s Mission Valley neighborhood. She had traveled from Los Angeles to address union supporters who were camped out under a red awning on the fourth day of a five-day hunger strike. They were protesting the impending dismissal of more than a dozen housekeepers.
A local union says that when a new management company took over the Hilton recently, it ran all employees through E-Verify, the federal system that checks a person’s eligibility to work in the U.S. About 15 housekeepers were flagged, and given eight days to prove they could work in this country legally.
Union leaders admit that the company had the right to use E-Verify. But because the hotel’s workers were in the middle of a union drive, the union claims the company acted in retaliation. The hotel didn’t have to use the federal system because in California, it’s voluntary.
“They’re trying to use it to fire workers at a time when workers are trying to organize and want a union,” Durazo said. The management company, Evolution Hospitality, refused an interview request.
But Shawn McBurney, vice president for government affairs at the American Hotel and Lodging Association, said that at a time of increased enforcement against companies that hire unauthorized workers, hotels are at risk of penalties. He wasn’t familiar with the details of the San Diego Hilton case, but said, “they would be put in legal jeopardy if they didn’t follow the federal law.”
Still, union leaders say using a person’s immigration status as a reason to fire them is a common union-busting strategy, especially in an industry like hotels where many housekeepers and other low-wage employees are in the country illegally and often work using false documents.
And that’s one of the main reasons that labor unions in the U.S. feel so much is at stake for them in the impending immigration reform bill.
Union membership has been declining steadily for decades. Legalizing the 11 million immigrants without current legal status could be a boon for union membership and their ability to raise wages and living standards.
“For 11 million workers to know that the boss is not going to be able to intimidate them because of their immigration status,” Durazo said. “It’s going to bring them out of the shadows and give them a lot more confidence and courage to stand up for their rights.” This at least partly explains the shift that organized labor has made in its position toward immigrant and guest workers.
For decades, labor unions had a tense relationship with workers who were in the country illegally. They’re hard to organize and easy to exploit, which unions see as driving wages down for all workers. Unions have generally opposed temporary guest worker programs for the same reasons.
But now, they’ve struck an unprecedented deal that puts them in league with big business, which has generally called for expanded guest worker programs and more access to immigrant labor.
“Some argue that we should do a better job educating, training, and putting our own people to work. Damn right! We should!” said Thomas Donohue, the Chamber of Commerce president, in a speech earlier this year. “But we still need immigrants!”
Last month, the AFL-CIO and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce agreed to a compromise on the issue of guest workers. Over a span of several years, up to 200,000 temporary immigrant workers would be admitted annually into the U.S., depending on the need.
But at the demand of organized labor those workers would have more rights than do current guest workers. They would not be bound to a single employer as they currently are, a setup that immigrant advocates say allows employers to intimidate and exploit guest workers.
Under the terms of the deal between labor and business, guest workers would also earn prevailing wages, and they would be allowed to pursue permanent legal status once here.
Reform will also likely mandate a workplace verification program like E-Verify, to check new workers’ legal status. Durazo says labor can support such a program as long as it provides reliable information and has checks in place to ensure that employers don’t use it to intimidate workers.
This story was originally produced for Fronteras: The Changing American Desk.