September 8, 2010
Over the last decade, organized labor has become a major player in the movement for comprehensive immigration reform (CIR). With more members, resources and political clout than most other immigration reform supporters, union support has become a sine qua non for any potential legislation. As part of an ongoing series of interviews on the current prospects for immigration reform, I spoke with Eliseo Medina, Executive Vice President of Service Employees International Union (SEIU), one of labor’s most outspoken advocates for immigration reform. Mr. Medina spoke to me about various issues, including labor’s position in the pro-CIR movement, SEIU’s role in the boycott of Arizona, and the union’s efforts to increase Latino political strength throughout the country.
Altschuler: How has Arizona SB 1070 affected SEIU’s organizing strategy on immigration issues?
Medina: When SB 1070 was introduced, we spent a lot of time and energy trying to lobby the legislature, and then for the governor not to sign it. We felt it was unconstitutional, mean-spirited and divisive. Unfortunately, we were unsuccessful. From there, we switched to a strategy of trying to deal with the law and how it was introduced. Our strategy built on the following components:
Number one, challenge the law in the courts. We joined with a number of other organizations in Arizona and nationally to file a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the initiative.
Number two, we joined with the NCLR [National Council of La Raza], the NAACP [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People], and a number of other groups supporting a boycott of Arizona, because we felt that the only way we were going to be listened to was if there was some economic pressure brought to bear on Arizona. It became apparent to us that this was not a question of good, sound policy arguments, but rather a political and ideological battle. If they weren’t going to listen to us with their minds, we felt maybe they’d listen to us with their pocketbooks.
The third thing we did was campaign to bring together different groups in Arizona that were interested not only in fighting 1070, but also empowering the Latino community to advocate for its own interests. We put together a table of 501c3 and 501c4 organizations with the goal of reaching out to the Latino community, giving them the information they would need to come out and vote in November, and actually getting them to vote. This would help us deliver a powerful message at the polls.
Because SB 1070 has begun to rear its ugly head [through potential copycat laws] in 21 or 22 other states, we’ve been working with partner organizations and individuals across the country, lobbying at the state level to stop legislation while trying to make the boycott as successful as possible in order to send a message to other states.
Altschuler: You mentioned the boycott. Decades ago, you worked on an organizing effort that led to the California grape boycott. Now you find yourself in a movement boycotting the state of Arizona. What lessons from your earlier boycott experience can you apply to the current effort?
Medina: Boycotts work, because economic pressure can really focus the mind. They also allow the broader public to do something very specific in support of the movement and to express their opposition to SB 1070. So we have organizations [that] have cancelled their conventions, musicians and artists who have cancelled their performances, individuals who have cancelled their vacations to Arizona—not going to that state is their statement. A boycott is something that is very democratic, because it’s something in which everybody can participate. They don’t have to be in the state of Arizona; they can be anywhere in the world and participate. It helps to build a movement, while at the same time putting pressure on and ensuring that the message about this law is picked up.