The lives of working people will only improve through unions, the veteran organizer says in this interview
Eliseo Medina, a former leader of the United Farm Workers, a highly successful organizer and executive vice-president for the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), and one of the labor movement’s foremost advocate of immigrant workers’ rights and immigration reform, unanimously won support from his fellow executive board members last Wednesday to become the new secretary-treasurer of SEIU.
Medina will serve at least until 2012, filling out the term of Ann Burger, who resigned in August after losing her bid to succeed retiring president Andy Stern to SEIU’s new president Mary Kay Henry.
Born in Mexico in 1946, Medina came to the U.S. ten years later with his parents, who were agricultural workers in the bracero program then operating. As a teenage farm worker he joined the UFW during its landmark strike in Delano, Calif., in 1965, rising through the ranks, then parting ways with Chavez and joining the SEIU. He proved adept at organizing, leading strikes, political mobilization, and advocacy among fellow trade unionists, who widely admire him. (See Harold Meyerson’s warm biography here.)
Medina, who backed Henry, seems well-suited to her leadership style, which initially involves extensive internal discussion of strategy and a greater focus on fighting corporate power, in a search for solutions to what she calls the Seven Percent Problem – the frighteningly low level of unionization in the private sector.
In this edited interview, Medina talks with In These Times about what he hopes to do on his new job, which includes special emphasis on greater transparency and accountability in financial management, increasing the union’s organizing efforts, and winning immigration reform.
What are your major goals for your new office?
One of the primary duties of the secretary-treasurer is being the financial officer of the union, to make sure the resources of the union are used in an effective manner, to make sure we have full transparency to our members, so they can see their hard-earned dues dollars are used in a way that will make the future better for them and their children.
The other thing I want to work on, it’s clear things are not going well for working people. Conditions are worse than any time in my memory. We’ve got situation where millions of people are unemployed, millions are losing their homes, and there’s no hope for a better future. So I hope to be working closely with our new president and the executive board to turn this around. The only way we can do that is to engage in renewed campaigns to organize workers into unions so they can have a voice in decisions that are being made.
The third thing I’m involved in and want to expand my participation in figuring out is, not only how we fix this country’s broken immigration system but how we integrate immigrants into the life of country. We are the new generation of immigrants and have much to contribute, but we have to eliminate barriers to participation, both in fixing the broken immigration system but also with problems of information about citizenship, so people can become full participants in society, so they can become citizens and once they re citizens, informed voters.
To take your first task, there’s been a lot of concern that SEIU’s budget has not been well managed in recent years. Have you had any chance to assess the financial shape of the union?
Yes, and I think we’re in good shape, but, given the challenges we face, it’s important to go through all of our finances and make sure all of our money is devoted to our priorities. That means we have to look very closely at all of our expenditures and ask, “Is this helping the goals of the union as articulated by our executive board?” If it’s not, we need to reallocate money to our goals. As far as I can see, we are in good financial shape, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t review our expenditures to make sure we do what we want to do.
Are there any indications of where serious amounts of money were spent where it shouldn’t have been spent?
We’re a big organization, and a lot of money is spent on different things. There are some things I want to go into in detail. For example, if the executive board says growth is the top priority, if winning on healthcare reform and immigration reform are top priorities, we should take a look at what we’re doing and reallocate accordingly. It doesn’t mean they’re not all good, worthwhile things, but we may need to put them on hold while we focus on those other priorities.
Your second priority is growth. How should SEIU and the labor movement proceed now, with little prospect for passage in the near future of the Employee Free Choice Act?
With or without the Employee Free Choice Act, we need to go out and take our message to workers and give them the hope that if they join together they will make a difference. I think the Employee Free Choice Act is a critical component of change so that workers have a free choice, but we can’t wait until Congress makes those changes.
We’ve got to set ambitious goals. In SEIU we are trying to figure out how to deal with this problem. About 7 percent of private sector workers are in a union now, and that’s untenable. There’s no way you’re going to be able to create the kind of movement to reverse the trend we’re seeing of declining wages, healthcare, pensions and all that unless workers have an organized voice fighting for the common good. It’s going to be a hard struggle, but if we don’t do it, things are only going to get worse for workers.
In recent years the vast majority of growth even in SEIU has come from public or quasi-public sector. Any ideas on what to do differently in the private sector?
Large portions of our economy depend on public funding, like the defense industry. The difference between public workers and publicly- funded workers is that basically in the public sector, the employer allows the workers to make their own decisions. They don’t go out and try to convince workers not to join the union. They don’t do captive audience meetings, or threaten people with firing. They let people make up their own minds. It’s analogous to what we do with our elections. You don’t find presidential candidates threatening people if they don’t vote for him. It’s not what you do in a democracy.
But the publicly-funded employers are the opposite. They think they can threaten, harass, intimidate people from having a free choice. One of the things we have to do is hold them accountable. If they’re going to use taxpayer dollars, they ought to use them in a way respectful of workers’ rights.
We found that when you take the employer out and leave it to the workers, they always opt for an organization. Lots of employers in the hospital industry agreed to give workers a choice in a non-threatening way, while making their opinion known, and in all cases workers voted for the union. We did the same thing generally, not always, with janitors.
The thing that is going to allow more workers to organize is that we – and by extension the rest of the labor movement – have to go back to square one, and do what we need to do to provide the information and vision for workers to join unions.
You’ve been responsible for new organizing in the South and Southwest. How do you assess the success of that effort? Do you want to continue it?
We had very good success. We went from about 30,000 members in 2004 in the South and Southwest to about 120,000 members today. So we’ve grown by 400 percent. That sounds good but we just barely scratched the surface, and a lot more needs to be done. So I think that as we discuss the work we have to do in SEIU we need to recommit ourselves to organize in a more aggressive manner in the South and Southwest. Otherwise it will always be the low-wage alternative for the rest of country. We’ve shown it makes sense, but it takes focus, and it takes commitment.
Does anything make it easier to organize in the South today compared to the past, like the influx of Latino immigrants?
No question changing demographics have helped us to be able to organize. Immigrants, when they come to this country, come with hope for the future and want claim a piece of the American dream. Organizing a union is part of that. Everywhere I go there’s a lot of interest in joining the union, but with the economy, I find it with all groups – African-Americans, Caucasians, Asians and Pacific Islanders.
But because we in the labor movement haven’t done our job well, they haven’t had the opportunity to come together and fight for their share of the pie. What’s happening now is the economy is helping, and changing demographics are helping. In many ways, the South and Southwest are at a tipping point in terms of changing, the way they look at unions and the way things are going on in this country.
Nevertheless, it looks like Republicans will make serious gains this fall even though a couple of years ago it looked like there was an emerging Democratic majority for years to come. Why?
I think people voted for change, and they still want change. There’s not the kind of organizing that brings people together to talk about how do we get change. That’s why organizing a union matters. It’s a way for people to come together, to have conversations and to move together. A stronger labor movement, allied with community groups, civic groups, and civil rights groups that care about the same issues, will be able to create a constituency for change we need and we want. One election isn’t going to do it.
One of the mistakes made in 2008 is people thought we were electing Barack Obama king, not president. He doesn’t have power and authority to get the change he wanted. The special interests are very entrenched. They’re not going to give up their power willingly or easily. It will take citizens who are motivated.
What’s the one biggest mistake the Obama administration made?
They didn’t maintain the coalition that elected him. It was very broad. Unfortunately – it wasn’t just President Obama – people thought change came as result of an election, not as a result of a constituency that continues to work for things they voted for.
You have been one of the trustees of United Healthcare West [now in a battle with the new National Union of Healthcare Workers, led by former UHW officials, for rights to represent members of the 150,000-member local union].
That ceased 6, 7, 8 months ago.
Looking back, do you think there was a better way SEIU might have handled relations with that local?
You know, that’s a really difficult question. I’ve known the former leaders of UHW for over 20 years. Unfortunately, I think they developed a different philosophy, a different perspective about strategies to make life better for workers, and they had started to implement their separatist strategy at least a year prior to the thing coming to a head. So we tried every way we could.
Quite honestly, I don’t know what we could have done differently. Like anything, it takes two to make things work. In their case there were decisions made and directions taken before any conversations with the international. By the time we became aware a lot of what they were doing and began to exercise oversight responsibility, it was too late.
Regarding your third task, immigration reform also seems to be stalled. If very conservative Republicans are elected, the prospects will be even worse. How do you propose to proceed.?
You were nice to say it’s stalled. Now it’s become such a political and ideological football that I think it’s very difficult to get things done. We’re dealing with a pubic policy issue: We’ve been working very hard to make the case of why immigration reform made sense for this country.
Unfortunately our opponents were not dealing with it that way. Groups of people who are pretty much nativistic will never agree that this is an issue that needs to be resolved for the good of this country. Then you combine this with politics. Unfortunately, the Republican party has always felt making Latinos a wedge issue was a way to political power, never mind that if you look back three or four election cycles, you don’t find a single anti-immigration candidate who has ridden that to political office.
So I think that what we’re in for a difficult fight, and the only way we’re going to fix this is to insure that immigrants continue to become actors in the political debate. We’re going to continue to help people become citizens, by giving them the information they need to become citizens, more importantly, why they should become citizens. Once they become citizens we need to make sure they vote, and we‘ll provide information on where candidates stand.
I think that we’re going to fix this immigration system sooner or later – I hope sooner – but the only way we’re going to get this done is to continue to add to the number of voters and active participants. Given the demographics, I think it’s just a matter of time. In some very key states, it’s going to pretty darn difficult for any candidate to be elected president in 2012 unless they have a story to tell to the Latino community. It’s going be hard for the Republican party if they have a history of anti-immigrant activity and identity as the party of Pete Wilson [former California governor who scapegoated immigrants].
They’ll be in difficult situation. If you look at 2012, Latinos will be the margin of victory in Nevada, Arizona, Texas, Colorado, Florida, California, Illinois, and New York. New York and California are blue. Arizona, Colorado, Florida, and Nevada are not.
The only way we get immigration reform is to keep growing those numbers and make sure in 2012 that if Republicans keep going the way they are, they do what Pete Wilson did in the [anti-immigrant] Proposition 187 years. He won the first election, but in the long run, he lost a generation of Latinos, and that’s how California became blue. If Republicans think that in 2010 bashing immigrants is way to win, they’re following Wilson’s formula, and they’re going to find that in 2012 this will backfire very badly.
What I’m hoping is that after the election, sanity will prevail regardless of what party is in power because it’s in both of their interests to take the issue off the table. The Republicans have no way they can defend [their position] and Democrats can’t win without accomplishing something, having a record they can point to. Positioning Latinos as independent voters asking for action on immigration reform is the best position we could be in.
Political parties and candidates can not write off and alienate for the long term the fastest growing constituency in the country. If you look at demographics, it’s inevitable. In 2012 we know there will be many more Latino voters than there are today. In 2014 there will be more, even more in 2016. If Republicans say not only are we the party of no, but hell, no, when it comes to immigration reform, they are sending an unmistakable message to Latinos.
The last thing I’ll say, 20 years ago it really mattered whether we were Mexican, Puerto Rican, Salvadoran or Argentinian, but because of all the activities of Republicans in the last four years, they have created the greatest unity among Latinos that I have ever seen since I came to this country in 1956. That’s good for us and bad for them.
David Moberg, a senior editor of In These Times, has been on the staff of the magazine since it began publishing in 1976. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He has received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy.