‘We Want To Elect Champions’

An interview with SEIU Secretary-Treasurer Eliseo Medina, the highest-ranking Latino in the labor movement

David Moberg

Eliseo Medina, International Secretary-Treasurer of Service Employees International Union, speaking in front of the U.S. Supreme Court on June 25, 2012. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

During the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) convention in May, Secretary-Treasurer Eliseo Medina, a former United Farm Workers leader and the highest-ranking Latino in the labor movement, discussed the union’s extensive political work with In These Times Senior Editor David Moberg. (Moberg’s piece on the convention as a whole, and SEIU’s hopes of leading a national movement against inequality, can be read here.)

'If we have a Democrat who’s not a champion, we’re going to be voting against that person, we’re going to be mobilizing against that person, as much as we’re going to be mobilizing against Republicans or independents.'

DAVID MOBERG: SEIU endorsed Barack Obama in the 2008 primary elections, but polls indicate working-class voters are less energetic supporters of him this year. What will you tell your members to convince them to vote for him this fall?

ELISEO MEDINA: We’ll say, Take a look at Romney’s agenda and record, and take a look at Obama’s agenda and record, and you decide, but the important thing is you’ve got to come out and vote. You can’t stay home.’ That is what we’ve been doing for 10 years or so.

We did it in 2010, and you remember the results. The only place where the Democrats didn’t get killed was in states where there was a high concentration of Latinos, such as California, where [Republican gubernatorial candidate] Meg Whitman spent $140 million and lost; in Nevada, where Harry Reid got re-elected; in Washington, where Patty Murray got re-elected; or in Colorado, [where] Senator Michael Bennet won. Had these places gone Republican, the Republicans would have been in charge of the Senate as well.

It is a very scary thought. Just see what they’ve done with one house. Can you imagine with two of them?

That raises a question about this new movement you are trying to spark in the country: How do you envision it coexisting with conventional electoral politics? For example, you and most other progressives really want to get Obama re-elected, at least for simply the reason that Romney’s the alternative. But I suspect that there are a lot of progressives who look at Obama and feel disappointed. And in terms of a movement that could inspire people, he’s not really the champion he was made out to be. 

The problem is the way everything’s been structured to make people believe that electing one person will accomplish your goals. I think we learned that lesson in 2008. Never in my whole lifetime as an organizer have I seen such an outpouring of hope and activity and energy as that election. But then, we all sort of said after he got elected, Boy, we won, so now we’re going to get what we need.’

That’s not the way politics works. People forget that we elected him president and not king of the United States. He couldn’t just by decree make all the things we wanted come true, because he ran right up against an entrenched Republican minority that became the majority in 2010 in the House. At the time the Democrats had majorities in both houses, but the 60-vote rule in the Senate was an obstruction, and then you had enough [Republicans] in the House that were also an obstruction and the corporations and the lobbyists weighing in. Also, they mobilized on their end, and we sort of demobilized to a large degree.

So even though we are very much up for getting President Obama re-elected, we’re also saying, We want to elect champions.’ It’s not good enough that people say I feel your pain’ or I’m with you.’ We actually want somebody to get in there and fight to get something done. What that means is that if we have a Democrat who’s not a champion, we’re going to be voting against that person, we’re going to be mobilizing against that person, as much as we’re going to be mobilizing against Republicans or independents.

In order to win our agenda, we need to have everybody understand that they need us, and therefore they need to do something about the things we care about. We need an independent political force that is about issues, that is set up on an agenda, and is not just about the politician’s ambition. They all go to office because they all want to be somebody else: the state legislator wants to be a state senator, the state senator wants to be a congressman, the congressman wants to be a senator, or be a governor, and then when they wake up in the morning, they look in the mirror and they all want to be presidents.

In the meantime, the agenda of the people that elected them becomes secondary to the ambition. We want to say to them, If you ever have the ambition of getting to be president, you better do something about the things that people care about. So that’s why SEIU is spending so much time, energy and resources trying to create that independent political vote, primarily in the Latino community but now in the African-American community as well.

We have our [non-profit educational] partner called Mi Familia Vota. We have the UAW, community leaders and others who are a part of that. It’s not partisan. We’re just saying to people, You’ve got to participate. Who you vote for is your business, but here’s the agenda, and everyone who wants your vote has got to be about that agenda.’ I think that Latinos are very quickly gravitating towards that vision.

What do you see as the possibilities of bringing along a larger portion of the white working class?

My sense is that we have a problem because so few of the white working class are in unions anymore. We don’t have the same ability to have conversations with them as we do with our union members. If you look at the statistics, white workers who are union members voted way higher for worker issues and for candidates than any similarly placed group that’s not [in a] union. Because they’re in the unions, we’re able to have conversations with them about the issues, about what matters, and so part of what we need to do is figure out how do we reach out to those workers who are not in the union because I absolutely believe, once we talk to them, they know what’s in their best interest. The question is: How do we have that conversation?

You can’t just do it on an election cycle because there’s not enough time to build a relationship and have a meaningful conversation. That’s why our Latino program is year- round, so it doesn’t come and go with the election season. We’re talking about issues, we’re talking about immigration reform, we’re talking about education, and we’re talking about living wages with people. At some point we’re going to need to [create] a similar organization that can build a relationship with the white working class. And I think once we do, people know what’s in their best interest. They just have got to be able to have a way in which they’re not acting in isolation from people like them.

What do you think of the AFL-CIO’s Working America, which reaches out to non-union workers?

I think it’s a good beginning, going out and building a relationship. The question is what the final structure will be in order to build that ongoing relationship so it doesn’t just become an electoral cycle relationship. I think that’s what’s needed. And I think going out and reaching to younger membership is absolutely the right thing to do. I commend them for doing that. The more people we reach, the better off we’re going to be.

A lot of the things that you’re talking about and the kind of direction you’re evolving toward seem to be similar to what the AFL-CIO is talking about doing.

We’re much more focused, at least up to now, on doing it with the Latino community, and we’re going to start doing it with the African-American community, and we’re looking at the API [Asian-Pacific Islander] community, because we’re trying to create a relationship of communities that have big issues and have affinity. For example, there’s a plethora of issues that [Latinos are] concerned about, but we have a language in common and most of us are working class. We have a lot in common, and we also have the ability to target [our message to the community through] a huge Latino media.

From my point of view, it’s about who’s your customer. And how do you go ahead and have that conversation with your customers so that you can build a relationship on the issue? Most non-union workers don’t have an organization that unites them. They may belong to a civic club or a community organization or a church, but depending on the mission of their organization they may not necessarily be getting the kind of economic information that they need, nor may the mission of that organization be action-oriented.

There’s a lot of talk about trying to build this new movement focused on the issue of inequality. Is that an issue that’s going to work with the Latino electorate that you’re talking about? It has a kind of abstract quality about it.

Inequality is sort of the catchall, but when we talk to the Latino community, we just say, This is an agenda about your family and what matters to them.’ It’s about making sure that the workers get decent wages. It’s about education, because you need your kids to be able to get the best education that they can get so that they have better opportunities. It’s about making sure we have immigration reform, because most of us live in blended families.

I came to the U.S. as a legal immigrant, and then I subsequently became a U.S. citizen, but I have relatives who are undocumented, and I have U.S.-born children, and my family is not unique. Just about all of us are maybe one, two relationships removed from someone who is undocumented. So for us, immigration is a big issue, and we talk about that. Then we talk about housing, because everybody likes the American dream of owning your own home.

So we say, The reason you can’t get that is because of what is happening in this country.’ There’s a growing inequality where some people are getting away with not giving their fair share and also exploiting people on the job and we need to fix that. You fix it through a union, you fix that through voting, and you fix that through being engaged in driving a legislative agenda as well.

It’s both about what’s going on in society, going through the aspirational aspect, and then an action plan, how to get what you need to get done, and the fact that you have to do it together with your neighbors and your family

Maybe we could end on a note about organizing. How do you see the kind of movement you’re trying to create now contributing to greater success in organizing new members?

Latinos specifically came to this country for a better life, so they get that a union is the way to go. So they’re very willing and supportive of unions, so the more that they get in a relationship with an organization that in all likelihood they’re also going to be getting a union at work. I think that all of that is great, in terms of the people knowing and understanding how to access the right to have a union.

The other thing is that because of our immigration work, when the janitors went on strike in Los Angeles, huge support came from the inner-city community. They went to help on the picket lines, and they helped bring food. [When] they do all of this, you create a bigger relationship.

We started electing people that will start doing stuff to help workers. I think that we will start having legislation that will protect the right of the worker to freely associate and join a union if they want to. The movement that we’re talking about is sort of what SEIU thinks is necessary, but it’s not what we’re going to build by ourselves. We want to build a coalition with our friends and allies because they all have the same concerns.

If we all come together, I do think then we start talking about creating a broad base movement of African Americans, of Latinos, of environmentalists, of the LGBT community. Pretty soon, instead of 2 million SEIU members, you might be talking 40, 50 million members of all these different groups. That begins to be a powerful force for change in this country. 

If we’re all acting together, with that many votes? No question. We elect the president, we elect Congress members, we elect the governors, and we make people sit up and really take notice. And then we’re going to start having a real politics in this country. Right now, it’s all about negative ads, or it’s about who did what to whom. It’s all kind of nonsense, instead of talking about a real agenda for working people.

Can you share one or two quick lessons you drew from overseeing SEIU’s organizing project in the South and Southwest?

People in the South want unions. They know that they have the worst conditions, the lowest wages, and the lowest per capita wealth of all American states. They know they’re in bad shape, and they want a union, they need a union. That’s number one.

Two, when given an opportunity, they will answer, they will participate, and they will join. We’ve grown by, I think, it’s something around 100,000 members in the South since 2004. Now that’s a drop in the bucket compared to what we need, but it’s much more than anybody’s done in a long, long time.

Third, you need to invest for the long term. There is no such a thing as an overnight success, that you one day all of a sudden you create an organization. You have to go in there and you have to invest for the long term, which our unit has done and continues to do. I think it’s going to take patience and ongoing work to build a labor movement in those places.

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David Moberg, a former senior editor of In These Times, was on staff with the magazine from when it began publishing in 1976 until his passing in July 2022. 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 received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy.

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