Building Unity to Resist "SOS"

— an interview with Gilbert Cedillo

Gilbert Cedillo is General Manager of Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 660 AFL-CIO in Los Angeles. SEIU along with other unions is a major component in a broad coalition against a right-wing, anti-immigrant ballot initiative called>SOS (Save Our State), to be decided by California voters this coming November. Cedillo discussed this fight in the following phone interview with David Finkel of the ATC editorial board.

Against the Current: Please tell us, first, for a non-California readership, what this ballot initiative says and where it comes from.

Gilbert Cedillo: This is the latest in a series of attacks against immigrant communities, fundamentally in an effort to find scapegoats for the depressed California economy. Its components include an effort to prevent undocumented immigrants from receiving public social services from a variety of state and local agencies, including health, pre-natal care, and education.

Public school teachers, health care workers and local police would all be required to report to the Immigration and Naturalization Service “suspected” undocumented children in schools, or their parents (regardless of whether or not the student is a U.S. citizen), patients – even children receiving immunization – or arrested persons, including those subjected to citizen’s arrest on picket lines.

It’s backed strongly by the religious right and the extreme right in California, and especially by a handful of families – Rob Hurtt from Orange County, a real leader of the religious right, Mountjoy from Monrovia – who are able to generate literally millions of dollars. Governor Pete Wilson supports the initiative and has attempted to scapegoat immigrants for the economic and budget problems of California. Wilson sees this as his ticket to re-election in November.

Its chances of passage, today, are high. It’s a situation not unlike that of Proposition 174 (the school vouchers initiative) or, prior to that, Proposition 168, the so-called “welfare reform” initiative. These were initiatives from the right that had tremendous public support at first, before finally being defeated once people found out their true intent.

If the vote were held today the SOS initiative would probably win on a 60%-40% vote. Ironically but understandably, there’s strong Latino support for it, among parts of the community buying into the notion of blaming immigrants for the state’s economy. When the debate, and all the proposed solutions, are so shifted to the right, even people who don’t have those interests will buy into them.

ATC: We understand that organized labor in California really recognizes this initiative as a threat and is mobilizing to defeat it. Can you explain this dynamic?

GC: For one thing, I think this presents a tremendous organizing opportunity for trade unions. It also allows us to participate in constructing a civil rights framework for the struggle. I think it’s significant that organized labor is involved in this, because istorically it hasn’t had the best position on immigrants – if we think about labor in regard to Chinese, Filipino, Irish immigrants, etc.

Even as recently as the 1970s, we had organized labor buying into the arguments of the right against immigrant labor. One reason I think that this has changed, I think, is demographics.

You see a tremendous growth of the Latino community in California. In addition to workers coming here trained to do specific jobs, you have workers coming here from Mexico and Central America with various organizing experiences<197>often very positive.

Immigrants in Labor’s Revival

There’s a resurgence of labor militancy coming from immigrant workers. There’s Local 11 in Los Angeles organizing hotel and restaurant workers, the Justice for Janitors campaign and other cases – the drywall workers last year, for example, used creative and dynamic tactics.

All this has proven to many unions, which have lost a lot of their base in manufacturing, that the service and light industries, where these immigrant workers tend to be concentrated, are where labor needs to go in order to grow or even survive. Even from the most narrow interest they have to look around and see, if we are going to maintain the institution of labor, we have to organize immigrant workers.

And this is a very pro-organizing work force. Immigrants, including undocumented workers, will join unions, they will pay dues, go on strike, sacrifice<197>these are things that aren’t unfamiliar to them. It’s not a big step for them.

ATC: Can you tell us about the broad anti-“SOS” coalition and then about the work of your own union?

GC: The organizing efforts have diverse strategic focuses, which intersect around this issue. There’s a statewide effort to defeat SOS, convened by the Latino Legislative Caucus and by the African American Legislative Caucus in Sacramento, led by Assemblywoman Barbara Lee from Oakland.

They issued a call that brought in a very wide stratum of forces including the Catholic Church, health advocates, the education community, organized labor, pro-immigrant community groups, civil rights organizations and the business sector. There are particular business interests who depend on immigrant workers – farming, services, tourism.

Thus the Farm Bureau (the agribusiness lobby) and the United Farm Workers are both in this same statewide coalition. Some interesting meetings have occurred!

Here in Southern California our coalition – called the Los Angeles County Coordinating Committee to Defeat Proposition 187 – is very vibrant, with a lot of participating from trade union and community groups, and with some representatives from civil rights organizations as well as different legislators, local, state and congressional.

There are mobilizing plans, laid out in stages. The statewide movement is in the process of conducting polls, trying to identify the weakest element in the initiative – things which the broadest spectrum of people would find most repugnant – to help focus the campaign against it.

At the same time there is respect for all participating groups, who may have their own needs. For SEIU, for example, there’s the need to address how the issue affects our members. Unions have a particular accountability in that respect. There’s an understanding that community groups may need to frame the issue in their own way, and so will the health groups, etc.

There are around 65 representatives in our Los Angeles County meetings. So the room is pretty packed when we meet with representatives who can speak with authority for their organizations – we have a critical mass. We’ve broken up into two committees, outreach and finance, to map out the political strategy and to generate the revenues necessary to defeat the initiative.

Millions of dollars will have to be raised; and not only from organized labor, but from the entertainment industry, the tourist industry – everybody is going to have to ante up to defeat this.

Ultimately, however, we’ll have to target precincts and get out the vote. So we will be involved in voter registration and voter education, voter identification and then a get-out-the-vote effort. A timetable for each of these phases is in place.

We’ll need to mobilize various constituencies – Latinos, for example – that have participated in elections at lower levels than the norm. And we have a sizeable Asian-Pacific Islander population that will be mobilizing. With the trade unions, of course, we have established lists of people that we’ll need to reach.

ATC: How would you describe the general climate of the debate around this issue?

GC: This fight doesn’t take place outside the social context. For example, in June, we saw a particularly intense effort to scapegoat the immigrants, a virtual hysteria, so that even Democrats voted for things they otherwise would not. For example, in California you cannot get a driver’s license without proof of legal residence, literally “driving” folks underground and potentially forcing them to break the law in car-dependent Southern California.

Within this context there was a magnificent demonstration of 20,000 people, right in downtown Los Angeles, against this whole anti-immigrant wave. It was called together by an array of groups including immigrant rights groups. Unions with an immigrant base like the ILGWU, HERE and CWA were involved, as well as the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF), the Central American Refugee Center (CARECEN), and a lot of others groups as well.

There’s a call for another demonstration in Los Angeles on October 16th. Expectations for that mobilization are extremely high. There are a lot of Latino leaders who were beginning to capitulate to the rightward-moving debate. This movement gives them space to move to the left, and it can – possibly – embolden them as the struggle develops.

ATC: I wanted to ask you, finally, about how this issue plays out in your own union. Is it a divisive issue, and how do you address it?

GC: It definitely has that potential to be divisive. Historically we have seen that, and I wouldn’t underplay the danger now. What’s exciting right now is the tremendous unity among those who are participating in the coalition and have responded to the call.

Building Unity From Division

I represent a union where the base is primarily African American, and also includes a lot of other diverse components. We’ve found that you have to take on these issues of race, which may be divisive, by defining our class interests as workers first.

That’s not easy. People are threatened by the recession. They feel they would have a better job, better paycheck, and services without the immigration “problem.” That can only be combatted through education. We have to educate our members about the role of immigrants in reviving the labor movement and reviving the economy.

That process is the only way we can get our unions organized around this issue. We have to work at a number of levels. African Americans are very sensitive to issues of discrimination. I believe people are most united around the issue of social justice.

The difficult task is how to integrate this debate into the union program. We do training programs, from the staff to the membership levels, to counterbalance the general anti-immigrant message that comes through everywhere in the media.

We have to be aggressive about it<197>you can’t be passive – we have to get that message into our stewards’ bodies, etc. We’ve had candid debates at membership meetings where people raise all the issues they hear.

There are issues which are a little more general: For example, there’s general sensitivity to the Haitian refugee issue, so it’s an easier bridge toward an immigration rights policy for Latinos and Asians as well.

On the other hand, an experience I’ve had, in terms of how white workers feel – although white workers aren’t responsible for institutional racism – can illustrate how sensitive the issue is.

SOS on some level would create a situation not totally unlike apartheid in South Africa. You’d have the identity cards, high exploitation, all things that people are familiar with when you talk about Pretoria or Johannesburg. But if you talk about this in southern California, some people are appalled – “don’t say it’s apartheid here in America!”

It’s a very sensitive issue. Our leadership body is concerned about it because they don’t want to be supporting something they know is fundamentally wrong, yet they also feel they need to find some solutions to real economic problems. I believe that a healthy debate around the issue will allow us to sort out the issues, and pursue strategies that address not only the need for economic justice but social justice as well.

ATC 52, September-October 1994