California labor looks for ways to help immigrant union members

Representatives from 12 California labor councils met in San Francisco for an historic meeting on immigration. The meeting was hosted by the San Francisco Labor Council and the California AFL-CIO.

“In the context of ICE raids, stalled national immigration reform, the Supreme Court ‘non-ruling’ that has kept President Obama’s DAPA order on hold, as well the difficult process to obtain green cards and a path to citizenship, we thought we should gather to discuss how labor councils can support immigrant members of our affiliate unions with the difficulties they face,” said Tim Paulson, executive director of the San Francisco Labor Council.

Among other things, those attending the meeting heard how local unions were providing space in their union halls for immigrant centers, places were immigrants can go to get help on a wide range of issues.

In San Francisco, the local labor council and SEIU Local 87 have worked together to create the We Rise San Francisco Immigration Center, which is housed in Local 87’s union building.

Local 87 is a union of 3500 janitors who clean office buildings in downtown San Francisco. Many if not most of its members are immigrants.

The union has been negotiating a new contract with janitorial service companies.

Negotiations have not been going well, so Local 87 called for a week of action between July 25 and July 29.

During the week of action union members marched to and picketed buildings in the city’s financial district.

One of the excuses that the building service employers are using to avoid giving their workers a decent pay increase and preserving their health care benefits is that the owners and/or occupants of the building, which are mostly financial services and technology companies, are threatening to employ non-union companies that pay low wages with few benefits.

The week of action is aimed at exposing the greed of these companies that report billions of dollars in revenue but seek low ball deals for important services such a cleaning services. The money that they might save on these deals amounts to pocket change for them.

At the end of the week of action on Friday, members of the union voted on whether to authorize a strike.

Results of the vote have not been made public at the time of this writing.

Even though Local 87 has been involved in high stakes negotiating and may be facing a strike soon, it has continued to house the We Rise San Francisco Immigrant Center.

The center was opened in 2015 through a cooperative effort between the San Francisco Labor Council and Local 87. It is funded through a grant from the city of San Francisco.

“San Francisco would not be the innovative, diverse, and resilient city that it is without our strong immigrant community,” said San Francisco City Supervisor Katy Tang when the grant from the city was announced. “We must do everything we can to support new immigrants looking for new opportunities in our city, as well as long-time immigrant families seeking support and stability.”

At the We Rise center, staff who speak a number of different languages explain how people can become citizens, provide legal resources, help with job related issues, and provide information on other issues faced by immigrants. Staff members also help immigrants who have become citizens register to vote.

Paulson said that the California labor movement is leading the fight for social justice in a number of areas including health care, affordable housing, and labor project agreements that ensure decent wages and working conditions on construction projects. All are aimed at making life better for working people.

Immigration reform is key to these other reforms, which is why labor has become more active in supporting immigrant rights, said Paulson.

“Even with anti-worker court rulings and a Congress that refuses to fix our failed immigration system, the California labor movement will continue to protect immigrant workers who pay taxes, work hard and make America work,” he continued.

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