The labor movement’s struggles stem from much more than a trio of Republican Midwestern governors who want to roll back collective-bargaining rights. Union membership has been declining for decades as globalization ravaged the American manufacturing base, a union bastion. The recession further thinned the ranks, and many of the remaining union workers are nearing retirement; membership as a percentage of the population has fallen by more than 10 percent since 2001.
But some unions are bucking that trend, and they have America’s growing Latino population to thank. Latinos now make up 13 percent of the U.S. workforce and 16 percent of the population, according to new government figures. But they constitute one-fifth of service workers and nearly one-third of laborers. In some industries, such as meatpacking, Latinos hold almost three-quarters of the jobs. They are breathing life back into American labor and bolstering its political clout. “Immigrants are the best hope for the labor movement,” declared Eliseo Medina, the secretary-treasurer of the Service Employees International Union and an immigrant. “Fresh blood will always make your body stronger.”
Last year, just 12 percent of American workers were union members, down from more than one-third in the 1950s and about 20 percent in the early 1980s. The next years hold even greater peril for the labor movement as many union members look to retire: 16 percent of workers ages 55 to 64 are represented by unions, compared with just 10 percent of those ages 25 to 34.
Construction and manufacturing unions are always among those hit hardest by a downturn, but now private-sector workers, too, are less likely to be organized: Just 8 percent carry membership cards, a tenth fewer than in 2009. Meanwhile, some governors with budget crises are battling the public-sector unions, which had largely been spared in the recession.
Yet the SEIU membership has grown 60 percent since 2001 by focusing on low-wage service workers, many of whom are immigrants, as well as on public-sector workers. That growth has meant increased political power. Many other unions failed to get their candidates elected last year in states ranging from Pennsylvania to Wisconsin; but the SEIU played a major role in turning what began as close gubernatorial and Senate races in California into blowouts. In 2008, it spent $60 million helping to elect Barack Obama. UNITE HERE, a heavily Hispanic union of hotel and restaurant workers whose Las Vegas local has grown by double digits in the last decade, had a hand in reelecting Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., in 2010. California and Nevada, not coincidentally, have large and fast-growing Latino populations. About 12 percent of union members are Latinos, up from 10 percent a decade ago, though the makeup varies widely between industries. The SEIU (with a median age of 41) is 23 percent Latino, while the industrial United Steelworkers (with a median age of 52) is just 8 percent.
Unions in Latino-heavy industries—such as meatpacking, agriculture, and hospitality—have seen immigrants become targets of threats and intimidation in the workplace, so they saw a recruitment opportunity. The SEIU has been a leader in immigrant outreach, pushing not just to organize workers but also to help immigrants to become citizens, get counted in the census, and register to vote. The SEIU “really models itself after a new civil-rights movement,” said Gary Chaison, a professor of industrial relations at Clark University. Others pushing for immigrants include the United Farm Workers of America and the United Food and Commercial Workers of America, which represents supermarket, meatpacking and food processing workers.
This trend has caused more than a decade of tension with more-established unions in the manufacturing sector, which historically viewed immigrant workers as cheap labor that undercut their members and weakened their power. In 1999 and 2000, the AFL-CIO, an umbrella organization that includes most of the large unions, had a heated internal debate that culminated in a greater acceptance of immigrants and endorsement of comprehensive immigration reform—a major reversal after decades spent opposing any form of amnesty.
The turbulence wasn’t over. Unions with large Latino memberships were unhappy with the AFL-CIO’s leadership for focusing too much on political campaigns at the expense of organizing more workers. This approach made sense for the more-established public-employee and manufacturing unions in stable or shrinking industries; they had already won major concessions and wanted to focus on protecting them by electing friendly politicians. But for newer unions in the growing service industries with a largely immigrant workforce, the most important thing was increasing membership.
This disagreement came to a head in 2005, when the SEIU, the farm workers, the food and commercial workers, UNITE HERE, and the Teamsters seceded from the AFL-CIO to form the Change to Win Coalition. During the 2007 immigration-reform debate, Change to Win was mostly on the side of the compromise McCain-Kennedy immigration bill, which legalized guest workers, while the AFL-CIO fought it. The two sides eventually came together on a framework for a comprehensive immigration plan in 2009.
For their part, companies are just as resistant to Latino-friendly unions as they are to any others, and current law makes it difficult for unions to organize new workers in private industry, especially in right-to-work states.
Many of the AFL-CIO’s members took a while to come around to their pro-immigrant views, and they haven’t been as forceful in promoting those attitudes as they could be. But their growing embrace of Latinos and other new workers could offer the larger labor movement a chance to reverse its steady decline. The low-wage service jobs that many Latino and other marginalized workers hold are difficult to outsource. If America’s future depends on an expanding service economy and a diversified workforce, so does the labor movement’s.
An earlier version of this story misstated the types of workers the United Food and Commercial Workers represented.
This article appears in the April 16, 2011, edition of National Journal.