By Besha Rodell
By Patrick Range McDonald
By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
PALM SPRINGS -- When Maria Sanchez got a job at Palm Springs‘ luxurious Palm Canyon residential resort in 1997, her wages came nowhere near the affluence of the establishment and its guests. She and her co-workers cleaned five complete apartments each day for $4.75 an hour.
A willingness to work hard for low pay didn’t earn them respect -- much the reverse. A supervisor allegedly ridiculed the workers, and it got worse. In the fall of 1999, the hotel took away their vacation pay.
By last spring, Sanchez and her co-workers had had enough. They marched into the office of Hotel Employees & Restaurant Employees (HERE) Local 309 and joined the union. During this heated labor dispute, Sanchez alleges, the same manager then took her into a backroom, and demanded that she spy on her co-workers.
The hotel hired extra security guards, dressed in uniforms the same color green as the Border Patrol. Three union supporters were suspended. Finally the workers organized a silent march outside the hotel. When more employees were fired afterward, the workers prayed in the parking lot, and then refused to go back to work.
Twenty years ago, most unions would have written off Sanchez and her fellow room cleaners. At the Palm Canyon, however, Local 309 backed the walkout completely. In the last two years, unions have done an about-face on immigration, and the attitude they take toward workers like Sanchez has changed drastically. The old political rules and alliances that limited the possibility for immigration reform have also changed. Amnesty for undocumented immigrants, which was off the radar screen in Washington just a few years ago, is now a realistic goal. And employers see opportunity as well. They want new bracero contract-labor programs, which would transform immigrant workers into an even cheaper and more vulnerable labor force than ever before.
Sanchez and her co-workers stayed out on strike for four months. She lost her house and car, and sold personal belongings to survive. The manager swore they would never work in the hotel again. But last spring, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that the hotel had violated their rights, and under the resulting legal pressure, the Palm Canyon negotiated a settlement reinstating the workers with back pay.
It wasn‘t over yet, however. Just as they were about to return, the hotel announced it was checking everyone’s immigration papers, and only those who could verify their legal status would return. The strikers said no, and for another month walked the picket line. Finally, in May, the hotel agreed to rehire everyone. ”I didn‘t care who had papers and who didn’t,“ Sanchez says. ”We had to stand up for our rights. We all deserve to be respected. We decided that no one would go back until we all went back. The union didn‘t back down, and we won.“
Carl Ellis came in as general manager at the Palm Canyon in April, and rehired workers as one of his first actions. ”Working conditions here have improved, people are being treated fairly, and they receive fair wages and medical benefits,“ he says. While any charges of current mistreatment are false, he says, ”I don’t know what happened before I got here. What‘s past is past.“
The hotel still has no union contract, however, and Maria Sanchez and eight of her coworkers were again fired in the months that followed, firings that Ellis calls ”fully justified,“ but that the workers allege was for their continued union activity.
For labor, Sanchez’s pro-union attitude in the face of these tactics looks increasingly like a beacon of hope. ”This is exactly what‘s leading unions to change their attitude towards immigration,“ explains HERE president John Wilhelm. ”Most unions today are at least trying to organize. And no matter what the industry, they run into immigrant workers. Immigrants are everywhere, not just in the service industry, and not just in California and the Southwest. That’s what brought home the failure of the AFL-CIO‘s old immigration policy.“
In 1986, the AFL-CIO supported the provision of the Immigration Reform and Control Act that the Palm Canyon tried to use against the strikers: employer sanctions. The law requires fines (low and rarely collected) on employers who hire undocumented workers. The real effect of the law is on the workers themselves, making it illegal for them to hold a job.
AFL-CIO support for sanctions rested on the idea that if it became illegal for the undocumented to work, fewer immigrants would come to the U.S., while those working here illegally would return home. The reality proved far different. Sanctions had almost no effect on halting the flow of migrants into the U.S., but they did drastically undermine their rights once they were here, with devastating consequences. Since 1986, it has become common for companies to break organizing drives by demanding that workers verify their immigration status, and firing those who can’t or won‘t.
Since 1986, the organizing efforts of immigrant workers have become more important to unions. Last year, the percentage of U.S. workers belonging to unions dropped from 13.9 percent to 13.5 percent, and fell to 9 percent in the private sector. For the overall percentage to stay constant, unions have to organize 400,000 workers a year. To increase by 1 percent, they have to organize twice that number. And the AFL-CIO proposes a goal of organizing 1 million workers yearly, a rate not achieved since the 1940s.