At the urging of a local immigration-reform group, a number of Yale dining hall workers, custodians and service personnel signed a petition on Thursday urging Local 35 leaders to abandon the union’s policy of transferring member dues to a pro-immigration rights national affiliate.
Arguing that illegal immigration depresses wages and causes unemployment, members of the Community Watchdog Project stood on campus yesterday handing out fliers and soliciting employees on break or in between shifts.
“The membership is highly upset that the union will turn their backs on their American workers,” petition organizer Alan Felder said.
While it is still unclear how many signatures the group’s petition garnered — and will garner in the coming days — the Project’s campaign has already met opposition from Local 35 President Bob Proto, who said Thursday that supporters of the petition are acting “mean-spirited.” He added that he thinks its execution was ill-conceived.
“Our folks don’t really have the time to grab onto certain issues … some of them know about the issues, but most of them I would rather have them be more knowledgeable about the stance,” Proto said. “So for these guys to go do this … is absolutely the wrong road.”
Standing in front of the Noah Porter Gate between Calhoun and Berkeley colleges, Felder — who is a Yale University plumber and a Local 35 member — collected signatures from 10 of 12 dining hall workers who passed by in the span of 40 minutes.
Earlier Thursday morning, Felder stood at the James Street Physical Plant, where Yale houses its off-site workers and materials.
Most of the workers Felder and other organizers approached yesterday quickly agreed to sign the petition before leaving to cash their work checks.
At a Local 35 meeting Wednesday, Felder and organizer Ted Pechinski promised to wait for union leaders to consult with UNITE HERE, the union’s national affiliate, and to dispense information that would clarify the union’s position before pursuing a petition, Proto said.
But the CWP broke that agreement yesterday and petitioned workers before they were properly informed, he said.
As the president of Local 35, Proto has had a long time to clarify the union’s stance on illegal immigration, and his response on Wednesday dodged the issue, Felder and other organizers said.
Felder and Pechinsi registered dissatisfaction with Local 35’s structure for paying dues, because it directs union members’ money to UNITE HERE, which actively lobbies for immigrant rights on the national level.
But neither Proto nor CWP members could say what percentage of union dues absorbed by UNITE HERE goes toward their lobbying interests.
UNITE HERE press secretary Amanda Cooper said anti-immigration complaints are “incredibly typical from different political standpoints.”
She said UNITE HERE leaves internal union disputes to local union officials, since they are responsible for representing their workers.
The national organization is a “union of immigrants” and therefore lobbies on their behalf, Cooper said.
She said she does not know how much of UNITE HERE’s funding goes toward political lobbying.
But Felder said the specific numbers matter little when many workers — especially blacks — are facing unemployment.
“Illegal immigration is detrimental to the African-American community — without them we get pushed to the back of the line,” he said. “Now that you bring illegals back into the equation it pushes us further and further back. It’s not the whole problem — there’s education, parents … But this is one of the main issues that is affecting us more than any other one.”
The petition comes at a time when immigration is perhaps the most salient hot-button issue facing New Haven, with the city’s municipal ID card program sparking national debate.
Last month, city government officials, community leaders and union organizers convened to sign a declaration — titled “Immigrant Rights are Human Rights” — that condemned summer raids by the Department of Homeland Security and affirmed what it called the rights of both workers and immigrants.
“New Haven Solidarity Week,” slated to kick off on Nov. 5 with over 20 student groups in attendance, will serve as an on-site municipal ID card registration drive for students, as well as Yale workers and faculty.
Proto, who signed the “Immigrant Rights are Human Rights” manifesto in September, said the endorsement did not represent the views of the union, but only his own personal views.
While he is willing to hear both sides of the illegal immigration debate, Proto said, he thinks the CWP has taken the discussion too far.
“We shouldn’t go all the way to one extreme, stop them all, send them back — that’s their view,” Proto said. “It is not a well-informed view, and I question their whole watchdog organization as being a mean-spirited, shoot-through-the-hip misinformed bunch of folks that like to hear themselves talk.”
Johnny Cummings and Michael Mitchell, two Calhoun College workers who stopped to sign the petition, said they were principally concerned with the shortage of jobs in the community, as well as the stigma on legal citizens who cannot find work as a result of criminal records.
“We’ve got enough people here in this country who need jobs, a lot of people who need second chances,” Cummings said. “I don’t think it’s fair — [illegal immigrants] can get jobs with no problems and we’ve gotta beg and we’ve been here forever.”
But Mitchell and Cummings said they are not opposed to the new Elm City ID card program.
“I don’t mind about that,” Mitchell said. “It’s a free country. It’s just got to be more fair.”
The CWP is a shoot-off of Southern Connecticut Citizens for Immigration Reform, which in the past has staged public protests against New Haven’s municipal ID card program.
SCtIR and CWP are close affiliates, supporters said, but the Project employs grass roots activism and legislative advocacy instead of protests.