Union debate centers on immigrants’ rights

New Haven Solidarity Week kicked off Monday amid growing disagreement between Yale’s Local 35 union and an anti-illegal aliens group, which has now brought Yale students and University management into the fray.

Thirteen Yale student groups released a statement yesterday condemning a Community Watchdog Project-sponsored petition that calls for the withholding of union dues from Local 35’s pro-immigrant rights national affiliate UNITE HERE.

Since the petition began circulating 12 days ago, Local 35 leadership and CWP organizers have engaged in a tense back-and-forth that has thus far failed to produce any resolution between the two sides.

CWP members said they have collected almost 300 signatures on the petition, but Local 35 President Bob Proto said most of the members who signed the petition last week have asked to have their names removed. Only one union member has asked to be removed from the petition, CWP organizers said.

Regardless of the exact numbers, Yale student groups who signed an opinion by Robert Sanchez ’08 in today’s News, “Anti-immigrant propaganda deceives Yale workers,” said they object to what they call the petition’s anti-undocumented immigration mentality.

“In trying to turn Yale workers against immigrant residents of New Haven, reactionary and racist groups are seeking to divide communities that, when they organize and unite around common issues, have the ability to affect real change in this city and in this country,” the statement reads.

In response to criticism from Local 35 leaders, CWP organizer Alan Felder said CWP is not forcing workers to revoke their union dues but rather is seeking to allow workers to bargain with union leaders. Last week, Yale School of Medicine Facilities Senior Supervisor Team Leader Gary Mandelburg directly ordered Felder to cease the petitioning in such a way that Felder felt “persecuted” for his “personal and political views,” he said.

“I am dumbfounded to think that they are employing such strong-arm tactics,” CWP spokeswoman Veronica Kivela said. “They want this to go away. We’re not going away. We are going to tell this membership about where their money is going — to illegal aliens who could very well take their jobs one day.”

Mandelburg did not return calls for comment Tuesday.

In the spirit of New Haven Solidarity Week, student coordinators said they will make a concerted effort to reach out to Local 35’s dining hall workers and other service personnel this week, in addition to encouraging Yale faculty and students to register for Elm City Resident ID Cards.

Two months ago Proto signed an “Immigrant Rights are Human Rights” manifesto expressing support for the ID card program, which grants municipal privileges to all New Haven residents, regardless of age or citizenship status.

But Local 35 does not have an official stance on immigration — a fact that leaders publicly clarified to all union members last week. Soon after the petition began circulating, Proto said, “dozens and dozens” of signatories repudiated the petition and told him they would ask to have their names removed.

“They just talked amongst themselves and realized that our local [union] didn’t have an official stance,” Proto said. “They were being lied to by this group, [told] that their jobs were going to be lost or taken over by illegal immigrants, and they used that fear and lied to our workers.”

CWP organizers said only one union member has requested to be removed from the petition, and they will continue soliciting signatures until they have 55 percent of the membership — approximately 660 signatures.

“We’d like to get another 30 percent done, and it seems that the members are still with us,” CWP Chief Strategist Dustin Gold said. “Alan put something out there to let them know that … we’re not telling you to not pay your dues, it’d just give you the power to negotiate.”

Proto said the one-person count is completely off-base.

“That’s a lie, along with the lies about telling people they were going to lose their jobs,” he said. “If they even took the time to read our contract they would understand that we have job guarantees and staffing levels. It’s just a horrible, horrible lie.”

Several Yale workers previously interviewed by the News expressed support for the petition because they said they think black workers in the United States are being shortchanged by illegal immigrants. But Black Student Alliance at Yale member Justin Chukumba ’10 said that by pitting blacks against undocumented immigrants, CWP is hurting undocumented workers who perform jobs most people do not want.

CWP organizers Felder, Kivela, Gold and Ted Pechinski were present at yesterday’s Solidarity Week kickoff — and even got an ironic shout out from John Lugo, the president of the immigrants’ rights group Unidad Latina en Accion. After approaching Lugo and offering his card, Pechinski said he wanted to set up a dialogue with ULA to discuss how immigration is affecting the nation.

“Good jobs are going out of the country; cheap labor is coming in,” Pechinski said. “There are no jobs, and there’s going to be fights in the streets. … I think they have to go down to Mexico and fight for the middle class there, and I am supportive of that.”

BSAY member Joshua Williams ’08 said the petitioners are using race to oversimplify the immigration debate.

“That statement denies the reality that there are black immigrants,” he said. “It is important to see ourselves as part of a community.”

For now, the number of signatures on the petition remains unclear. One Yale dining hall worker who declined to provide her name said she was still on the petition, while another Calhoun College worker who asked to be identified simply as Kenneth said several of his colleagues had removed their names.

Proto said he was unaware that Yale administrators had corresponded with Felder, but he said Yale’s higher-level management should know by this point that petitioners who are not authorized to be on Yale property have been disturbing workers. With the exception of Felder, CWP’s administrative membership does not include Local 35 workers, although the group has recruited a few workers to help with outreach.

“Yale management, I imagine, took some steps, [but] I’m not sure which steps they took,” Proto said. “I would think … that someone without a Yale ID does not belong in the workplace.”

CWP Chief Strategist Dustin Gold said CWP is looking to introduce a similar petition among Yale’s Local 34 members as well as SEIU 1199 union members in the near future. Local 34 includes Yale’s clerical and technical workers, while SEIU 1199 since 1997 has sought to unionize workers at Yale-New Haven Hospital. Like Proto, Local 34 President Laura Smith has publicly supported immigrant rights.

“This program provides a wonderful opportunity for all of us who live and work in New Haven to reaffirm our shared values of inclusion and community and goodwill toward one another,” Smith said yesterday at the NHSW kickoff. “These values have been key to all our success as a union, and they are the key to success in this city as well.”

Local 35 includes all of Yale’s service and maintenance employees.

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