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LABOUR: Union Leader Brings Salvadoran Experience to U.S.

Peter Costantini

SEATTLE, Washington, Jan 9 2006 (IPS) - “When I came to Seattle, I learned about the salmon,” said Sergio Salinas. “How they start in one place and end up their life in the same place – if they are not eaten first.”

Salinas became a union organiser in El Salvador at age 16. After being jailed and tortured for a year on charges of “subversion” during the civil war, he left seeking asylum in Mexico.

“I was lucky actually to survive, because thousands of people were disappeared or simply killed,” he said. He kept in contact with the outside world from prison with the help of his mother, who smuggled notes to him in the soles of her shoes.

Years later in the United States, he returned to organised labour, and this month he begins his second term as president of Local 6 of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) in Seattle. Salinas and his fellow Latin American immigrants, some of whom bring union experience with them from their home countries, have provided a jolt of new energy to a United States labour movement desperately in need of defibrillation.

For Salinas, it’s been a long swim upstream.

Over the past 14 years, Salinas has worked for Local 6, starting as an organiser. A trim 48 years old, he remembers that in the beginning, “I had long hair and no gray hair. Now I’m losing my hair.”

During that period, the union’s campaigns have brought close to 90 percent of janitors in the city of Seattle and 70 percent in the surrounding areas into the union.

They’ve organised janitors so well that now they have to look for other kinds of workers to recruit. So the division of SEIU has changed its name from “building services” to “property services” and is working to bring security guards and other service workers in office buildings into the fold: “Eventually also parking attendants, landscapers, whatever moves,” he said. “If they’re not organised we will probably be targeting them.”

In a country where fewer than eight percent of private-sector workers belong to a union, Local 6 might seem to defy political and economic gravity.

But it is part of a national campaign, Janitors for Justice, that over has developed a successful and inclusive model of organising workers and their communities in nearly 30 cities.

“We can make a difference in workers’ lives,” said Salinas, “and make our union more present in the fight for human rights, in the communities of colour and immigrant communities, because unions are more than just wages and benefits.”

For a model of what unions can be, he harkens back to the New York labour movement in the early 1900s: “The union was doing the barbecue in the street and doing the fiesta and doing everything. I mean it was a natural thing to belong to the union,” he said.

He wants to develop a culture where people come to work and say, “Do they have a union? No? Well we need to have a union because I want to have medical benefits and I want to have a decent wage.”

In El Salvador before the civil war of the 1980s, the labour movement Salinas joined was strong.

Workers, peasants and students had “massive organisations with hundreds of thousands of people,” he recalled, in a small country with a population of about five million. These popular movements had been toughened by 50 years of military dictatorship.

But when the civil war broke out, the U.S.-funded military and death squads tore the legal popular organisations apart and assassinated or disappeared their leaders, he said. Most of those who survived went into exile or joined the guerrilla forces in the countryside. Salinas was one of the former.

Although the SEIU now works with unions in Brazil, Colombia, Argentina, South Africa, Australia and Europe, he said, unions in El Salvador were “so beaten by the war they’re still not able to recuperate” well over a decade after the end of the fighting.

Two years ago, Human Rights Watch issued a report documenting systematic abuses of labour rights in El Salvador.

In Mexico, Salinas found that unions had “a little more freedom to organise – at least they didn’t kill you for being in the union”. But the official unions there were merely “extensions of the government”.

As a result, he found a lot of resistance in the form of independent unions, but had to be cautious in working with them because the Mexican government, which had granted him asylum, was hostile to them.

When economic crisis hit in 1982 and the peso went from 23 to thousands to the dollar, Salinas was faced with a tough choice: surviving on menial jobs was becoming hard in Mexico, but it was too dangerous to go back to El Salvador.

His father and his wife’s mother were both living in the Los Angeles area. But growing up in Latin America and “blaming everything on U.S. imperialism”, he recalled wryly, it was a difficult decision to head north.

He and Sandra ended up in the Pico district in a run-down apartment with mice, rats and 10 other people. Still, he said, “we were extremely lucky: we found a way in and we didn’t have to live on the streets.”

Although his case was well-documented by the Red Cross, he decided not to apply for asylum. In the mid-1980s, he received immigration amnesty and became a citizen in 1990.

After a couple of years doing manual labour in Southern California, he decided it was too hard to learn English there in the midst of a huge Hispanic community. They headed north to Seattle, where after a few months of English classes at a community college, he found he could communicate in the new language.

After stints teaching Spanish, working with Central American refugees for a church group, and doing paralegal work for an immigrants’ rights project, he was hired by the SEIU to organise janitors.

He found some major differences from El Salvador in the union’s approach.

“Over there, because of the repression, we just jumped from the organising committee to the strike,” he remembered, “taking over the facilities, taking over the management as hostages, talking to workers to convince them to sign their cards and get recognition right there. A one-stop service kind of thing.”

“Here, workers are more intimidated for some reason. The only thing they lose, if they lose anything, is their jobs if they’re fired.”

Another challenge was that the janitors he organised included diverse groups of immigrants.

Where in Los Angeles roughly 97 percent of the workforce is Latino, he said, “Seattle is a little different: we have large groups of Bosnians, Romanians, Russians, Vietnamese and Ethiopians, as well as Latinos. In our union here we have about 16 recognised languages.”

To deal with new groups of immigrants, Local 6 has hired a Bosnian organiser.

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