SEIU 32BJ head Roxana Rivera builds support for immigrant rights
Roxana Rivera had just come from an action to protest the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement efforts to deport Francisco Rodriguez when the Banner met up with her at the District 615 32BJ SEIU office in Downtown Boston last week. As head of the union, Rivera represents 18,000 property service workers in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Rhode Island. This includes custodial workers, janitors and security officers.
After working at Local 615 for nearly a decade, Rivera was appointed to head up the New England chapter.
Rivera attends and speaks at dozens of actions each year, but this one in particular struck a chord with her. The pain in her voice was evident as she spoke about Rodriguez. And as she spoke about her work at SEIU during the first six months of the Trump administration, it became clear that unions are entering uncharted territory. But according to Rivera, plans are in the making.
What made Francisco Rodriguez’s case so compelling?
Rivera: Francisco has been in this country for ten years. He was given stays of removal each year, so he had to do an immigration check-in every year in order for ICE to extend his stay. But because of the new administration, this time, when he checked in on June 13, they told him to come in with his travel documents. I had the opportunity to come to the immigration check-in with him, and I’m glad that I did that, because now I’m even more committed to my work. Sometimes you have to walk in people’s shoes to understand the gravity of their situation.
When did you first join a union?
Rivera: I was a teacher at a school in Mountain View, California, and the parents at the school were really freaked out because down the road immigration raids were happening. Day laborers were being picked up and local police were helping in those raids. One of the parents at my school asked me if I could go to a meeting and talk about how parents were feeling. So I went and I met Renaldo Herrera. We had a City Hall meeting and asked the mayor and the city council not to allow the city police to participate in these raids, to let that be a federal function and not a city function. The mayor said point-blank at the microphone, “I’ve never seen so many brown faces in my life.” I didn’t see overt racism until I was placed in situations like that one. Then I worked against Proposition 187 (legislation that would require teachers to report undocumented students to the ICE), and the union was helping to lead the campaign against that proposition and asked me if I wanted to be an organizer, and I said yes. Then I became a political director at the union.
Since many of your workers are immigrants, how are the current anti-immigrant policies of the Trump administration affecting your members?
Rivera: It’s a nightmare. Many of the immigrants here have been here for years. They have families here, they work, they’re critical parts of our community. Disrupting that from one day to the next is going to have implications for all of us. There’s extreme fear and folks can’t go about their daily lives because people are getting picked up arbitrarily. It’s becoming very clear who the administration is targeting, and what license the Trump administration is giving to local ICE offices. What’s going to be affected is the legal status people have had under temporary protective status. Honduran and El Salvadoran people will be affected in the coming months. Many of them have been here for years, and might be separated from their families. I feel like it’s just going to get worse. It’s already escalated numerically, much more than in previous administrations, and it’s only been a few months. But we have to have the courage to push back on this. As a union, we’re going to use our collective power to think about what we can do in this moment.
What are some of the labor strategies you’ve seen emerging in response to the Trump administration, if any?
Rivera: One of the biggest strategies is uniting with other organizations that are working on these issues. When the Climate March happened in Boston, we provided resources and had our members be involved. Our strategy is to make those connections in the community, because we know we can’t win on our own. We also sponsored a meeting of immigrant activists. We came together and talked about how we are going to deal with possible immigration raids. That’s one of our bigger strategies, and SEIU as a union has always done that, but now we’re working on building organization together. Looking internally, we want to dedicate time to having one-on-one conversations with members about the purpose of the union and how they are much stronger because they are a part of the union. The Trump administration has been very clear that they want to go after organizations that support working families, such as unions. We can’t meet our goals if our organization isn’t intact, so we have to join with others and work externally on issues, but also work to keep our own union intact in order to serve our role. We’re experimenting a lot with how to engage our union and what our role should be.
Is there anything so far that the Trump administration has done that has made it hard for you to organize, besides the obvious anti-immigration policies?
Rivera: Certain states have already passed right-to-work bills. A right-to-work state says that union can’t obligate workers and members of their union to pay dues, that it has to be voluntary, but the union still has an obligation to represent all workers. It’s going to make it harder for unions to function. Twenty-eight states have already passed right-to-work. There’s a decision that’s going to be made at the Supreme Court, and given that the Supreme Court is not in favor of working families, we believe that there’s going to be a law that the unions that represent public sector workers cannot obligate them to pay dues, but the unions still have to represent all workers. Then that bill will start creeping into the private sector, and we’re largely a private sector union.