The labor movement is adding careful counting of every single Spanish speaking person in the United States to the long list of things it already does above and beyond its traditional role of representing workers on the job.
Leading the charge is the Service Employees International Union which announced at a press conference Oct. 1 that it is joining the Census Bureau to guarantee that every Latino in the U.S. is counted when everyone else is counted next April 1. SEIU has a high percentage of Spanish speaking members.
The union announced its “¡Ya es hora, Hagase Contar!” (It’s Time: Make Yourself Count) campaign at the press conference in Washington by saying it wants a full count of every Spanish speaking person in the country. Estimates are that this group numbers at least 50 million out of a total population or more than 307 million.
The Census Bureau itself estimates that in the last census, in 2000, Spanish-speaking people were undercounted by at least three percent.
Latino leaders point out that systematic undercounting of their numbers in the population has resulted in less representation in both Congress and state legislative bodies and in disbursement of smaller amounts of federal funds. Allocation of these funds is usually based on census figures.
Interestingly, the union will not be focusing its efforts in areas where there are large Latino populations. Labor and Latino leaders are saying the biggest problems with undercounting are not in states like California, Illinois and New York, which have large Latino populations, but in states where the Latino population is small but growing rapidly.
SEIU’s Executive Vice President Eliseo Medina, himself the son of immigrants, is heading up the union’s efforts and confirmed, in a phone interview, that his organization is looking at states like North Carolina and even Alaska, states where his union is actually very small.
“We have to worry about places like Alaska and North Carolina, where there’s not a high level of Latino participation,” he said.
A UFCW official in North Carolina said he believed many Latino workers in the meat packing industry there, for example, have not been counted.
The Census Bureau estimates that one in 10 people in North Carolina speak languages other than English at home, an estimate that is considered low by many activists. Among these are a large number of Spanish speaking residents.
The union and the community groups it will be working with the knowledge, from the outset, that a full count of the Spanish speaking population is not going to be an easy task.
Medina notes that one of the problems is suspicion of the government and fear that census takers will report people for deportation.
“That’s why we are getting out the correct information to all our union locals and to community groups beyond them that the census count is totally confidential,” Medina said. “We’re putting our union’s credibility on the line in assuring people that the census information won’t be shared.”
Medina said that another problem for groups that will work for a full count of the Latino population is the need to deal with “counter productive” measures advocated by some community groups.
He said there were efforts by an “evangelical Hispanic group in New Jersey and another local group in Los Angeles to get Hispanics not to cooperate with census-takers as a way to increase pressure for comprehensive immigration reform.”
Medina called that approach a mistake. “The way to get reform is to show our numbers,” he said.