As part of Hispanic Heritage Month the People’s World interviewed Eliseo Medina, widely known as a highly successful organizer and immigrant rights advocate who was recently elected as the first Latino international secretary-treasurer with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).
Prior to his new post, Medina served as SEIU’s first Mexican American executive vice-president, elected in 1996, representing the union’s 2.2 million members.
Medina will remain secretary-treasurer at least until 2012, filling out the term of Ann Burger, who recently announced her retirement. Medina will serve under SEIU’s new president Mary Kay Henry who succeeded Andy Stern, also recently retired.
Born in Zacatecas, Medina followed his parents – who emigrated legally from Mexico under the Bracero program – to the fields of California’s San Joaquin Valley. As a 19-year-old grape-picker, Medina participated in the landmark 1965 United Farm Worker’s strike in Delano, Calif. working alongside activist Cesar Chavez.
In 1986 Medina joined SEIU where he helped revive a local union in San Diego – building its membership from 1,700 to over 10,000 in five years. He was a key strategist in the Los Angeles strike led by SEIU Local 1877’s building service workers, who in April 2000 won the largest wage increase in the 15-year history of SEIU’s Justice for Janitors campaign. Medina also helped more than 100,000 home care workers in California advocate for the best quality care for the people they serve to remain independent in their homes by securing funding to improve their quality of life.
Medina is also known for leading efforts to unite the unions of Change to Win federation and AFL-CIO around a comprehensive framework for immigration reform.
Today Medina is leading SEIU and the labor movement in three key areas: the fight to organize more workers, the fight for jobs and the fight for comprehensive immigration reform.
During a phone interview with this author Medina said he feels extremely honored and humbled that his colleagues have chosen him for his new post.
“I take this position very seriously and I plan to continue advocating on behalf of working people,” he said.
Medina notes everyday Latinos are playing a greater role in the labor movement and continue to be in the forefront of that reflection.
“Workers want to have their voices heard – to know what they do matters and that they’re respected for the work they do everyday,” added Medina.
“Things are bad today for working people,” he said. “There are more millionaires now than ever and fewer people are part of the middle class. The majority of Americans are living below the poverty line while we are living in the age of maximizing profits at any cost.”
Medina warns, “We are slowly becoming a service sector economy and we can’t survive as a country like that. Workers know they are being screwed and we need to provide a movement to come together. We need to fight for good jobs and not sit by and let everyone look out for themselves. We need to ensure that we utilize this country’s resources.”
It’s not right that the banks and major corporations continue to make a killing while squeezing the pockets of working people, said Medina.
A broader coalition is required because the labor movement cannot do it alone, says Medina.
“We need to partner up with other unions, community, religious and civil rights groups as well as women’s rights organizations and environmentalists that share a vision for a better society,” he said.
Medina notes many of these groups are coming together to address an array of issues especially jobs on Oct. 2nd, where tens of thousands are expected to march and rally at the nations Capitol.
“We are coming together as ‘One Nation’ to address all of these questions,” said Medina.
Medina is convinced that President Obama believes in what he says. “After all he was elected as president not king.” But the president’s agenda has to deal with Republicans in Congress including major corporations and Wall Street, all of which are a formidable force, says Medina. “After 2008 we should have kept on marching for change and we didn’t,” he notes. “Obama needs somebody to fight with him. We don’t have immigration reform or the DREAM Act and people are still losing their homes. If we don’t get involved things are only going to get worse.”
Said Medina, “Change in this country happens at the ballot box and we need to be an organizer constituency and we cannot let the conservative sector divide us.”
The Nov. 2nd elections are just part of the fight, added Medina.
“Sooner or later we’re going to win and change is going to happen even after the elections,” he said. “Because I believe every generation has to fight for its freedom.”