Labor Union president discusses Occupy and social change

Photograph by Amy Leong

On Tuesday, May 22, the relatively new Political Economy Club hosted a speaker to talk about the future of the political economy through labor unions, globalization and the connection of both these things to the Occupy movement. Sergio Salinas, the president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local Branch #6, came to the Library Media Center for one hour to speak and answer questions on the interconnectedness of these things.

Salinas started by explaining his union and how he came to be the president of it. “We represent the janitors,” he said. SEIU #6 also represents security guards and other working families. “I came to the US about 30 years ago because of the civil war in my country,” said Salinas, who is originally from El Salvador. “I was in jail for a year for union organizing, then I was exiled to Mexico and then I came to the US.”

He explained that organizing labor into a cohesive force has been something he has been very passionate about all his life. “I am privileged to be able to come talk to you about how important students are to social change,” he added.

The primary focus of his talk was on the income inequality and the need for a huge cohesive movement of labor workers to stand up against employers. He peppered his talk with bits of history of labor unions, and statistics – comparing labor union density now (6.5 percent) to density from the 50s and 60s (25 percent), the golden era of labor unions.

“Income inequality is so huge it’s impossible,” Salinas said, “unless we create a movement. Unless we resolve that issue, the future of this country is very, very grim, because the super-rich don’t pay their taxes.”

He believes that the Occupy movement is a good thing because it’s a huge protest movement – so many people moving together, Salinas believes, is the catalyst needed for real change. “We [SEIU] believe that the Occupy movement is an extremely positive development. Finally we have the means to create a movement. We as SEIU have joined to support the Occupy movement.” SEIU is going to a conference this weekend to work with those leaders.

“Unless we do that, unless we ally with the Occupy movement and the 99 percent, labor unions will end up in the Smithsonian museum,” he said.

After his presentation ended, questions began coming from the teachers, staff and students in attendance.

After a question from a student, Salinas said that he would see the Occupy movement solidify behind one cause primarily, and present that one cause out to the media. “We need to bring into the center of discussion the value of income inequality,” he said.

Other students asked clarification questions about the works of SEIU and the controversial acts of specific labor unions in Vancouver. Professor Chace Stiehl, faculty advisor for the Political Economy Club, asked for clarification on the international aspect.

In response to that, Salinas explained the international structure of labor unions – unions have branches all over the world and are able to press multinational companies from multinational angles. “The only way to fight globalization is by becoming global and fighting internationally,” said Salinas. He talked about how companies will move all over the world for the lowest cost, and the effect that had on the job of a union: “We have to organize those workers; there’s no way around that.”

After a few more questions, the hour was up and Salinas departed.

This speaker was one of several events put on by the Political Economy Club. “We’re a club that gets together and talks about social justice and anything related to politics and economics,” said Ryan Emmerton, the Education Officer of the club.

The Political Economy club doesn’t have a president, but rather five executive officers who function as the governing board.

The club also has readings and article discussions. “It’s a good chance to get together and open your mind to different ideas,” said Emmerton.

Professor Steihl elaborated, “We do a reading event and a speaking event, and we try to tie them together.”

The Political Economy club meets at 10:30 a.m. every other Tuesday in C202.