Story 7 Ain't the AFL for Nothin'
Autumn, 2003: Esther, Senator Kennedy's Immigration Counsel, has plenty of reasons to worry. She's got 8 weeks to accomplish a small miracle: get business and labor to agree on a comprehensive immigration deal, and find a Republican to co-sponsor it in the Senate. Driving cross-country, the Immigrant Worker Freedom Ride buses are coming to DC to lobby Congress, creating a very public impression that unions support Kennedy. But Esther learns forces inside the AFL-CIO are working to derail her bill. Years of work, and the future of millions of families, are riding on one conversation.
By September of 2003, Esther OlavarrÃa, Senator Kennedy's Immigration Counsel, has plenty of reasons to be worried. Her boss has been trying to get a big comprehensive immigration bill introduced in the Senate since before 9/11, and for the second time, the year is slipping away without that happening. Esther has no more than 8 weeks left to accomplish a small miracle: she must get business and labor to agree on a deal, and find a Republican to co-sponsor it in the Senate. No question a lot is riding on it -- the chance may not come around again.
In the Kennedy conference room, Esther's meetings with the bill's stakeholders are happening almost every day but they're not making much progress. To make a deal that will also have some appeal for a Republican co-sponsor -- Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska is now interested -- a temporary worker program will have to be part of the package. But immigration reform, and especially the question of temporary workers, are tricky issues for the labor movement's AFL-CIO.
Outside the back room and literally crossing the country, prominent unions are staging the Immigrant Worker Freedom Rides: 12 buses travelling eastward from north and south to converge in Washington, DC to lobby Congress for immigration reform. The IWFR campaign creates a very big public impression that labor fully supports Kennedy's efforts.
But even as the Freedom Ride buses approach Washington, Esther learns from a fellow staffer that Gerron, the talented chief lobbyist on immigration for the AFL, is working hard to derail her bill. Frank Sharry from the National Immigration Forum and Cecilia Muñoz from NCLR are Esther's long-time allies in the advocacy community who might be able to help, but both are tied up with other projects. Frank is even doing media for the Freedom Rides.
Esther now understands that she'll never get the AFL to sign on to her bill. What she really needs is just one union to endorse it. She knows that Eliseo Medina, an SEIU (Service Employees International Union) leader who once worked with Cesar Chavez, will be travelling from DC to NY for the final rally of the Freedom Rides. In a bold, last-ditch effort to save Senator Kennedy's deal, she decides to hitch a 5 a.m. ride an the IWFR bus to meet Eliseo. He's interested in helping, but there may not be time.
After the Freedom Rides and shortly before Esther's new bill is to be introduced, Gerron makes a final brilliant move: she organizes a last-minute, face-to-face meeting between Senator Kennedy and her boss, John Sweeney. Frank, Cecilia and Eliseo are now fully focused on countering Gerron and working as fast as they can to solidify the alliance backing the deal, but they only have about a week to do what may be impossible.
Esther hopes her boss will be as firm with the labor leaders as he was a year earlier, but it's out of her hands. Two years of work, and the future of millions of families, will be riding on Kennedy's conversation.