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Arizona Boycotts Could Backfire on Latinos

While dozens of groups, cities, schools and associations have jumped on the Arizona boycott bandwagon, a look at the low-income membership of two of the state's largest labor unions raises the question of whether a boycott will hurt the people it's intended to help.

The Service Employees Industry Union (SEIU) and the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW) recently announced they've joined the National Council for La Raza (NCLR) in a boycott of Arizona. SEIU is the fastest-growing union in North America, with more than 2.2 million members spanning public service industries. UFCW boasts 1.3 million members, representing workers ranging from meat production to food processing to retail stores.

The unions, in agreeing to honor the NCLR-drafted boycott, are pledging not to hold conventions, conferences or special events involving significant travel to and from Arizona.

“Does that impact many Hispanics? Sure it does,” says Harley Shaiken, director of the Center for Latin American Studies at UC Berkeley and a prominent labor activist.

More than 60 percent of Hispanic-Americans hold blue-collar jobs, and many of these are service-industry jobs that the boycott could compromise. Loss of jobs could result in grave outcomes for Hispanics living in Arizona.

Observers acknowledge that boycotts in opposition to the state’s law -- which requires a person's immigration status be verified by an official or agency -- could end up negatively impacting Latinos, at least in the short-term.

Arizona-based Chicanos Por La Causa, an NCLR affiliate and a leading community development corporation that advocates for Hispanics and other underserved communities, does not oppose the boycott, but has chosen to pursue judicial channels in protesting the law rather than to join the boycott.

“Economic empowerment is really at the center of [our organization],” says spokeswoman Amanda Roberson. “We don’t want to see our state lose economic opportunities.”

The boycott leaders are asking affiliates, chapters, members, supporters, and all major American institutions to follow their lead. Additionally, the boycott encourages “all organizations and people of conscience to consider whether any purchase of goods and services might perpetuate this unjust law,” adding that, “some have suggested that our communities should refrain from purchasing goods and services from major contributors to the politicians who sponsored this law.”

“It’s rare to see a boycott that catches on this rapidly and gains this kind of support,” says Shaiken. “Boycotts tend to have negative economic impacts on individuals as well as the broader goal they’re seeking to achieve,” Shaiken explains, “but sometimes in the minds of the organizers, the gain outweighs the impact.”

According to the 2007 Census, the median net worth of Hispanic households is less than $30,000, compared with $170,000 for non-Hispanic whites. With Hispanics living closer to the edge financially, the negative economic consequences of a boycott could be devastating.

In Arizona, Hispanics make up more than 30 percent of the population, and the economic downturn has hit the demographic particularly hard. The unemployment rate for Hispanics in Arizona is 12.5 percent, compared with about 9 percent for non-Hispanic whites. According to the Arizona Department of Commerce, the median income for Hispanic households in Arizona is currently just above $22,000, nearly 50 percent less than non-Hispanic white households.

Clarissa Martinez, a spokeswoman for NCLR who is also speaking on behalf of the SEIU with respect to the boycott, says that the organizations realize the boycott may seem drastic but that, “this law was so extreme that it required an extraordinary response.”

Acknowledging the possibility that the boycott may have negative effects on the Hispanic labor force, Martinez notes that NCLR is “exploring relief mechanisms” for those who might be unduly harmed.

“We’re in communication with our groups to figure out what the state of things is on the ground,” Martinez explains.