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Phoenix Rising: How one union is changing Arizona's politics

They're calling it the "New Arizona." A once deep red state is now turning violet, thanks in large part to the growing power of the state's Latino vote.
Supporters of the Adios Arpaio campaign hold a candlelight vigil outside the Maricopa County Recorder's office in Phoenix, Ariz. on November 15, 2012. (Photo courtesy of UNITE HERE.)
Supporters of the Adios Arpaio campaign hold a candlelight vigil outside the Maricopa County Recorder's office in Phoenix, Ariz. on November 15, 2012.

They're calling it the "New Arizona." A once deep red state is now turning violet, thanks in large part to the growing power of the state's Latino vote. Though Arizona's Republican Party still controls the governor's office and most of the state's congressional delegation, the most recent election suggests their power may soon fade. A new wave of solidly blue Latino voters is pushing the state toward what could be a significant political realignment.

One campaign rests at the center of that realignment. Adios Arpaio—a project of the hospitality workers union Unite Here, and  the community organizing group Promise Arizona—spent 2012 building a power base which they hope can permanently change the face of Arizona politics.

"Our hope was really to empower the Latino community over the long term," said Annemarie Strassel, a communications coordinator with Unite Here.

The Adios Arpaio campaign derives its name from its primary foil: Joe Arpaio, the notoriously authoritarian sheriff of Maricopa County. Arpaio has become a national figure in recent years thanks to his draconian policing tactics and zero-tolerance attitude towards undocumented immigration. The sheriff is perhaps most well-known nationally for his vigorous support of Arizona's SB 1070 legislation, known by critics as the "papers, please" law. But within Arizona, Arpaio has also faced condemnation for—among other things—forcing inmates in his county to live in an outdoor "Tent City," despite blistering heat.

"Arizona, probably more than other place in the country, has been ground zero for some of the worst, most aggressive, anti-immigrant policy that we've seen nationwide," Strassel said. "That's really exemplified by the role that somebody like Sheriff Joe Arpaio has played in that community."

With tens of thousands of votes still being counted in Maricopa County, Arpaio narrowly leads his Democratic challenger, Paul Penzone. Regardless of the final outcome, members of the Adios Arpaio campaign insist they've already won.

"Maybe he'll stay here," said Lucia Vergara, president of Unite Here Local 631 and a cashier at the Phoenix Airport's Blue Burrito. "Maybe he's going to be in the office still, but he knows we're a movement. He knows we're going to keep doing this." This election, she added, taught Arpaio that "our voices matter, because we are citizens."

Furthermore, the campaign is far from over. "In four years, we're going to do it again," said Vergara. "It doesn't matter what kind of election. We have to put the right people in the right place."

Adios Arpaio's long game strategy is a far cry from organized labor's traditional political campaign model. Typically, large labor coalitions like the AFL-CIO and Change to Win try to sway elections by donating to political PACs and putting their grassroots infrastructure at the disposal of the Democratic Party. So for example, while unions may have made the difference for Barack Obama in Ohio, their grassroots push in the Buckeye State had no larger social justice message beyond the one adopted by the Obama campaign. Similarly, organized labor's attempt to get Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker recalled quickly went from a union insurrection to just another Democratic campaign—and when the recall failed, the grassroots momentum behind it essentially dissipated.

For Adios Arpaio, Unite Here tried something different. "It's about how we build leadership locally, and help build leadership over time, instead of just engaging during elections for that particular electoral victory," said Brendan Walsh, the head of the Adios Arpaio campaign's efforts in Phoenix. "It's more about changing the culture on a day to day basis through winning meaningful victories, which are meaningful for the people of Arizona, and not just part of a national electoral strategy."

Walsh, a former Unite Here organizer, said that the organization's model "is really about the long term development of capacity and empowering that community." Founded in 2003, the young union has always emphasized social movement unionism, framing its organizing campaigns in a broader discourse of civil rights and social justice.

Not everyone in the labor movement is comfortable with that emphasis. "There's a lot of folks in Arizona, particularly in the building trades, who really struggle with addressing immigration," said Walsh. "Even in our local, there is some tension because a lot of the members are really concerned with immigration, and liked SB 1070, and so on."

However, when anti-SB 1070 activists outside of Arizona called for a boycott of the state, even the union's most conservative members decided a response was necessary. The boycott "hit the hospitality industry really hard," said Walsh, "so a lot of our members were really hurt by SB 1070, and could understand the need for more moderate state policy."

Partnering with immigrant justice groups and community organizations for the Adios Arpaio campaign had some pitfalls of its own, however. "There is some tension between the need to fight specifically for immigrant rights, and also to build the power to fight for immigrant rights as workers' rights," said Walsh. The perennial question, he added, is one of priorities: "Do we go full bore to try and push immigration reform? And how does that affect our obligation to push other issues in the community?"

If labor unions become more willing to partner with immigrant justice groups, suggested Strassel, Adios Arpaio's success could serve as an example for the movement as a whole. "Certainly there has been important collaborative work in places like Arizona between our union and immigrant rights groups," she said, "and I think it could be a model for other kinds of collaboration around the country."

Vergara, who was born in Mexico but grew up in Phoenix, said, "I never thought a union could also be a part of this movement." She said that, ultimately, the Adios Arpaio campaign was about "not having fear always," both within the workplace and on the streets.

"I do this because it comes from the heart," she said. "Phoenix is my home, and that's why I need to be respected."