August 10, 2006

Organizing day laborers presents challenges for mainstream unions

Unions are increasingly courting immigrant day laborers in hopes of reversing a longtime decline in membership and clout.

But labor experts say organizing a work force that is mobile and largely undocumented presents enormous logistical challenges and risks of alienating rank-and-file members.

"Everyday there are day laborers who walk in and say, 'I want a union,'" said Janice Fine, a labor professor at Rutgers University. "But the road to getting one is almost an impossible journey."

The AFL-CIO, the nation's largest federation of unions, said Wednesday it would work with the National Day Laborer Organizing Network to improve wages and working conditions for those who solicit work from street corners.

The agreement does not clear the way for day laborers to become union members, but both sides said it could be a step in that direction. The agreement calls for the network's 40 nationwide centers to affiliate with the federation and receive representation on local labor councils.

The groups will also work toward reform that includes amnesty for the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants living in the United States.

The Laborers' International Union is negotiating a similar agreement with the network involving workers in the construction industry.

That union broke with the AFL-CIO last year in part because of complaints the federation wasn't doing enough to recruit immigrant members.

"Ultimately the goal is unionization," said Richard Greer, a spokesman for the laborers union. "But everybody knows it's not going to happen tomorrow."

The union represents about 700,000 construction and other workers nationwide.

The largest organizing challenge stems from the nature of day labor.

The mostly Hispanic and undocumented workers routinely do different jobs each day for different employers.

The first-ever nationwide study of day labor released earlier this year found homeowners were the No. 1 employer - not an easy group with which to negotiate a union contract.

The laborers union said it will focus its push for higher wages and better working conditions on mid-sized contractors - the second-largest employer of day laborers, according to the study.

Threats to report the immigration status of many day laborers could help contractors keep them from unionizing, said Marc Grossman, a former aide to United Farm Workers of America founder Cesar Chavez.

"The tactic is illegal and immoral but very effective," said Grossman, now the UFW's lead spokesman.

In theory, contractors would be obligated to accept a union's terms when hiring workers from day labor centers. The union would then provide workers with benefits such as health insurance and workers compensation.

That would be a major change for many contractors who now use day laborers because they accept low wages and don't retaliate when not paid.

"The contractors are not driving up to the union hall to pay well and provide benefits," said Javier Gonzalez, president of the Service Employees International Union local that serves janitors in Orange County.

However, a deal could benefit contractors by providing a steady labor pool.

Many day labor centers already set minimum pay standards, but some workers stand nearly and accept lower wages.

"Everybody gets angry when you accept $5 or $6" when the hourly minimum is $8, said Alejandro Morales, 25, an illegal immigrant from Mexico who finds work through a large center in downtown Los Angeles.

"But sometimes you're desperate," he said.

That practice causes many veteran union members to see undocumented workers as a drag on wages and an obstacle to more mainstream organizing efforts.

Unions were often at odds while Congress debated immigration reform earlier this year. Some groups argued against guest worker programs and amnesty for illegal immigrants.

The bylaws of many unions don't prohibit undocumented immigrants from joining.

However, Jerry Hunter, former general council for the National Labor Relations Board, said unionized construction workers might balk if their unions recruit illegal immigrants.

"Members could start asking themselves, 'Whose interests are you representing?'" Hunter said. "Day laborers or union members who are skilled workers?"

Anti-illegal immigration groups are already promising to protest union efforts to enlist illegal immigrants.

"We will come out swinging at unions now," said Jim Gilchrist, founder of the Minutemen Project civilian militia group. "They are going pay seriously for this in the public eye.


Post a Comment

<< Home