Union tries to get organized with day laborers

Rachel Dornhelm Sep 1, 2006

SCOTT JAGOW: I think maybe I take Labor Day too literally. I always end up working on Labor Day. But I hope you have the day off. This year won’t be the cheeriest of holidays for the labor movement. Membership is down. The two biggest union federations can’t agree on a vision. One of them, the AFL-CIO, hopes a new tactic might bridge that divide: Working with day laborers to get rights for illegal immigrants. Rachel Dornhelm reports.

RACHEL DORNHELM: At the crowded San Francisco Day Labor Center, Julio Reolla, who came from Peru four years ago, talks about his life working on jobs he picks up through the center or standing on the street.

JULIO REOLLA [interpreter]: We, along with other immigrant workers, men and women, tend to do the most dangerous, the dirtiest and exploitative jobs around.

He says he was very happy to learn that the AFL-CIO voted to partner with day labor centers like this to push for rights and legalization for unauthorized workers. He recognizes that there may be some tension with existing union members who see day laborers as a threat. But he shrugs it off.

REOLLA [interpreter]: I think it’s natural. These organizations have different issues. Despite these differences, their goals sometimes coincide.

Greg Feere, head of the Contra Costa Building and Construction Trades Council, part of the AFL-CIO, says people are talking about the union federation’s growing involvement with day laborers. But he hasn’t gotten answers to his basic question:

GREG FEERE: So tell me how do we organize them and how do we put them to work? And so far at this point nobody’s comin’ up with any answers.

That may take time. One of the organizers of the San Francisco Day Labor Center, Renee Saucedo, says right now this is a political alliance.

RENEE SAUCEDO: The AFL-CIO will work on educating its members. We as day labor centers will work on educating our members. Because our members, sometimes because of negative experiences that people have had with unions in their home countries, don’t trust unions in the U.S.

The AFL-CIO says the goal of their alliance is not to organize day laborers as dues-paying members, at least not now. Instead, it’s to further national political goals, like removing the guestworker program from the immigration reform legislation. And to work on the local level, exposing unscrupulous non-union contractors and supporting one another’s labor actions. Another goal, according to Ana Avendano, the director of the AFL-CIO’s Immigrant Worker Program, is to bring workers in the U.S. back together.

ANA AVENDANO: One of the reasons that workers, in our experience, see other workers as threats is because both the immigration debate and the economic situation in this country has left people with a very unsettling feeling. And, unfortunately, both of those things have turned workers against workers.

UC Berkeley professor Harley Shaiken says this alliance shows how the labor movement has done an about-face in the past six to seven years in its attitudes towards immigration. He says there is likely lingering anti-immigrant bias among rank-and-file workers.

HARLEY SHAIKEN: But the potential gains far outweigh the tensions. If immigrant workers, particularly day laborers, are unorganized, they will of course drive wages and working conditions down. But if they are organized, they can work together with labor to improve conditions for everyone.

Shaiken says the rank-and-file should embrace newcomers to reverse the decline in union membership. Right now, he says, immigrants make up 15 percent of the U.S. workforce.

SHAIKEN: In the next 20 years or so immigrants will comprise 30 to 40 percent of all newcomers to the workforce. So for labor to be strong tomorrow requires organizing immigrants today.

The new partnership will be on display this Labor Day at immigration policy marches around the country where the AFL-CIO will help bus day labor participants to the rallies.

In San Francisco, I’m Rachel Dornhelm for Marketplace.

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