Why unions embrace illegal immigrants

Meet Dale Wortham, Houston AFL-CIO official and friend to the undocumented.

Poured into a pair of Wranglers, E. Dale Wortham looks out of place amid a group of Hispanic union organizers holding signs and protesting in Spanish about working conditions at a clothing factory.

He finally steps from behind the crowd, points a finger at the factory, and adds his opinion of the situation:

"You see those windows?" he bellows in full Texas twang. "We want them open. Those people are baking in there. And this gate, we want it fixed so workers aren't cut getting into the parking lot."

The group looks around awkwardly, some nod in agreement, others kick the dirt. Finally, someone else speaks up, and Mr. Wortham - president of the Harris County AFL-CIO - slinks back into the background.

Meet one of the front men for the new AFL-CIO: a self-proclaimed "recovering redneck," who finds himself embracing a group of workers he once routinely called the Immigration and Naturalization Service on.

Wortham's change of heart is a function of a larger change taking place in union halls across the country. For years, the illegal immigrant was seen as the enemy - someone who would work for next to nothing and drive down the wages of union workers.

While some unions don't go as far as the AFL-CIO - which last year called for legalizing millions of undocumented immigrants - many have jumped on the immigrants-rights bandwagon. American labor leaders are visiting Mexican officials, recruiting immigrant leaders for organizing campaigns, teaching undocumented workers about labor rights, and planning rallies, such as the "Immigrants Freedom Ride" in Washington Sept. 25.

This new pro-immigrant attitude stems from economic pressures, as unions seek to protect their wages from nonunion competition and to reverse long-term declines in membership.

But some experts see a deeper shift as well: Labor groups like the AFL-CIO, they say, are trying to recast their roles entirely.

"No longer do they want to be seen as such a narrowly focused interest group, but rather a social movement - one they can say [represents] the voice of working men and women," says Gary Chaison, a labor expert at Clark University in Worcester, Mass. "By recasting themselves as a social movement, they feel they'll have broader appeal."

But most people who join unions do so for pragmatic reasons, entering with a "what can you do for me?" attitude, not "what can you do for others?" Dr. Chaison explains. "That is creating conflict within the unions."

Initially, American unions were formed along immigrant lines. British and Scottish coal miners joined together to the exclusion of Irish coal miners. So unions' immigrant roots were also exclusionary roots.

Union strength reached its peak in 1956 when 31 percent of private-sector workers were organized. Today, that number is down to 9 percent - the lowest level on record. And some sectors are declining faster than others. Teachers and nurses unions remain relatively intact, while construction and manufacturing ranks are suffering. In Houston, for instance, representation among construction workers fell from a high of 70 percent in the 1970s to 25 percent today.

There used to be a carpetlayers union here as well, but that has vanished in the last 20 years because they refused to allow minorities in, says Ruben Rendon, a Houston immigration lawyer.

"Unions know they need to broaden their scope, especially with NAFTA bringing in so many people from down South," says Mr. Rendon, referring to the North American Free Trade Agreement. "Three guys with a van can put you out of business."

That has prompted old-school union organizers like Wortham to don new roles as friends of undocumented immigrants.

He has begun learning a few phrases in Spanish, and is working to soften his gruff manner. Wortham's world view is utterly different from that of a few years ago, when his rhetoric could be summed up as: "They ain't supposed to be here. And if we don't do something, they are going to have our jobs."

Even with new attitudes, recruiting immigrants is tough. Many come from nations where unions are government-controlled. Only a few workers from the Houston clothing factory, called Lone Star Rags, showed up to a later meeting, saying many co-workers worried they would be fired if they joined a union.

"It feels like we're pushing an anvil uphill right now," says Linda Morales, with the Sheet Metal Workers' International Association in Houston, who is trying to organize the Lone Star Rags workers. But "we've had good success with educating people."

Nationwide, the recent record is mixed. Two weeks ago, the largely Hispanic workforce at an Omaha, Neb., meatpacking plant voted not to unionize, while two other plants in the state had approved union representation.

Los Angeles has had better success with its "Justice for Janitors" movement, including a successful strike last year. The Service Employees International Union is the fastest-growing union in the US, and has a large Hispanic membership.

But in Houston, unions have begun a concerted effort as well - with financial and volunteer backing from the AFL-CIO.

"We used to be on opposite sides," says Maria Jimenez of the American Friends Service Committee, which fights for immigrant rights here. "It was quite a surprise to see the change."

She says Wortham approached her three years ago to talk about gaps between union and nonunion pay in construction building. Wortham still spends much of his time trying to equalize wages in that field.

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