Amnesty for Illegals Helps Unions Gain

FARM worker Felipe Robles proudly calls himself a ``Rodino.'' The Mexico City native came to the United States without documents six years ago, but became a Rodino by applying for amnesty under the Simpson-Rodino provisions of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986.

Some 1.3 million farm workers nationwide are going through the process of legalizing their immigration status. And that broad change portends a potentially large impact on unions, whose leaders have for years complained that grower and government threats to deport undocumented workers made organizing hard.

Just last week the tables were turned on growers as Rodinos played a bolder role in a farm worker strike that may presage more militant labor activity among Latino workers.

From Oct. 26 to Nov. 12, some 3,200 members of Teamsters Local 890 in California and Arizona struck Bud of California, a subsidiary of Castle and Cook. The company supplies roughly 25 percent of the nation's lettuce, and is a major harvester of cauliflower, celery, and other vegetables. Numerous calls for comment on the strike by Bud of California went unreturned.

Teamster business representative Salvador Carrillo says this year's strike differs significantly from a strike against Bud in 1980. About half the workers then were undocumented, says Mr. Carrillo.

``It was really hard to make a strike or develop any kind of a movement with our people who didn't have papers,'' Carrillo says.

Union leaders have been surprised recently at the participation and militancy of Rodinos, who Carrillo estimates make up about 25 percent of Bud's work force. In the past only 15 to 20 Bud workers would attend union meetings. This year ``there have been meetings with up to 1,700 people,'' he says.

But the amnesty law cuts two ways. Some Rodinos say they are reluctant to participate in mass picket lines, fearing an arrest will cancel their amnesty applications.

Odilia Ronquillo, a striking cauliflower field worker, says in the past workers arrested for minor crimes could accept deportation. Now, she says, ``if they are arrested, they're going to have to stay here and pay the penalty.''

Art Gonzalez, a field examiner for the California Agricultural Labor Relations Board, says he thinks amnesty stabilized Rodinos' lives, but that they are not any more inclined toward unionization or militancy.

Whether they are or not, Mark Silverman, a lawyer with the Immigrant Legal Resource Center in San Francisco cautions that farm worker elections may not be a fair test of the new law's impact.

``Growers fight very hard to avoid unionization and most farm workers have only started the amnesty process in the last year,'' Mr. Silverman says. ``But having legal status, especially the right to look for other jobs, means in the long run workers will be able to fight for their rights.''

On Nov. 12, Bud of California strikers accepted a compromise contract that included small wage increases for some workers, a wage freeze and cuts for others.

``We beat back the company's worst takeaway demands,'' says Teamster representative Michael Johnston. ``Most workers feel the strike was worth it.''

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