Jerry Dominguez can often be found wandering the streets of New York. On this winter afternoon he stops outside a West Side grocery store where a Mexican worker is tending buckets of bright flowers.
"How much do you make here, amigo?" he asks. "How many hours do you work here?"
It turns out the worker, whose name is Elias, earns less than the minimum wage, but doesn't complain out of fear of deportation. He is exactly what Mr. Dominguez is looking for.
The founder of the Mexican-American Workers' Association, Dominguez is on the front lines of an unusual union-organizing campaign. His recruits are the largely invisible people who work long days and nights for meager pay and no benefits - the estimated 300,000 to 500,000 Mexican immigrants like Elias who work in New York.
After decades of seeing undocumented immigrants as the enemy of working-class Americans - taking valuable jobs - unions are beginning to embrace small organizing initiatives among foreign workers in a quest to expand union ranks.
Last April, more than 8,000 Los Angeles janitors, mostly undocumented Hispanics, joined the Service Employees International Union and won a pay increase of 26 percent over three years.
Simultaneously, the powerful AFL-CIO - long one of the groups most vociferous about the threat posed by illegal immigrants - reversed its position on key issues involving foreign workers. AFL-CIO President John Sweeney has called for an amnesty for America's 6 million illegals and an end to sanctions against employers who hire them.
Now, some unions are trying to organize undocumented workers by launching neighborhood-to-neighborhood campaigns like the one here in New York, recalling organizing efforts of 50 years ago.
"They're now going back to the model of making coalitions in communities," says Kate Bronfenbrenner, a labor expert at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.
A daunting task
Yet the unions do face a difficult task. In New York, undocumented immigrants are mostly employed by small green grocers, which presents different problems for organizers. There's no money to be made from union dues, says Immanuel Ness, a political scientist at the City University of New York.
That may explain why Dominguez had trouble persuading unions to join him. After several unsuccessful attempts to create alliances with unions, he eventually enlisted the help of Local 169 of the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE!), the product of a 1995 merger between two garment-worker unions.
Dominguez and UNITE! have now developed a formula: They target a neighborhood and urge workers in one industry to sign union cards. When a majority of a store's workers have signed, the union organizes a community boycott of that store. But the first step - making initial contact with the workers - can be difficult, organizers say, and it requires a delicate balance of honesty, understanding, and persuasion.
"[Dominguez] knows how to approach the workers," says Michael Farrin, a community activist who has worked with him.
He is also blunt. "Once you have told workers everything," Dominguez says, "you tell them the following: 'You might be deported, you might be put in jail. In extreme cases, you might lose your life. Are you willing to face this?' If the worker says yes, we are willing to move forward."
Dominguez can relate to many of the workers he recruits from personal experience. As a young man, he left his family of 11 in Zacatecas, Mexico, and crossed the border into Texas. He picked produce in Florida while planes flew overhead dumping pesticides on him and other illegal workers.
He eventually came to New York, penniless and shoeless, where he found work as a dishwasher. He saved enough money to attend John Jay College in New York, and later Cornell University, where he studied labor issues.
"I wanted to be able to help with knowledge, not just with my heart," he says.
With that knowledge, Dominguez channeled his energies into the Mexican-American Workers' Association (AMAT), a group he formed in 1998. He later joined forces with Local 169 and the Community Labor Coalition, a New York-based group founded by Professor Ness.
After community boycotts on the Lower East Side, Local 169 has won contracts at seven stores. The union says workers there are receiving better than minimum wages, vacation and sick pay, overtime wages, and health benefits. And so far, Dominguez says, no one has been deported.
But organizers admit that progress is slow. Recently, two Mexicans stood outside Soho Natural Foods, handing out fliers and shouting, "Don't shop at a sweatshop!" Well-dressed passersby didn't take much notice. Only one man stopped - to ask directions.
Jorge, wearing a black UNITE! baseball cap, did not seem fazed. He says he has been protesting for six weeks and supports himself by working part time in a restaurant. "We're treated very bad by employers," he says, adding that he is prepared to continue protesting for months if necessary.
Korean storeowners disagree
Like any labor issue, these organizing efforts have some adversaries. Most of the stores targeted by Local 169 are owned by Koreans. Jay Shon, assistant director of the Korean Produce Association, says the union is discriminating against Korean storeowners. Contrary to what the workers say, the owners pay minimum wage, he says. As for health coverage, he notes that many of the owners themselves are not insured.
Mr. Shon's association is now working with the office of the New York State attorney general to conduct information seminars for Korean storeowners. This follows an August settlement where two Korean storeowners agreed to pay almost $100,000 in back wages to illegals who had been earning $2.60 to $3.60 an hour.
Today, that settlement is one of Dominguez's main selling points in what he says is a campaign for respect. Moving from one store to another on Broadway, he finds a new face. After showing the worker his union card, Dominguez points up the street to Lucky Farm, one of the stores involved in the settlement. "See that store? [Workers there] won a case against the employers. They won $100,000 for minimum wages and overtime," he tells the man. "The same thing could happen here."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor