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U.S.: Unions and Migrant Workers Coalesce from Coast to Coast

Peter Costantini

SEATTLE, Washington, Jun 14 2009 (IPS) - Up the Pacific Coast from California to Washington, through the heartland in Texas and Illinois, and over to the Atlantic Seaboard in New Jersey and New York, local trade unions and mainly immigrant workers centres are experimenting with new modes of cooperation.

The Labourers and other construction unions are also looking into "green" jobs, hoping to tap into projects generated by the Barack Obama administration's stimulus plan. Credit: Peter Costantini/IPS

The Labourers and other construction unions are also looking into "green" jobs, hoping to tap into projects generated by the Barack Obama administration's stimulus plan. Credit: Peter Costantini/IPS

In some places the form has been an organisational alliance through the local labour council. In others, they are joining forces on ad hoc projects that give both groups traction on common goals.

Much of the collaboration has taken place around construction work. But in Southern California, for example, common campaigns are underway to organise warehouse and carwash workers.

Surveying the national scene, Executive Director Pablo Alvarado of the National Day Labour Organising Network says: "I think we're making progress. At least there are processes of dialogue taking place, and joint efforts around specific campaigns. The more of these efforts we have nationally, the closer we are with our brothers and sisters in the labour unions."

In Denver, Colorado, for example, El Centro Humanitario has "very active relationships" with the local labour movement, according to Executive Director Minsun Ji.

Ji came out of the Service Employees International Union. When her old union and other locals have been involved in strikes or organising campaigns, the workers centre has offered them office space and other kinds of support.

El Centro is in the process of joining the Denver Area Labour Federation, the umbrella council for local trade unions, and is discussing organising and political strategy with the group.

Ji says her organisation has a good working relationship with the Labourers Union nationally, but less so on the local level. The local business manager, she believes, sees El Centro as a competitor, but she has worked with Labourers organisers.

The Labourers International Union of North America (LIUNA) is one of the unions most heavily involved in collabourations with workers centres, although other construction unions have also been active.

Ironically, only a few decades ago LIUNA was more famous for its cozy relationship with La Cosa Nostra. In 1994, it reached an agreement with the U.S. Justice Department to staff an internal investigatory system with people like former prosecutors and ex-FBI officials in order to root out Mafia influence.

In just 15 years, though, the Labourers have emerged from the legal crucible transformed into one of the country's most progressive and dynamic unions. They left the AFL-CIO for the new Change to Win confederation and have actively pursued organising among diverse workforces.

Historically, most of the construction unions in the U.S. are old-style craft unions that were mainstays of the American Federation of Labour. In the 1930s, a wave of militant organising with tactics like sit-down strikes splashed a new model across the headlines, creating strong industry-wide unions like the United Auto Workers and a new federation, the Congress of Industrial Organisations.

Among construction unions, jurisdictional disputes are a tradition because each craft such as carpentry, masonry, electrical work or plumbing had to guard its turf against incursions by other unions. LIUNA, though, is the union that organises workers outside the traditional crafts, such as the hod carriers who supply masons with bricks and mortar.

Around most of the country, construction unions have organised mainly larger-scale commercial and industrial contractors. Residential building is rarely unionised, and most day labourers in construction work only in residential for the smallest contractors.

One important goal of the Labourers, and one for which workers centres could provide a pool of workers, is to organise big developers and contractors in residential construction.

The union pay scale for residential will be about 75 percent of that for heavy construction, where nearly all of his members work now, predicts Dale Cannon, Business Manager and Secretary Treasurer for Labourers Local 242 in Seattle. So while most current members will not be interested in moving into residential, it could be an attractive step up for many day labourers.

In the New York area, Alvarado of NDLON says, a joint effort by LIUNA and three local workers centres is under way to organise a Labourers local in the residential labour market.

Rutgers University Professor of Labour Studies Janice Fine is excited about prospects for Labourers Local 55 in New Brunswick, New Jersey. The organising staff has effectively merged with that of a workers centre called New Labour, and the business manager of the local is the former head of New Labour.

"The economy right now makes it hard," she says, "but it's so important for it to work."

The Labourers and other construction unions are also looking into "green" jobs, hoping to tap into projects generated by the Barack Obama administration's stimulus plan to expand their job sources. According to Cannon, a national building trades conference last month focused on sustainable works projects, and on training their members to do weatherisation.

Other construction unions have cooperated with day labourers in different localities, including roofers, sheet metal workers, and iron workers.

In Austin, Texas, day labourers are working with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers to survey construction workers on whether they are paid what they are promised. A workers centre in Portland, Oregon, signed a memorandum of understanding with local construction unions that their members would not break strikes and would join picket lines.

Alvarado cited the case of a construction sub-contractor in the L.A. area who failed to pay around 100 day labourers over 100,000 dollars in wages. The Painters Union had been trying to organise workers with the firm, and helped local workers centres hire a lawyer to recover the wages.

Day labourers have also joined area construction unions to monitor working conditions and labour standards on the job sites of other problematic contractors.

Beyond construction, several other unions have been active in joint projects with workers centres.

The CLEAN (Community Labour Environmental Action Network) Carwash Campaign in L.A. has united a consortium of some 25 workers centres with the United Steel Workers in a push to raise the standard of living for low-wage mainly immigrant workers at carwashes through collective bargaining.

CLEAN has also attracted support from numerous community organisations and helped prompt the city to file criminal charges against some carwash operators for labour-standards violations, theft and witness intimidation.

To the east in Riverside, California, Change to Win unions have been organising warehouse workers and day labourers together, because some of the warehouse employees go out to day-labour corners when they are out of full-time work.

Back in Chicago, Working Hands Legal Clinic, which represents workers' centres there, has been collabourating with a network of workers centres, unions, and the Illinois state Attorney General's office on enforcement of labour standards.

According to Associate General Counsel Ana Avendaño of the AFL-CIO, they are training workers to be advocates in their own communities on how to recognise violations of workplace law in order to expose "seedy contractors" who commit them.

(Disclosure: the author was a member of Labourers Locals 242 and 541 from 1977 through 1983.)

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