Strange bedfellows

National union leaders do the math and switch their position on immigration

It's the Fourth of July, and the protesters are sitting in the shade under trees near the John F. Kennedy memorial. A replica of the Statue of Liberty stands in the sun with signs reading "Amnesty now!" leaning against her. Another proclaims, "George Washington was an immigrant too!" Television news cameras arrive, and about 40 people stand up and start marching in the sun close together, chanting at the cameraman.

At just before 2 p.m. Gene Lantz and his wife, Elaine, walk in. He is wearing a hat and shirt marked with the insignia of his union, UAW Local 848. The pair seem to be true believers in social change--the couple met in 1978 while at a meeting discussing resistance to the construction of a nuclear power plant.

The Lantzes have long tried to bridge the gap between unions and Hispanic communities. But the national union position, which advocated strict immigration control and sanctions for employers who knowingly hire undocumented immigrants, prevented the outreach from gaining ground.

"We knew that labor and unorganized immigrants needed to coordinate together," he says. "We were trying for years. These people are just begging for help in the workplace, and the unions can help them."

Although the national executive committee of the AFL-CIO changed its anti-immigrant position five months ago, the idea has yet to take root in Texas. Lantz is the only Anglo union member to attend the Independence Day rally.

"Most union people tend to be most concerned with their locals and dealing with their companies," Lantz says.

While most union members were unwilling to sacrifice their holiday to attend the rally, Dallas AFL-CIO member dues were there to sponsor it. Union support for immigrant-rights rallies mainly consists of including the Dallas AFL-CIO on the list of sponsors at the bottom of fliers.

"Ideally, our numbers would complement theirs," says Gene Freeland, executive secretary and treasurer for the AFL-CIO in Dallas. "But there haven't been too many union members involved at these events."

Freeland is aware that the face of the labor movement is changing, and it didn't take long for him to act on the new rules passed down from the AFL-CIO heads.

"[Hispanics] are the next leaders of the labor movement," he says.

Rewind the tape 15 years, and you'd witness unions putting concerted pressure on lawmakers to increase employer penalties for hiring undocumented immigrants. Those laws were passed but laxly enforced. Freeland says union members routinely called INS themselves to report employers using illegal workers. Now the unions are asking lawmakers to ease those same employer sanctions, saying the laws are used as a tool to threaten illegal immigrant workers who try to start unions.

"Before February, we looked at them as competition," Freeland says. "But that isn't the immigrant workers' fault. It was the employers'."

The light influence of the union at the Independence Day rally belies the remarkable change in attitude within the labor movement. The AFL-CIO leadership mandated local unions to press for amnesty for the estimated 5 million to 6 million workers and their families who are here illegally or have only temporary legal status. The positions were adopted unanimously by the federation's executive council in February.

Labor's focus is changing with the nation's demographics, and the new union recruitment effort devised by the AFL-CIO's leadership is being enacted in Dallas by a handful of labor and immigrant activists, some of whom, like the Lantzes, have been waiting for the dynamic to change for years.

"It's wonderful now, and it was awful then," Gene Lantz says.

Elaine Lantz believes she was ahead of the curve. She is a local organizer for Jobs with Justice, a loose coalition of unions, churches, and civil rights groups advocating for changes in the workplace. The sudden interest by the local AFL-CIO has offered her a chance to support the dual efforts.

"We're in a real good position," she says. "This is, like, phenomenal...Some people may not understand the full issues, but it is changing. It's changing in the immigration movement. There is more interest in workers' rights issues."

Cynics see the move as a way to swell union membership and political might, but so do union supporters. Legal union members can take their concerns to the ballot box, while illegal workers can take them to the picket line. In the maze of immigration law, many families have undocumented and legal residents under one roof, making issues such as amnesty foremost in their minds.

But in Texas, labor's new policy has been as slow to take effect. On the coasts, Jobs with Justice chapters have full-time paid staffers, while in Texas the group relies on informal volunteers such as the Lantzes. Last week, a union meeting in Los Angeles to discuss the change in the national platform drew 20,000 people. In Dallas a well-publicized rally is lucky to have 1,000 in attendance. Many union members, and even local union leaders, are hardly aware that the political focus has shifted.

"I'm not following it too closely, but I don't have a problem with it if it is the case," says J.D. Williams, president of Communications Workers of America local 6215, which represents employees at Southwestern Bell. "It could be you're not seeing a backlash because everybody's hiring. There couldn't be a better time for this."

While the Spanish-speaking press in Dallas has been paying attention to the new dynamic between these groups, the mainstream media have been slow to report the seemingly sluggish development of dovetailing movements.

"When the AFL-CIO made their announcement in February, CNN came down and interviewed us here. Since then there's been silence, with the exception of the Communist newspaper (the People's Weekly World). They've followed every step," says Paul Kerr, director of the Center for Human Rights in Dallas. Kerr has appointed his group--and himself--as the main liaison between unions and human rights groups in Dallas, an appointment that regional AFL-CIO leaders were quick to acknowledge.

But unionized workers have not been as quick to claim solidarity with immigration-rights groups.

"There is sort of a disconnect between the rank-and file members and the leadership, the kind you could find in most large organizations," says Ira Mehlman, national media director for the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), which advocates tighter immigration and is opposed to amnesty. "There's been some dissatisfaction among workers that have seen the effect of illegal immigration, the workers who have wages at stake here. A good number of union workers are not paying attention to what the national leadership is up to."

For activists like Mehlman, the AFL-CIO's policy shift was a jolt, but not a stunning one.

"We were surprised. Although labor has been on record with us, they haven't been all that active for a number of years," Mehlman says. "In the last 20 years the labor force has been entirely transformed from native-born to immigrant, and over the years these workers have replaced the old union workers."

To illustrate his point, Mehlman said janitors in Los Angeles, a work force that was predominantly African-American, now has a majority of Hispanic workers, many of them undocumented. He said the new reliance on immigrants hampered the janitors' previous attempt at unionizing because employers busted the union by hiring illegal immigrants. The new janitor's union there is now advocating for workplace rights for immigrant workers.

Even for the local AFL-CIO, the change in policy came as a shock--they had no advance warning and were notified via fax at the same time as the media. Within hours of the announcement, local reporters were calling, but the fax detailed what local union heads should say.

"We accepted it. Then as the situation arises, we support it," says AFL-CIO's Freeland. "I agree with the change in policy. It's a thing we do because it's right, not because it helps any union members."

Those who haven't been seeking support from the immigrant-rights movement have seen the numbers of Hispanics swell within their unions and are not too shocked by the new approach. In Dallas the acquiescence of local union leadership to the new policy is driven by a sense of realpolitik.

"Over the past six or seven years, there's been a big influx of Mexicans into our unions, trying to do the right thing," says Johnny Gibson, the business manager for Local 15 of the International Painters and Glazers Union, adding that 20 percent of his union is now Hispanic. "That's the work force."

Gibson says that Hispanics within his union have been rising steadily within the ranks, with many reaching the level of foreman. Gibson is retiring at the end of July--replaced by a second-generation Hispanic man.

Gibson's close working relationships with immigrant workers, both legal and illegal, have given him a front-line view of their work ethic and priorities. He has a sympathetic view of illegal immigrants and does not check too closely to see whether their Social Security cards are forged because, he says, "It's not our job." He has heard the stories of crooked employers stiffing illegal immigrants on their paychecks, with the threat of deportation hanging over any who complains.

But the AFL-CIO's national announcement was not greeted warmly by everyone in his union. "For years and years a lot of your older members would complain about 'wetbacks coming in and cutting wages,'" Gibson says. When news of February's AFL-CIO announcement swept his union, he heard more. "Initially we did, but we don't anymore. Some older members are uttering things. They kind of got racial."

But Gibson is pragmatic. "It's better with them in the union that out of the union. If they are out, then they are really hurting us bad. They're here, and you have to deal with them."

And that's the nut of it. When pundits and activists talk about the growing Hispanic influence in American politics, they are talking about numbers. They are talking about necessities. All of a sudden, the union members who called INS to round up illegal immigrants are supporting their causes and showing up--at least in name--to rallies.

Examples of more tangible joint efforts are not plentiful, but they do exist. When the unions needed a large presence while speaking before the Workers Compensation Board, a politically charged appearance that pitted unions against appointees of Gov. George W. Bush, the unions rented buses to bring immigrant-group volunteers to Austin.

"When you fill the room they listen, no matter what you're saying," Freeland says. "This was something that affects all injured workers."

Recently, the AFL-CIO brought several local heads of immigration groups to Washington, D.C., to meet with members of their national leadership, including the head of the union group's political department. The focus was on influencing Congress.

Amnesty for immigrants who entered the country illegally is a federal matter--no amount of local politicking can produce a general amnesty. Since amnesty is such a large component of the immigrant group's platform and is now backed by the unions, many immigrant groups are turning to their alliance with the politically savvy labor movement to advance the issue.

Kerr does have doubts, having seen the union leadership extend a hand further than members. "Has there been a change in the rank-and-file?" he asks rhetorically, knowing the answer is no. "The leaders take a position, and gradually people come to understand it. Some non-Latinos have not been showing up for [union] events and stuff."

Although there was little national grassroots groundswell within the labor movement that influenced the AFL-CIO's decision, many besides professional activists in Dallas had been seeking just such an outreach for years, but none more than Hispanic union members.

Thomas Hernandez is a 34-year-old worker at Earthgrains in Irving. He has been involved in the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union for almost eight years. Earthgrains makes and distributes cookies and crackers; he enjoys free cookies from the office.

Hernandez sees new hope in the labor movement's focus on immigrants, but not enough action. Sitting on steps near the Independence Day vigil, he bemoans his union brethren's lack of involvement. The rally, intended to register more than 1,000 new voters, generated only a little more than 100.

"I tell the people at my job, 'Join the human rights groups,'" he says. "They like it when I talk about it, but when we're here, they don't exist."

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