Strange bedfellows

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.