Strange bedfellows

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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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Joe Pappalardo is the former editor-in-chief of the Dallas Observer.
Contact: Joe Pappalardo

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