SEATTLE - For Pablo Alvarado, the genesis occurred back in 1999 when janitors in Los Angeles were on strike. Some of the cleaning companies came to the corners and workers' centres where day labourers gathered and tried to hire workers to cross the janitors' picket lines, he recounted to IPS.
"The workers said 'Thanks, but no thanks, we won't do that.' And instead 260 day labourers joined 2,000 janitors who marched across the landscape of Los Angeles," he said.
"That's the type of solidarity that's going to bring immigrant rights organisations [together] with organised labour," said Alvarado, executive director of the National Day Labour Organising Network (NDLON), the most extensive network of immigrant workers centres in the United States.
At national and local levels, strategically and tactically, trade unions and organisations of mostly immigrant day labourers are gravitating towards each other and inventing ways to cooperate. The new alliance shows potential both to strengthen organised workers' leverage in the labour market and to increase their political muscle.
It will be indispensible to both groups in the looming debate on immigration reform. But it could be strained as the economic crisis swells unemployment and shrinks wages.
According to Ana Avendaño, the epiphany for some trade unions occurred several years ago in Agoura Hills, a Los Angeles suburb that was seeing a lot of new construction. At dawn, she went with a group of union leaders to visit a street corner where a group of day labourers connected to NDLON gathered daily to look for work.
But on this morning, the group was huddled to discuss what to charge as their minimum wage. Meanwhile, cars were coming by looking for workers. While they met, the group had assigned one worker to stand on the sidewalk and tell them, "Sorry, we're busy. You'll have to come back later."
"The workers finally decided on a minimum wage for themselves after discussing things like 'What if they give us lunch?', 'What if I have certain skills?' And they filled in the number on their flyers so that when employers came back they would have this common minimum wage," recalled Avendaño, who is director of the Immigrant Workers Programme for the American Federation of Labour-Congress of Industrial Organisations (AFL-CIO), the nation's largest trade union confederation.
Watching the day labourers self-organising, she told IPS, "It felt to us like we were witnessing the birth of a new, different kind of labour movement, but very much along the same lines of what we've had."
Alvarado of NDLON also sees a convergence of purposes between unions and day labourers: "We all want to improve wages and working conditions for all workers, native-born and immigrants. The only way to protect native-born workers is by ensuring that we level the playing field, that the most vulnerable workers are protected as well."
The alliance between the two groups blossomed organisationally at a national level in 2006, when the AFL-CIO Executive Board passed a resolution authorising workers' centres to affiliate with local and state labour councils. So far, day labour organisations in eight cities have taken advantage and joined the union bodies. And according to Avendaño, more such affiliations are in the works.
In conjunction with that resolution, she said, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney entered into a partnership agreement with NDLON, pledging to work together on immigration reform and other policy issues of common concern.
"When standards are dragged down for some workers, they are dragged down for all workers," he said, calling the work being done by NDLON "some of the most important work in the labour movement today."
The "watershed partnership," he predicted, would "strengthen our ability to promote and enforce the workplace rights for all workers - union and non-union, immigrant and non-immigrant alike."
To seal the deal, Sweeney spoke at the NDLON national convention in 2007. He praised the workers' centres for their joint work with the labour movement to defeat anti-immigrant legislation in Congress, and pledged continuing cooperation on immigration reform.
In April 2008, the AFL-CIO also entered into a partnership agreement with Enlace ("link" in Spanish), a bi-national labour network of 21 worker centres, unions and organising groups representing approximately 300,000 low-wage workers in the United States and Mexico.
Both trade unions and workers centres could use a shot in the arm. Organised labour in the U.S. appears to have survived a near-death experience. Even at its peak of 36 percent of the labour force in the mid-1950s, union membership here was lower than in most other industrialised countries.
After a long slide, greased by erosion of labour laws and hostility from the Ronald Reagan and both Bush administrations, it bottomed out in 2006 at 12 percent overall and 7.4 percent in the private sector. Since then it has recovered slightly, to 12.4 percent and 7.6 percent respectively in 2008, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labour Statistics.
On the day labour side, some 140 worker centres in 80 localities serve only about one-fifth of the national day labour workforce, according to estimates in a 2006 academic study. About three-quarters of the estimated 200,000 day labourers in the country are undocumented, with 70 percent of these from Mexico and Central America.
But these represent only a small fraction of the 8.3 million undocumented workers estimated by the Pew Hispanic Centre, who comprised 5.4 percent of the total U.S. workforce in March 2008.
Nevertheless, the centres are significant institutions for immigrant workers and their communities. In many areas, they take on some of the functions of a union, providing a hiring hall and enforcing minimum wages and working conditions, although without collective bargaining agreements. Most also provide legal services, job-skills training, and social integration assistance including English classes.
For some national unions, newcomers have been a significant source of fresh energy and a focus of organising campaigns. The Service Employees International Union (SEIU), for example, which organised the janitors in L.A. and several other cities, describes itself as the largest and fastest growing union in the U.S. with over two million members. It also claims to represent more immigrant workers than any other U.S. union.
In 2005, the SEIU and six other unions representing nearly six million members broke off from the AFL-CIO to form a new labour confederation, Change to Win. Some other CtW members are also aggressively organising low-wage immigrant workers.
Janice Fine, professor of labour studies and employment relations at Rutgers University, published a 2007 paper entitled "A Marriage Made in Heaven? Mismatches and Misunderstandings between Workers Centres and Unions."
Over the past decade, however, relations have improved considerably, she said. Despite current pressures on workers and day labourers caused by the economic crisis, "the centre has held" and good will between the two groups is "unprecedented".
In every period in its history, U.S. labour has vacillated "between strategies of restriction and strategies of solidarity" with immigrant workers, Fine explained to IPS. Some of the frictions today arise because "workers centres are more social movement organisations, and unions behave more like economic organisations." But some of each cross that ideological line and operate in both modes.
"To the labour movement's tremendous credit, I don't think there's ever been a more explicitly pro-immigrant worker time than the last 10 years," she said.
The alliance at the national level is only the most visible and formal part of the trade union-workers' centre nexus. Local collaboration seems to have created its own momentum in many areas of the country, although here and there local union officials and members have resisted it. Among these local efforts, observed Fine, there have been "some stellar examples of working together".