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Unions and Migrant Workers Coalesce from Coast to Coast

Peter Costantini

SEATTLE, Washington - 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.

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.

of the collabouration 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."

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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."

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

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.

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

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

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

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.

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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