- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 20, 2000

Union membership held stable last year for the first time in more than two decades, and now labor organizers are looking to boost their numbers with illegal immigrants.
The percentage of Americans in unions in 1999 stood at 13.9 percent, unchanged from 1998, the Labor Department reported yesterday.
Unions have managed to organize more than 500,000 workers in each of the past two years, essentially erasing the declines in membership from job losses and older workers retiring.
"We're turning the corner, but we are not at our destination yet," said John J. Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO, which represents 13 million of the estimated 16.5 million Americans in unions.
"Our challenge for the future is to remain focused and to broaden our efforts. It's crucial for unions to grow if working men and women are going to have a stronger voice on the issues that matter to them most," Mr. Sweeney said.
Many of the workers labor is trying to unionize are in sectors such as hotels, hospitals and janitorial jobs that are increasingly held by illegal immigrants.
While illegal aliens are permitted by law to join unions, many avoid labor organizing drives for fear their employers will turn them into the Immigration Naturalization Service and they will get deported.
Labor leaders are expected to meet next month to vote on a proposal calling for a general amnesty for the more than 6 million illegal aliens in the country. Unions have opposed such amnesties in the past, arguing that illegal aliens are taking jobs that could be held by legal U.S. workers.
A similar amnesty was granted in 1986 as part of the Immigration Reform and Control Act. The law allowed for the one-time amnesty of some 3.1 million illegal aliens. It also instituted new requirements that employers demand documentation from prospective hires, a provision intended to curtail further employment of illegal aliens.
"It is ironic that the unions find themselves in a position similar to employers in that they now seek to organize undocumented labor," said Russ Bergeron, director of media relations for the INS.
The 1986 amnesty did very little to quash the influx of illegal aliens. A 1996 INS study found that there were about 5 million undocumented immigrants in the United States, and the number was increasing by about 275,000 each year.
The AFL-CIO proposal, introduced at the federation's biennial convention in California last fall, similarly calls for allowing undocumented workers the chance to seek legal citizenship. Such a move would not only protect current illegal aliens from employer abuse, it could also make them less fearful of joining a union.
While changing immigration law requires an act of Congress, the AFL-CIO is now deciding whether to undertake a nationwide campaign to pressure lawmakers into action.
"It serves no one's interest to have an exploitable work force," said Jeff Fannell, associate general counsel for the AFL-CIO. "Undocumented workers who are exploited are less willing to complain about abuses, so everyone suffers."
But Mr. Fannell acknowledged that the drive for amnesty faces significant hurdles, not just in Washington where immigration is a hot-button issue, but also among the rank-and-file union membership, where there is still little consensus on the matter.
Several national unions, including the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union, the Service Employees International Union, and Unite, which represents garment workers, support the push for amnesty. Many other unions are reluctant to support such a move, said Mr. Fannell, though he would not say which ones.
"A consensus needs to be reached in the federation. I can't say at this point that there is a consensus," Mr. Fannell said.
He said some union members see immigrants as individuals who take jobs away from American workers, are paid low wages and undercut working conditions for all workers.
"But there are far more now that see the employers, not employees, as the problem. These are employers that are more than willing to exploit workers by bringing in foreign labor," Mr. Fannell said.
The issue, which is likely to come up at an AFL-CIO executive council meeting in New Orleans next month, could prove divisive.
"What's interesting is that this issue has the potential to split the labor movement," said Randel Johnson, vice president of labor and employee benefits for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. "On the one hand, they are looking for a new base of organizing to offset declining membership. But they have traditionally opposed increased immigration for fear of job losses."
As for the state of unions overall, labor leaders hailed yesterday's report as a sign that unions are making a comeback in the American workplace.
Union membership had been on a downward spiral since 1973, when about 24 percent of Americans held union cards. In that time, labor leaders have struggled to offset declines in manufacturing-based union membership by organizing service-sector and public-sector workers, and by reaching out to women and minorities.
"The AFL-CIO must be happy with this report, though I'm sure they are not ecstatic," said Douglas McCabe, labor law professor at Georgetown University.
"The image of the labor movement has been battered by media reports of their declines over the years. But if they can show that they have stopped the declines, more people might begin to say, 'Maybe we should start talking to the unions,' " Mr. McCabe said.
Last year, about 600,000 workers organized into unions, according to the AFL-CIO, a 25 percent increase from 1998. Some of the big wins for unions in 1999 included successful drives to organize 75,000 home-health workers in California and 65,000 Puerto Rican public employees.

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