- The Washington Times - Monday, December 3, 2001

LAS VEGAS Faced with declining membership, the nation's labor leaders plan to use the AFL-CIO's annual convention beginning here today to convince American workers they are the answer to rising layoffs and poor economic conditions.
The agenda includes efforts to support amnesty for illegal immigrants, win benefits for laid-off workers, limit the president's authority to negotiate trade deals and plan a strategy to help pro-labor political candidates win votes.
For the first time in its history, the AFL-CIO is submitting the issue of amnesty for illegal aliens to a vote of its member unions for adoption as official policy. The policy change has already been approved by the federation's Executive Council, which is looking for a way to boost its membership under the leadership of John Sweeney, its president.
"Politically, we have a lot of strength here during a time when Congress is finishing up its work," said Kathy Roeder, AFL-CIO spokeswoman. "Now is a key time to spotlight the contributions of workers."
During the convention, the AFL-CIO plans two "call-in days" for union members to telephone their congressmen, asking support for organized labor's positions on economic stimulus and fast-track trade negotiation.
The AFL-CIO wants provisions included in the economic stimulus bill Congress is debating to increase benefits for unemployment insurance and health care for laid-off workers. They also want to discourage giving the president fast-track authority to negotiate international trade agreements without approval from Congress. The labor group is concerned the president would grant foreign countries trade rights that cut into American jobs.
The Democrats plan appearances by some of their stars to fortify their political bonds with organized labor. Among them is Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, Missouri Democrat and House minority leader. The possible 2004 presidential candidate will deliver a live address by satellite.
Others are New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and the Rev. Jesse Jackson, both of whom will appear in person.
"They're one of our main coalition groups," said Kori Bernards, spokeswoman for Mr. Gephardt. "A lot of the issues they care about, we care about as well."
AFL-CIO leaders said they would not disclose their strategy to support their preferred candidates for the 2002 midterm elections until the issue comes up for discussion at the convention on Wednesday.
Union membership dropped to 13.5 percent of the work force last year. In 1979, union membership stood at 24.1 percent of the work force.
The AFL-CIO's hopes for a wave of new members depend largely on the nation's economic and social problems.
Among them is the recession that began in March. The Labor Department's monthly report showed unemployment at 5.4 percent in October, up from 4.9 percent a month earlier.
The Treasury Department said more layoffs seem inevitable as orders for new equipment and services dwindle, particularly in union-friendly industries such as manufacturing.
The recessionary trend is being made worse by the September 11 attack on America. According to the AFL-CIO, about 750,000 workers have suffered layoffs since September 11, most of them in the hospitality and tourism industries.
Among cities hurt the most are Las Vegas, where hospitality and tourism are the No. 1 industry, and Washington, where hospitality and tourism make up the second-biggest industry.
Many of the jobs are the kind often filled by the immigrant workers from Mexico, whom the AFL-CIO is trying to bring into its ranks to turn the tide of declining membership.
"It's in our interest to organize more people to be able to protect the interests that union members care about," Miss Roeder said. "Organizing is key to that."
In previous years, unions wanted the government to get rid of illegal aliens; the theory was that they took jobs away from Americans.
Now, the AFL-CIO sees the illegal aliens as a wellspring of potential new members filling the cleaning, construction and other blue-collar jobs many Americans avoid.
"There are a great deal of immigrant workers who are union members, and even more who are interested in participating in the union membership," Miss Roeder said.
The amnesty issue is expected to be the most controversial proposal discussed by union leaders at the convention. The AFL-CIO's rank-and-file is deeply divided in opinion polls.
The Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington-based foundation that studies immigration trends, reported in September that 60 percent of voters in union households oppose amnesty, and only 32 percent support it.
"There seems to be no major group in society that strongly supports amnesty," the center's report said.
After President Bush met with Mexican President Vicente Fox in September, the Bush administration seemed poised to grant some kind of legal status to millions of illegal immigrants. The reforms were put on hold after the September 11 attack.

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