- The Washington Times - Monday, February 9, 2004

The Virginia primary today will include more voters like Hugo Carballo than ever before.

Mr. Carballo, a 35-year-old El Salvadoran immigrant, is a union organizer for Local 11 of the Laborers International Union. He will be voting in a presidential election for the first time since gaining citizenship three years ago.

“I was with [Rep. Richard A.] Gephardt before, but he went out,” said Mr. Carballo, an Alexandria resident. “Now I’m thinking about [Sen. John] Kerry.”

America’s unions are increasingly taking on the look of America’s Hispanics as the Spanish-speaking population increases and becomes a larger sector of the work force.

The number of Hispanic union members has grown by 400,000 in the past decade. Unions had 1.2 million Hispanic members in 1992 and 1.6 million in 2002, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported.

Among the U.S. population generally, the number of Hispanics increased by about 10 percent since the 2000 census, while the total population has grown by about 3 percent.

Unions also give Hispanics an outlet for greater political influence.

Mr. Carballo is impressed by Mr. Kerry’s support of “health care for everybody.”

He says he also likes Mr. Kerry’s statements indicating he would make it easier for more immigrants to join the U.S. work force.

“He’s talking about changing immigration laws, so we’ll see,” Mr. Carballo said.

Like most union representatives, he prefers Democrats, although Mr. Bush has also proposed changes to immigration laws.

The Bush administration wants to let illegal immigrants and foreign workers apply to work in the United States as “guest workers” for three years, with the possibility of at least one extension.

About 20 percent of the Laborers International Union, which represents mostly construction workers, are Hispanic.

“What it gives them is a collective voice, particularly on economic issues,” said Terry O’Sullivan, union president. “That’s the real power.”

About half the members of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union are Hispanic, as are 13 percent of the powerful Service Employees International Union (SEIU).

“Latinos join unions because they hold many of the same values other Americans cherish: winning a voice at work, improved wages, good health care and a secure future for their families,” said Jaime Contreras, secretary-treasurer of Washington-based SEIU Local 82.

Democratic contenders are appealing to Hispanics with blue-collar themes they believe are important to them.

Mr. Kerry’s television ads in New Mexico mentioned he is a veteran but then switched to “health insurance for every family, better education and more opportunities.”

Then, in accented Spanish, Mr. Kerry says, “Quiero volver la esperanza a este pais.” [I want to bring hope back to this country.]

Wesley Clark seemed to appeal to machismo with ads mentioning his battle wounds. Then the advertisement says: “He possesses American values. The valor of a man who worries about his people.”

On a smaller scale, the candidates are using print ads this week to appeal to Spanish-speaking voters in Northern Virginia, where more than a quarter-million Hispanics live.

Increasingly, Hispanic issues are becoming those supported by the AFL-CIO national labor federation.

During its 2001 convention in Las Vegas, the AFL-CIO’s member unions voted to support amnesty for illegal immigrants for the first time in its nearly half-century history.

“We are now a beacon of hope to millions of workers who’ve come to our country seeking a better life,” AFL-CIO President John Sweeney told convention delegates just before the vote.

The labor federation continues to support amnesty.

Previously, unions argued for stricter government control of the borders to stop illegal immigrants who take American jobs.

Union leaders say they changed their minds because they need to recruit members.

Hispanics make up 13 percent of the U.S. population of 288 million people.

“I think people join regardless of color for the same reasons,” said Clarisa Martinez de Castro, director of state policy for the National Council of Laz Raza, a Hispanic civil rights organization. “They are seeking to have to ability to negotiate their working conditions.”

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