- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 9, 2006

LOS ANGELES — The nation’s largest federation of unions agreed yesterday to work with a network of immigrant day laborers to improve wages and working conditions for those who solicit work from street corners across America.

The agreement between the AFL-CIO and the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, formally adopted in Chicago, is a sign of day laborers’ growing role in the U.S. economy.

Analysts also said it reflects the need for unions to expand to regain clout.

The agreement does not clear the way for day laborers to become union members, but both sides said it could be a step in that direction. It allows the network’s 40 nationwide centers to affiliate with the federation and receive representation on local labor councils.

The agreement was sharply criticized by anti-illegal-alien groups, which accused the federation of selling out its 53 unions in the hope of attracting new membership.

“The unions mistakenly believe it’s a source of new members,” said Joseph Turner of Save Our State, which has staged dozens of protests at day-labor sites across Southern California. “They will undercut their memberships by bringing in illegal aliens.”

Under the plan, the AFL-CIO and network will pursue minimum-wage campaigns, safety at construction sites and legislation to prosecute employers who fail to pay day laborers.

The groups will also work toward reform that includes amnesty for the estimated 12 million to 20 million illegal aliens living in the United States.

“This is huge for day laborers,” said Abel Valenzuela, a professor at the University of California at Los Angeles and co-author of the first national study of day laborers released in January.

“The AFL-CIO can hire staff to help with organizing, provide more legal services and lobby on behalf of day laborers,” he said.

The agreement comes as day laborers, most of whom are illegal aliens from Latin America, take steps to become more organized.

At a large center in downtown Los Angeles, day laborers said they hoped the agreement would lead to unionization. The center has set the minimum hourly pay for its workers at $8. Skilled workers command up to $15 an hour.

“We’ve all had employers not pay us, and seen workers get hurt at jobs,” said Francisco Jimenez, 35, an illegal alien from Mexico.

For years, unions have experienced diminishing numbers and clout because of globalization, automation and the transition from an industrial-based economy to one that is service driven.

Some union members see undocumented workers as a vast untapped pool of potential new members. Others, however, think they drag down wages and thwart organizing efforts.

Unions were often at odds while Congress debated immigration reform earlier this year, with some groups arguing against guest-worker programs and amnesty for illegal aliens.

The dissension was evident last year when a handful of unions, including the Service Employees International Union, broke from the AFL-CIO in an effort to forge a new direction for organized labor.

The breakaway unions complained that the AFL-CIO focused too much on electoral politics and not enough on organizing more people, including immigrant workers.

“The agreement is a strategic move for the AFL-CIO,” Mr. Valenzuela said. “They are thinking about how to maintain and increase their ranks.”

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