AFL-CIO allies with day laborers


In an agreement that might have seemed impossible not so long ago, the AFL-CIO announced in Chicago yesterday that it was forming a partnership with the nation's largest network of day laborer work centers.

The deal between the labor federation and the Los Angeles-based National Day Laborer Organizing Network marks organized labor's growing embrace of migrants as an allied force and immigration reform as a key rallying cause.

The AFL-CIO and the day laborers vowed to work together on a number of issues, including targeting abusive employers, driving up low wages and fighting for immigration reform, especially on behalf of the nearly 11 million undocumented workers in the United States.

Their agreement reflects the presence and importance of an estimated 117,000 day laborers working across the U.S. in mostly low-wage jobs, some of them doing work once held by union members. Many of the day laborers are Latino, and many of them are in the U.S. illegally.

Embracing day workers is another confirmation of unions' willingness to go outside traditional boundaries to find allies and members as their ranks continue to dwindle. In this case, it's a significant coming together because the day laborers represent competitors for scarce jobs.

As AFL-CIO officials explained, the alliance is not intended to add new union members, though that could be a result later.

Within their own ranks, AFL-CIO officials may have to put on an extra sell to win support from some construction unions because they have suffered steep job losses as employers have shifted to low wages and migrant workers.

But AFL-CIO officials privately said the proposal went over with no major resistance from their building and trades union members.

The partnership was agreed to in Chicago, where the executive council for the 53-union AFL-CIO is meeting this week.

Pablo Alvarado, a one-time day laborer from El Salvador who now heads the four-year-old National Day Laborer Organizing Network, emphasized the political impact that he expects immigrants and day laborers to gain from linking with the AFL-CIO.

"We can talk to legislators on a different level now," Alvarado explained.

Noting the exploitation that day laborers endure, AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney said organized labor had to offer its help. "When standards are dragged down for some workers, they are dragged down for all workers," Sweeney said.

But there are also some payoffs for the AFL-CIO, which is still smarting from the last year's breakup of the federation and the creation of a 5 million-member competitor, the Change to Win Federation. By reaching out to the day laborers, the labor federation shows its willingness to expand its reach beyond traditional union settings, labor experts said.

"It is a question of the AFL-CIO redefining itself and what it means to belong to the labor movement," said Fred Feinstein, a labor expert at the University of Maryland.

Stephen Franklin writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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