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Wall St. and Business Wednesdays: Latinos Reshaping Organized Labor by Ann Radelat

Federico Reyes, a union organizer in Reno, Nev., is the new face of organized labor.

In 1976, Reyes left Mexico to become a farm worker in California. He moved to Reno a year later to seek a better job in the gambling mecca, and worked as a dishwasher and kitchen helper. Twenty years later, he led a bitter struggle to organize one of the city's largest hotels, the Hilton. Now the 46-year-old is a top organizer for the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union, and a leader of Local 86.

"Now 60 to 70 percent of the nation's hotel workers are Latinos," Reyes said. "And they, just like everybody else, know that organizing gives you respect as well as economic benefits."

Today's immigrants from Latin America are doing what the Irish, Germans, Italians, Jews and others did before them - organizing to make their issues part of labor's agenda.

This can be seen in the flip-flops that the AFL-CIO and other labor organizations have done on immigration. Unions that once lobbied for closed borders because they believed immigrant labor would depress salaries and rob their members of jobs now are reaching out to newcomers to this country to swell the rank-and-file.

"What's happened is that we have awakened this monster," said Linda Chavez-Thompson, the second-ranking official at the AFL-CIO.

As a child, Chavez-Thompson, the granddaughter of Mexican immigrants, worked in the west Texas cotton fields for 30 cents an hour. She was introduced to the world of organized labor when, as a 23-year-old mother of two, she was hired as a bilingual secretary at a construction local.

She eventually joined the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees as an organizer and moved up the ranks of that powerful union.

Nearly 10 years ago, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney and Treasurer Richard Trumka decided they needed diversity in their top ranks and tapped her to be the labor federation's executive vice president.

"The unions need to look like the people they're trying to organize," said Chavez-Thompson, 59.

But President Bush's plan to temporarily legalize millions of undocumented workers may hurt labor's tactics. Chavez-Thompson called the president's plan, which Congress must approve to become law, "a hollow promise for hardworking Hispanics."

Chavez-Thompson said Bush's proposal is "a little bit worse than the old bracero program," a guest-worker system created during World War II that brought thousands of Mexican farm workers to the United States while America's young farmers were overseas.

Bush's plan would allow foreign residents and undocumented workers who can prove they have a job or a job offer from a U.S. employer to qualify for a three-year temporary work visa. Those approved would be able to renew their visas for an additional three years, but they would have to return to their home countries when the renewed visa expires.

"It will create a permanent underclass of workers and undermine wages for all workers," she said.

Labor began to woo low-wage and largely undocumented Hispanics about 10 years ago, seeking to organize poultry workers, carpet makers, janitors and construction tradesmen.

At the same time, dozens of Hispanics have moved into leadership positions in unions, including Eliseo Medina, head of Service Employees International Union; Miguel Contreras, head of the Los Angeles County Central Labor Council; and Maria Elena Durazo, head of Los Angeles' hotel employees union local.

In addition, Dennis Rivera has led New York's independent hospital workers union since 1999, and Geoconda Arguello heads the hotel employees local in Las Vegas. The number of Hispanic organizers also is booming.

"We can't train organizers that speak Spanish fast enough," Chavez-Thompson said.

The number of Hispanics who are union members has grown by 400,000 in the past decade. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, unions had 1.2 million Hispanic members in 1992 and 1.6 million in 2002.

But the percentage of Hispanics who are union members has declined in the past 10 years because the economic slowdown of the past few years has hit economic sectors like tourism, manufacturing and the apparel industry that disproportionately hire Hispanics.

While all union membership fell in the past 10 years, the share of Hispanics who are union members has declined more rapidly. Even so, Hispanics are the fastest growing segment of society and many expect that the decline in Hispanic union membership will reverse itself, said Michelle Waslin, National Council of La Raza's senior immigration policy director.

Note: This article also appeared in Delaware Online

Copyright 2004, The News Journal.

Wednesday, January 21, 2004

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