The nation's largest union federation, targeting a segment of the country's growing immigrant workforce, announced Wednesday that it had agreed to work with a large day laborer organization to improve wages and working conditions.
The agreement between the AFL-CIO and the National Day Laborer Organizing Network has particular significance in the Los Angeles area, whose estimated 25,000 such workers make it the nation's day laborer capital.
These workers -- believed to number 200,000 nationally -- often congregate at hiring centers, on street corners or in parking lots of hardware stores, employed primarily by homeowners and construction contractors for jobs such as waste removal and home remodeling.
Most are Latino and undocumented. A UCLA study released in January found that almost half of the 2,660 day laborers interviewed said they had been cheated out of pay in the previous two months or given no food or water. More than a quarter reported being abandoned at a work site.
These abuses prompted immigrant advocates to informally organize, set minimum wages at work centers and sparked the negotiations that led to Wednesday's announcement.
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. Some unions have successfully organized illegal immigrants who work in selected industries, but organizing day laborers could be challenging because they work for small employers who might resist following union-imposed rules.
The agreement, formally adopted in Chicago, deepens the involvement of the 9-million-member AFL-CIO in the national immigration rights debate. The federation and its member unions have called for the eventual legalization of undocumented workers, a position that pits them against some native workers who believe immigrants are taking jobs from Americans and lowering wages.
"Today's announcement is a statement by the AFL-CIO that they consider day laborers as part of the labor movement," said Victor Narro, project director of the UCLA Labor Center.
AFL-CIO President John Sweeney said the partnership would "strengthen our ability to promote and enforce the workplace rights for all workers."
Pablo Alvarado, executive director of the Los Angeles-based day laborer network, said the alliance would help ensure that undocumented immigrant workers "come out of the shadows."
The partnership calls for the network's worker centers nationwide to affiliate with the federation and receive representation on local labor councils.
These centers serve as hiring halls, provide English language classes and offer legal representation on worker rights. Workers often vote on center decisions involving wages and operations.
These facilities and job centers operated by local governments and nonprofit groups have been scenes of bitter immigration battles. An agreement reached last month between Laguna Beach and state officials allowed a hiring center in that community to stay open after a member of the Minuteman Project border patrol group tried to force its closure.
In recent years, the day laborers network has tried to enforce a $10 to $12 minimum hourly wage at hiring centers. Wednesday's pact puts the AFL-CIO's muscle behind these wage standards and supports workers who claim job-site abuses.
Day laborers in Los Angeles said their interest in joining a union would depend on whether unions helped them get full-time jobs and become legal residents.
Cesar Ramirez, 48, an illegal immigrant, told the Associated Press that he had been part of a plumbers union in Mexico and would like to join one in this country for health benefits and work protection.
"But without [residency] papers, I don't see it happening," he said.
Even apart from union membership, "merely the possibility of a powerful organization behind them will expand the rights of day laborers," said Harley Shaiken, a UC Berkeley professor who studies labor issues.
To the extent it ends labor abuses, the agreement could also be good news for the business community, said Jack Kyser, chief economist with the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp.
The agreement puts the AFL-CIO shoulder to shoulder with "the most dispossessed of all workers," Shaiken said. "If these workers are not represented, then the labor standards of all workers go down."
The AFL-CIO also stands to gain significant membership in the future if these immigrants move into represented trades.
In recent years, the Service Employees International Union has captured a growing share of immigrant workers. Nationally the union represents 1.8 million janitors, public employees, and healthcare workers, many of them Latino.
Mike Garcia, president of Los Angeles-based SEIU Local 1877, applauded the latest agreement as a positive step for workers.
"We're all for it. It's a good thing," he said.