At one time, organized labor viewed illegal workers toiling in the shadows as a threat. They fought vigorously against proposals that would lead to citizenship. But 13 years ago, the AFL-CIO abruptly reversed that policy. It since become a leading voice in the call for greater rights for those who've entered the country illegally.

NPR national political correspondent Don Gonyea looks back at that turning point and what it means today.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: The AFL-CIO begins a big push this week to build momentum for comprehensive changes to immigration law. The labor movement says it's a priority this year. And AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka recently posted this message to members on YouTube. His opening line spoke to the labor movement's history with the issue.


RICHARD TRUMKA: Hi, brothers and sisters. I want to talk to you about a topic that hasn't always been an easy one for our movement. But it's one that's key to restoring the middle-class and growing the...

GONYEA: To say it hasn't been an easy topic for labor is an understatement. For decades, labor saw illegal workers as the enemy. The AFL-CIO wanted them kept out. It felt that an expansion of the available pool of workers was bad for unions. The low wages undocumented immigrants earned made it even worse. That was the labor federations official position for decades and through the 1990s, says labor analyst Harley Shaiken.

HARLEY SHAIKEN: This was a time where labor had gone through decades of being buffeted, sometimes slammed by forces of globalization. So the fear was: How do we preserve what we fought so hard with such sacrifice to get in the first place.

GONYEA: Shaiken said labors historic response was predictable.

SHAIKEN: Circle the wagons, but that's not a tenable position. That just results in further shrinkage.

GONYEA: That position changed abruptly in 2000, when the executive council of the AFL-CIO voted to reverse itself, calling for undocumented immigrants to be granted citizenship. It was a result of years of internal pressure from unions representing service workers - a large number of whom were Latino.

At the time Ana Avendano was with the United Food and Commercial Workers. She says unions like hers argued that existing immigration policy allowed employers to take advantage of such workers. It was a union busting tool.

ANA AVENDANO: It was another way for employers to just strip workers of their rights. In other words, whenever a worker complained about not being paid their wages or complains of sexual harassment or tried to form a union, all the employer had to do was call immigration and they could deport away their problem.

GONYEA: Avendano is now with the AFL-CIO. She says that day in 2000, meant the organization recognized the struggles of illegal workers, making their cause the AFL-CIO's cause.

Louis DeSipio, a professor of Chicano/Latino Studies at the University of California, Irvine, says the AFL-CIO had its eye on potential new members and that the move was a recognition of changing national and union demographics.

LOUIS DESIPIO: The fastest growing unions have been the service sector unions. And those are overwhelmingly made up of immigrants and then family members of immigrants. So, and for the unions to represent their membership on some level, they have to be sensitive to the family concerns that drive support for legalization.

GONYEA: Prior to the year 2000, both political parties were divided on immigration. Democrats had ethnic interest groups on one side and unions on the other, while Republicans were divided between social conservatives and business interests. The union shift united Democrats and gave labor more clout. For Republicans, the internal fight over immigration continues. This has put the Democrats well ahead of the GOP on this issue, at a time when Latino voters are growing in numbers and power.

Don Gonyea, NPR News, Washington.

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