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It's becoming easier for some temporary workers to form a union. That's because of a recent decision by the National Labor Relations Board. Undocumented immigrants are among those with a lot to gain. Simon Rios of member station WBUR went to meet a group of Guatemalans in New Bedford, Mass.
SIMON RIOS, BYLINE: Arriving from all over New England and New York, a fleet of trucks delivers endless loads of spent rubber to the New Bedford tire yard. A shredder feeds a conveyor belt that spits onto a mountain as black as coal, destined to be reused as heating fuel. Twenty-seven-year-old Tomas Ventura has worked at Bob's since he came to the U.S. from Guatemala at the age of 18.
TOMAS VENTURA: (Through interpreter) Basically, they treated us poorly, and we got together and asked for a dollar raise. Our boss said he'd give it to us in April. But time passed and we never got our raise.
RIOS: Ventura says most of the workers get no paid sick leave or vacation time. And after more than eight years working for the company, he earns $11 an hour. Bob's Tire Co. refused to comment for this story. But by Ventura's account, the owner of the company fired him and three others for demanding better wages.
VENTURA: (Through interpreter) I think he fired us to teach the other workers a lesson. That's why I said let's do something. This is the time.
RIOS: Ventura says they were returned to protest, threatening to file a grievance and pressuring the company to rehire them. And this past fall, shortly after the four workers were rehired, 65 of 70 voted to join the United Food and Commercial Workers Union. According to the census, New Bedford is home to 1,500 Guatemalans, though advocates estimate the real number could be three times that. Former National Labor Relations Board Chair Wilma Liebman says undocumented workers have the same rights under labor law as citizens, but there's a wrinkle.
WILMA LIEBMAN: Undocumented workers who are involved in an organizing effort risk, if they are fired, not being able to get their job back and not being able to get back pay for the time that they've been fired.
RIOS: Organizers in New Bedford estimate as many as three-quarters of the city's Guatemalans are undocumented, and the majority work through temp agencies. At the national level, it's difficult to measure how many undocumented workers work through temp agencies. But advocates say it's a common way companies avoid liability for employing undocumented workers. Now a change in federal labor law could make it easier for temp workers to unionize, undocumented or not. The Bob's Tire workers unionized as employees of both the tire company and the temp agency. Union organizers say this was hard to achieve before the National Labor Relations Board changed the definition of joint employment. Attorney Michael Harper teaches labor law at Boston University.
MICHAEL HARPER: Oh, you formed a union - your employees formed a union, a temp agency? We're going to cut you off. They're out of a job because they formed a union. Now, if they're a joint employer, if they do that, that's an unfair labor practice.
RIOS: Opponents of the decision on joint employment say it will subject companies to strikes, boycotts and pickets that were previously unlawful, as well as liability for unfair labor practices. Stephen Dwyer is general counsel at the American Staffing Association, a trade group that represents temp agencies. He says the decision was an overreach of the board's authority, though he doesn't expected to have much impact.
STEPHEN DWYER: The number of union workers in the private sector has declined. It's less than 7 percent. And we're talking about only 2 percent of workers being temporary workers. And when you factor in the fact that their average tenure is only about three months - historically, temporary workers haven't joined unions.
RIOS: The NLRB decision might not change much nationwide, but it could have big implications in places like New Bedford. For NPR News, I'm Simon Rios in Boston.
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