MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Melissa Block. The way that unions view immigrant workers is changing. For over a century, organized labor has had a wary attitude toward immigrants. The reasoning was, the more foreign workers in the labor market, the less bargaining power for unions. Recently some unions have made a dramatic shift. As NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports, they are now recruiting immigrants, in some cases no matter the worker's legal status.
JENNIFER LUDDEN: In the mid-1990s, Gig Rittenauer was a roofer in Ohio, a loyal member of the United Union of Roofers, Waterproofers, and Allied Workers. He was frustrated by the increasing number of immigrants he'd see staffing construction jobs. So Rittenauer and some colleagues started keeping cameras in their cars and paying random visits to work sites.
Mr. GIG RITTENAUER (Roofer; Member of the United Union of Roofers, Waterproofers and Allied Workers): We'd take pictures. Loved to pop out a camera and just start snapping pictures. And it really - it drives them off because they know that they're illegal. And that was a ploy just to scare them really.
LUDDEN: The ploy made Rittenauer feel like he was having an effect protecting his union job, but eventually he realized the immigrant workers weren't going away for good and the federal government wasn't going to make them. That's when Rittenauer decided that if an immigrant is here working anyway, it's best if he joins the union.
Mr. RITTENAUER: If he doesn't, he's going to continue to do our work for much, much less wage and benefits, probably no benefits. And it's just the nature of the beast. You either rise people up or you let them pull you down.
LUDDEN: These days, Rittenauer travels the country recruiting for the roofers union. This week, it's Baton Rouge where Hurricane Katrina brought a rush of Hispanic workers and where more recent damage from Gustav is keeping roofers in high demand. Rittenauer and his colleague, Baldo Diaz, have pulled up to a bustling commercial construction site.
They find the roofers, a dozen men, all Hispanic, sitting along a chain-linked fence on lunch break. The recruiters ask about the project, how things are going. The roofers union does not check workers' legal status, but Rittenauer says the companies he sends them to likely will. After a few minutes, Diaz launches into the benefits of union membership.
Mr. BALDO DIAZ (Roofer; Member of the United Union of Roofers, Waterproofers and Allied Workers): (Spanish spoken)
LUDDEN: It means better salaries and benefits, he tells them. Even a pension so you can save for the future. The men give him blank stares. A few look skeptical. Diaz says not all Latin-American countries have unions in the construction industry.
Mr. RITTENAUER: Baldo, tell these guys if we can ever help them out that we got work.
Mr. DIAZ: (Spanish spoken)
LUDDEN: Diaz and Rittenauer pass out business cards and take some numbers. Diaz will follow up in a few days with phone calls. Back at the roofers union office, Baldo Diaz says there are many challenges in recruiting recent immigrants.
Mr. DIAZ: (Spanish spoken)
LUDDEN: They come to this country to work for whatever price, he says. They want to send money to their families back home. And if there isn't always enough work to go around, they don't want to wait for the next union job.
LUDDEN: Undocumented workers in particular have long been considered unorganizable. Ruth Milkman heads UCLA's Institute for Research on Labor and Employment. She says the assumption has been that these workers were only here temporarily, so wouldn't invest in a union, and that they were too afraid to join, worried that if their legal status were discovered, they'd be fired. Milkman says these are real concerns. And stepped-up federal immigration rates have probably heightened fears. But Milkman says recruiters have learned something else too.
Professor RUTH MILKMAN (Director, UCLA Institute for Research on Labor and Employment): Undocumented workers had experienced things much riskier than trying to form a union. There's one immigrant worker I once interviewed told me, she said, in my country - this was El Salvador - if you organize a union, they kill you. Here you lose a job that pays the minimum wage.
LUDDEN: In fact, Milkman says, studies show foreign-born workers are more receptive to joining a union than the native-born. And she's seen that eagerness grow since the spring of 2006. That's when immigrant workers flooded the streets of major cities, pushing Congress to overhaul immigration laws. Milkman says the labor movement took note.
Professor MILKMAN: Here they are in a situation where union density is going down, down, down every year. And you see literally millions of people in the streets, demanding their rights, organizing collectively. Anybody in the labor movement who hadn't gotten it before that about immigrant organizing, certainly did appreciate the potential.
LUDDEN: But the notion of expanding union membership with undocumented immigrants does not sit well with everyone. In a company-provided trailer in Port Allen, Louisiana, a few members of the roofers union watch a Saints game. Andrew McIsaac moved down here from Detroit. He loves his job. He does not think illegal immigrants should be allowed in the union.
Mr. ANDREW MCISAAC (Roofer; Member of the United Union of Roofers, Waterproofers and Allied Workers): It's hard for us to - our next generation, our kids, that come in here and for to have illegal immigrants are taking the jobs for our kids. You know, it's already tied up as it is for the economy.
LUDDEN: His colleague, John Owczarski, agrees. He says both his parents were immigrants and came legally. But what about wage and hour protections? Federal law applies them equally regardless of legal status. Owczarski says that makes sense.
Mr. JOHN OWCZARSKI (Roofer; Member of the United Union of Roofers, Waterproofers and Allied Workers): Yeah, they should. If they're doing the same work and they are as skilled, yeah, they should get the same wages. Because you know why? If you're going to work for a dollar, I'm going to do it for 15 bucks an hour. Now that's hurting me. Yeah, absolutely.
LUDDEN: But you don't think he should be able to be in the union?
Mr. OWCZARSKI: No.
LUDDEN: Even as recruiter Gig Rittenauer tries to persuade immigrants to join the roofers union, he says he has more work to do persuading native-born members why this is a good thing. But he's clear in his mind about who the enemy is.
Mr. RITTENAUER: I think I see more contractors that take advantage of the immigrants because they know they can. So I think it's more the contractor that's taking the jobs from Americans than it is the immigrants.
LUDDEN: Rittenauer figures the more immigrant workers who join unions, the fewer there will be for bad-apple contractors to exploit. Jennifer Ludden, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.