The Changing Face of Unions

Union activists rallied outside the headquarters of tobacco giant R.J. Reynolds in Winston-Salem, N.C., last week, seeking better working conditions and pay for laborers on tobacco farms across the state.

The protest represents change in the American labor movement's attitude toward immigrant workers in the United States.

The majority of the people the union rallied for are illegal immigrants, a group of workers that many believe drive down wages for native workers.

It's an argument often cited by groups who believe that illegal immigrants should be made to leave the country - through deportation or through "attrition by enforcement," the idea at the crux of controversial state laws in Arizona, Alabama and Georgia that target undocumented workers.

But three years ago, two of the country's most influential unions, the AFL-CIO and Change to Win, voted to support the legalization of illegal immigrants already here and opposed any new program that would allow employers to bring in any new temporary workers. The AFL-CIO first called for amnesty for the country's illegal immigrants in 2000.

"We have to have a legalization program right now. Path to citizenship for people who are in the country without status - especially dreamers," said Ana Avendano, the AFL-CIO's director of immigration and community action.

The idea is that legal workers are less likely to be exploited because they would be protected by the law rather than operating outside of it,  Avendano said.

But not all union members are convinced that legalizing the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country is in their best interest.

In 2010, the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington think tank that opposes illegal immigration and advocates for a reduction in the number of legal immigrants allowed to come to the country, cited a Zogby poll that showed 60 percent of union household supported enforcing current immigration laws. Less than 30 percent supported legalization.

"The right wing has done a really good job of convincing workers that it's against their own interest to join with immigrants,"  Avendano said.

In the three years since the AFL-CIO began calling for legalization of illegal immigrants, it's been trying to pass its message on to membership.

Some immigrants do drive down wages, said Baldemar Velasquez, president of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC), which represents about 10,000 agricultural workers in the Midwest and the South.

"Not because they have a visa or are illegal, but because they're not organized, and don't have a collective bargaining agreements to improve standards," he said.

How many are undocumented is unknown.

The AFL-CIO doesn't ask members their legal status, relying instead on employers and their employees to comply with the law,  AFL-CIO spokesman Gonzalo Salvador said.

According to the Pew Hispanic Center, a quarter of farm workers nationwide were undocumented in 2008. FLOC believes that 90 percent of as many as 30,000 laborers working in North Carolina's tobacco fields are undocumented. About 5,000 of them are members of FLOC, Velasquez says.

According to a report released last year by FLOC and Oxfam, an international confederation that fights poverty,  conditions on some of the farms were troubling. Some workers reported earning less than minimum wage or that their wages were not enough to meet their basic needs, others said that they were not given access to fresh water in the fields and weren't given breaks to go to the bathroom.

R.J. Reynolds does not grow its own tobacco or employ farm workers.

"Because they are not our employees, we have no direct control over the sourcing of farm laborers, their training, their pay rates, or their housing and access to human services," the company stresses on its website.

Velasquez said that the tobacco producers like Reynolds do have the power to change working conditions in the fields because they buy the tobacco from growers.

In April, the tobacco compamies and FLOC agreed to meet to talk about conditions, according to FLOC.

In 2011, Hispanics made up about 12 percent of union membership that year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Blacks represented 13 percent of union membership, and Asians made up 4 percent. The rest - about 80 percent - were white.