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Dec 24, 1:13 PM EST

Labor unions desperate for new members see possible boon in new immigration order


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CHICAGO (AP) -- Unions across the U.S. are reaching out to immigrants affected by President Barack Obama's recent executive action, hoping to expand their dwindling ranks by recruiting millions of workers who entered the U.S. illegally.

Labor leaders say the president's action, which curbs deportation and gives work permits to some 4 million immigrants, will give new protection to workers who have been reluctant to join for fear of retaliation.

"I think we'll see very positive changes" because of the action, said Tom Balanoff, president of Service Employees International Union Local 1. "One of them, I hope, is that more workers will come forward and want to organize."

SEIU, whose more than 2 million members include janitors and maintenance workers, recently announced a website where immigrants can learn about the action. The AFL-CIO says it's training organizers to recruit eligible workers. And the United Food and Commercial Workers and other unions are planning workshops and partnering with community groups and churches to reach out to immigrants.

The efforts come even as Republicans and other opponents of Obama's action work to undo it, saying it will hurt American workers, and as some labor experts say they're skeptical immigrants will feel safe enough to unionize in large numbers.

Labor unions have struggled over the past decade to maintain their membership and political muscle. The ranks fell by more than 1.2 million between 2003 and 2013, when there were about 14.5 million members nationwide, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The percentage of workers that were union members fell from 12.9 percent to 11.3 percent during that same period.

Business-friendly Republican governors have approved measures in recent years aimed at weakening labor, even in places such as Michigan that were once considered union strongholds. In Obama's home state of Illinois, a GOP businessman unseated the Democratic governor last month in part by promising to constrain labor's influence in government.

Unions say they can help protect immigrants against abuses such as wage theft and discrimination. And even if the immigrants aren't citizens and cannot vote, they can help unions by paying dues and doing the heavy lifting needed around election time - knocking on doors, driving voters to the polls and making phone calls for pro-labor candidates.

Republicans say the executive actions - which would affect people who have children and have been in the U.S. more than five years - will make it tougher for Americans already struggling to find good-paying jobs. They've pushed legislation to void the new protections.

"The president's action is a threat to every working person in this country - their jobs, wages, dreams, hopes and futures," said GOP U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama.

Felipe Diosdado, who came to the U.S. illegally in 1997, says undocumented people he knows are working for cash at small businesses that aren't unionized because they're afraid to apply at larger job sites that are more likely to verify a worker's immigration status.

And while he acknowledged many immigrants are fearful because the protection is temporary and could be undone by a future president, he expects some will sign up.

"It's a risk, but you always have a risk," said the 36-year-old father of two, who joined a union while working at a construction site 14 years ago. "Being undocumented, you live with risk every day."

Shannon Gleeson, an associate professor at Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations, said she expects the response to be "very place-specific," with people coming forward in places that have traditionally been considered immigrant-friendly, like Los Angeles, while being reluctant in places like Houston, where it's a struggle to find a unionized hotel.

"If I'm there, am I going to stick my neck out?" Gleeson said. "I don't know, maybe not."

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