SEATTLE, Washington, Jun 5 (IPS) – The hiring hall for Hod Carriers and General Labourers Local 242 is in the basement of the Seattle Labour Temple, a two-story tan-brick building of early-20th century vintage. You walk down a flight of well-worn red-tile stairs and through the double doors.

A group of older African-American men is playing cards at a green felt table, while other job-seekers read newspapers and chat. In one corner, a dozen men trade economic intelligence in Spanish. Signs painted on a partition warn: ‘Federal Requirement for Dispatch – 2 Pieces of ID’ and ‘Any job subject to drug and alcohol tests’.

At six every weekday morning, some of the 3,500 members of Local 242 gather there, waiting for a union official to appear at the dispatch window to announce a job call. The Local sends workers out to heavy construction labour jobs on commercial and industrial projects – building labourers, hod carriers, mason tenders and asbestos workers. Their work often involves digging ditches, moving heavy objects and pouring mud, as concrete is affectionately known.

Behind the partition at a busy desk sits Dale Cannon, Secretary-Treasurer and Business Manager of 242. Thick and blunt, Cannon looks like – and was – a concrete foreman.

‘Our guys are usually first on the job and last to leave,’ he explains. ‘We place concrete, strip forms and do job-site cleanup.’

Lately, job dispatches ‘have slowed down quite a bit,’ Cannon says. He estimates they’re sending out two to six workers per day instead of a normal 12 to 18. And he’s not seeing much on the horizon, which he scans by talking with developers and architects, and monitoring building-permit backlogs.

Despite the bad economy, he and his local are protagonists in the national trend towards cooperation between trade unions and immigrant workers centres. Their local partner is CASA Latina, an organisation for mostly immigrant day labourers who do primarily yard work and residential construction. Championed by national union federations and day labourers’ organisations, similar efforts at working together are coalescing in perhaps a dozen cities.

‘A lot of their people deserve to have an opportunity to join a union,’ Cannon asserts. ‘Plus it provides us with a larger area of people… more fruit to pick off the tree.’ Over two years, ‘our relationship with CASA Latina has been nothing but favourable.’

To join Local 242, you have to be accepted into a state-approved four-year apprenticeship program requiring 4,000 hours of on-the-job training and 380 hours of classroom time. While the training was initially all in English, the union has since hired Spanish-speaking instructors.

CASA Latina recruited some 25 day labourers who met union requirements. About 20 went to an orientation and initial test, and 16 or 17 of those went on to a week-long pre-apprenticeship programme. In the end, eight qualified for the apprenticeship, says Cannon, and currently five or six of these are out there working.

‘It was a rocky start for them’ because most did not speak English well. But after a year, ‘those guys are off and running on their own,’ Cannon says. Contractors have specifically asked for some of them, ‘so we know they’re doing a good job when they request them back.’

The relatively small numbers are mainly due to documentation issues, Cannon believes. ‘The language barrier you can get by – CASA Latina does a good job of making sure that if people are not working, they’re in ESL classes.’

Hispanic officials in Local 242 and the Labourers District Council have helped new labourers learn the ropes.

To get a job through the union, workers need a valid driver’s license, although it can be from another country. They also must have completed 10th grade or a high-school equivalency diploma. In Mexico, advocates estimate, most people in construction have a third to sixth-grade education. Finally, contractors check employee Social Security numbers ‘before you go out of the trailer,’ Cannon says.

A few blocks away from Local 242, day labourers mill about the gravel courtyard of CASA Latina waiting for job calls here as well. A willowy woman circulating among them, Hilary Stern, has been executive director of the workers centre since its inception in 1994.

When the first CASA Latina workers entered the labourers apprenticeship programme, she recalls, the timing seemed good: it was the beginning of spring, when construction typically picks up. But this happened last year, just as the housing market began to go south.

‘The Latino immigrant population needs to work every day,’ because immigrant workers can’t collect unemployment as citizens can. When they go to the union hall and nothing happens, ‘they go look for work somewhere else,’ and many got discouraged, Stern says.

From the beginning, CASA Latina has been allied with organised labour, she says, and locally they’ve had ‘a very good relationship.’ In some parts of the country, she says, there has been more conflict between them. But in Seattle, ‘the leadership of organised labour has never seen us as some sort of threat or competition,’ although sometimes the rank-and-file is different.

The two groups are aligned politically and have worked together on common projects such as immigration reform and workplace standards. CASA Latina workers have also helped unions walk picket lines during strikes.

With the labourers, the cooperation began at the base: union organisers came to recruit day labourers, and a union attorney consulted with a law student interning at the centre.

When the regional leadership of the union got involved, Stern recounts, they wanted CASA Latina to transform itself into a Labourers local. They saw us as ‘a primitive form of what they were when they first started out… kind of an amoeba form of a local to which they could just add a little bit of resources.’

The centre’s board of directors, which runs the non-profit organisation, resisted going in that direction, as it serves important social-service functions for their membership as well. Still, Stern sees the union as a potential ‘stepping stone’ towards economic integration for some day labourers.

Other paths into steady employment do exist as well. Some day labourers find continuing full or part-time jobs with employers who hired them from the centre, such as small construction contractors. Others have secured positions in restaurants or on fishing boats bound for Alaska. A few have started their own small businesses. For women, housecleaning jobs sometimes become long-term.

Not all relationships with local unions have been smooth for CASA Latina, though. Two years ago, a conflict arose with the Carpenters Union.

The Communications Director of the Carpenters Regional Council, Eric Franklin, criticised CASA Latina because the workers centre’s rate sheet listed a minimum wage for doing carpentry and other skilled work that was well below union scale. He felt that day labourers had undercut his union and contractors who worked with it, asserting that ‘the Carpenters oppose a cash economy in construction.’

In the past, Franklin said, his union had offered safety and skills classes to day labourers. The policy of the national union, he stressed, is that you don’t have to be a citizen to be a member. There is no initiation fee to join and the union has bilingual staff.

Cannon dismisses the idea that day labourers are competing with union carpenters. ‘What really got our attention was the way the Carpenters disrespected the CASA Latina people. They kind of labeled them as criminals to the community for being part of the underground economy.’ The friction encouraged him to pursue cooperation with the workers centre.

For organised labour to bring day labourers into the formal workforce in any numbers, Cannon believes, comprehensive immigration reform will be key. To insure that ‘these people aren’t left behind, we [should] give them the opportunity to pick themselves up like everyone else expects when they come here.’

*Disclosure: the author was a member of Labourers Locals 242 and 541 from 1977 through 1983.