Credit: Photo by Darrow Montgomery

America, for José Gilberto Lara Lemos, has always been synonymous with work.

Lemos came to the D.C. area 15 years ago from a small village in El Salvador, leaving a wife and two children behind. At first, he cut grass. Then he got a job as a dishwasher, traveling back and forth by bus from the Manassas house he shared with other immigrant men. With salary and tips, he was able to pay rent, feed himself, and send some back to his family.

But the real money, he’d heard, was in construction. Some neighbors worked for Southland Concrete, a Dulles-based contractor with projects all over the region. Lemos applied in 2008. He was told he’d be paid $12 an hour, with raises every year.

(Photograph by Darrow Montgomery)

The pay was a little better than washing dishes, and a lot better than cutting grass. But there were trade-offs he hadn’t counted on: In a restaurant, Lemos got tips and free meals. Working concrete, on projects from Fort Belvoir to Bethesda, involved 10-hour days with few breaks. And, he says, the workplace environment was tough in other ways. One Saturday morning in August, wearing a worn blue buttondown and speaking quietly through an interpreter, Lemos described being screamed at by foremen, and told that if he ever wanted to leave, dozens of other workers would be eager to take his place. In this economic climate, that’s no idle threat.

“In the United States, bills don’t wait,” Lemos said. “It’s an increasingly negative feeling to be looking for work in the industry.”

So, last June, when organizers from the United Construction Workers, a new local branch of the Laborers International Union of North America (LiUNA), started talking to workers at the construction sites, Lemos was interested. He started attending trainings, learning what could be done to improve working conditions and how to network with fellow employees to get them to sign cards that might eventually lead to a union election.

Speaking up, of course, is risky—especially in construction, an easy-come, easy-go job market even in the best of times. Unlike a factory, where people either have jobs or don’t, construction employment involves projects that last a finite amount of time. There’s no telling why you may or may not be hired on the next one, which means that management need not even go through the trouble of formally firing a worker for attending a union meeting; they could just not bring him onto the next job.

(Photograph by Darrow Montgomery)

Not that firings don’t happen, too. In late September, as LiUNA organizers were taking out media advertisements for their efforts, getting local pols to visit job sites, and helping place newspaper stories that gave Southland a black eye—including one about the irony of an anti-union company working on the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial—the firm pink-slipped one of the most active worker organizers.

Six weeks later, the organizing effort is in tatters. But firings by Southland, it turns out, were the least of its problems.

To talk to people who worked on the UCW organizing effort is to learn that its near-collapse is not the usual sad labor story of valiant unionists against perfidious management. Rather, it’s the story of union advocates turning on one another—in large part over the polarizing politics of immigration. For generations, the labor movement has periodically warred with itself over how to view newcomers, from the Italian-speakers a century ago to Spanish-speakers like Lemos. Are they a wage-depressing threat to be kept out of the job market? Or should they be embraced, on the logic that a unified labor force is the only way to secure better working conditions?

The UCW’s multi-lingual D.C.-area organizing campaign represented the immigrant-embracing model in action. But it turned out that not everyone in the larger union was on board with that approach. In mid-October, UCW leader Brian Shepherd resigned over disagreements with LiUNA’s regional vice president, many of them about immigration issues like just how helpful the union should be in identifying illegal immigrants. Two weeks later, two other organizers were let go for their allegiance to Shepherd. Another left two weeks after that.

(Photograph by Darrow Montgomery)

A new director came on, saying the goals and tactics would remain. But the campaign had lost momentum. And momentum—not to mention trust—is crucial when you’re trying to do something that’s never been done before. The UCW initiative was the most ambitious and innovative attempt thus far to organize a largely Latino workforce in the region’s totally non-union concrete industry. Instead, the abrupt change has exposed a contradiction within LiUNA itself.

“The people on top have sort of become pathological liars, where they believe their own lies,” said Alejandro Guzman, one of Shepherd’s young organizers, speaking of the higher ups. “In any organization, if something isn’t working, you look at the leaders, not the people. But in this organization, I think it’s different.”

Washington, unlike New York and Chicago, has never been much of a union town, at least where the private sector is concerned. There are political, cultural, and legal reasons for that: Business groups like the Associated Builders and Contractors have thwarted organizing efforts. Compared to northern cities, construction here is also seen as second-class work, less prestigious than a government desk job. And Virginia, a key part of the market, is a “right-to-work” state where it’s illegal to require union membership as a condition of employment.

(Photograph by Darrow Montgomery)

It’s not just external factors that have kept the movement anemic. Unions themselves have made missteps, says Stephen Courtien, an organizer with the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades. While they had a few of the bigger companies and public projects, he says, unions didn’t try to organize smaller private contractors, which thrived on cheaper labor and now make up much of the industry. “We were happy with what we had, our little corner of the market,” Courtien says. “When work got tight, we didn’t let people in.”

U.S. construction unions have, of course, been in decline for decades. Forty percent of workers in the private construction industry belonged to a union in 1973; by 2010, that number was 13.3 percent. In the D.C.-Maryland-Virginia job market, it’s just 8.8 percent. For LiUNA, that’s meant fewer members and less power. In 2000, the union had 818,000 members nationwide. By 2009, that was down to 632,000. (Only part of this can be chalked up to a change in how the union counts members.)

The new United Construction Workers local, focusing on the heavily Latino concrete industry, was designed to alter that trajectory. Instead of getting work for existing union members by negotiating short-term Project Labor Agreements (PLAs), the emphasis was on mobilizing non-union workers currently toiling on those sites, promising them better conditions and a consistent, standardized process for hiring and layoffs. “A New Type of Union,” a tagline on the website reads.

(Photograph by Darrow Montgomery)

To accomplish that shift, LiUNA Mid-Atlantic regional office hired Shepherd, a former Navy man who then worked as an organizing director for the Service Employees International Union. Their first target, Southland, is the second-largest concrete company in the market behind Miller & Long. Because it has many public projects, it’s also more vulnerable to public and political pressure.

The challenge of helping immigrants to organize is obvious: For those who lack citizenship, courage can carry an especially heavy cost. Some companies look the other way when hiring, but are only happy to fire an overly assertive employee on the basis of immigration status. Building-trades unions also don’t always have the best reputation with immigrants. Their traditional approach—basically acting as seniority-based hiring agencies for a well-established pool of workers—means essentially shutting out newcomers.

(Photograph by Darrow Montgomery)

Champions of UCW’s approach say it’s in veteran union members’ own interest to change their tactics. The old strategy is fine in places where union density is high, Shepherd says, but it’s no way to expand a small base. “Where you only have so few union members, what that sets you up as is an adversary of the overwhelming majority of workers,” he explains. “What you’re talking about is stopping them from working, so your people can work…You start to view the cheap labor source as your enemy, instead of the person you’re supposed to be advocating for.”

Shepherd assembled a team of young organizers to help: Matt Traldi, a 2006 Yale graduate who came through the United Food and Commercial Workers Union; Guzman, 26, who moved from Mexico when he was seven and helped run campaigns in Chicago and Oklahoma before hearing about UCW; and a 22-year-old Latina organizer who asked that her name not be used because of her own immigration status. Spanish-speaking staff went to Southland sites to reach workers, gradually getting hundreds of them to sign cards indicating support for joining a union. They did trainings in churches and one-on-one sessions in houses to explain that this wasn’t the old kind of union the workers had heard about.

After a few months, UCW started raising its profile. Advertisements ran in local newspapers—including Washington City Paper—with the face of a fired Southland worker and the slogan, “We Are Not Disposable.” Its first major action was a protest at the Consolidated Forensics Laboratory, a $133-million District project at 4th and School streets SW. A few dozen Southland workers came from sites around the region to march around the fences in orange shirts, with workers in hard hats watching dubiously from within. Backed by SEIU members, they unfurled LiUNA banners and made speeches about discrimination and intimidation at Southland. At-Large D.C. Councilmember Phil Mendelson showed up to cheer them on. “It is fundamental that workers have a right to organize,” Mendelson yelled into a bullhorn. “If workers want to organize at this site, they should be allowed to do that.”

As the pressure mounted, Traldi and Guzman were starting to make inroads with corporate leadership. They had a steadfast adversary in Southland President Randy Green, who denies that his workers are treated badly—the Manassas native started as a laborer there himself 27 years ago, and rose through the ranks to run the company, which is one of the few employee-owned contractors in the industry and pays solid benefits. “I told them, why pick us?,” Green says. “We got a pretty doggone solid foundation and good people, and we’re dedicated to our people.”

But UCW wasn’t asking for the typical union deal of replacing Southland’s workers with its own existing members managed through a hiring hall. Instead, Traldi and Guzman asked Green to sign a “neutrality agreement” that would allow workers to vote on whether or not to join a union, with no retaliation from the company. If they voted for LiUNA, they would start non-economic bargaining over labor-management cooperation. Economic bargaining would kick in when UCW had signed similar agreements with more than half the concrete companies in the D.C. area, so as to reduce the competitive disadvantage.

(Photograph by Darrow Montgomery)

Despite feeling that his company had been smeared in the press and his workers pestered by LiUNA staff, Green took a liking to Traldi, and had a days-long e-mail exchange with the young organizer about what UCW was trying to do: Create a structure for giving laborers a voice at work, with an eventual contract to give them some security between jobs. In mid-October, Green told them to set up the vote.

Three days later, Traldi and Guzman were terminated.

It’s a bad idea to think of unions as monolithic. United Construction Workers is part of the union’s mid-Atlantic region, meaning its officials answer to a Pittsburgh native named Dennis Martire, who has been with LiUNA since 1990, and now makes $310,000 per year. His continued leadership depends on being re-elected every five years by a network of more than 40 locals from Pennsylvania to West Virginia, most of which are run by guys with names like Fahey, Taraczkozy, and Mangino.

And Martire, according to organizers who have clashed with him, didn’t share the new team’s all-inclusive approach to organizing immigrants. The regional office’s political staff, based in Reston, Va., advocates for the use of E-Verify, a system that screens new workers for their immigration status. The system is notorious for its mistakes, and critics say that screening out undocumented people only drives them away from unions—and into the arms of employers who can pay even lower wages.

Back home, Martire—who would only answer City Paper’s questions in writing, through the region’s general counsel—has penned letters to local newspapers warning the public against hiring foreign guest workers. “Consumers should make sure to ask any landscape contractor they want to work with a point-blank question about where their workers come from,” one missive read. Shepherd, while not supportive of guest-worker programs, found an anti-immigrant subtext in Martire’s message.

(Photograph by Darrow Montgomery)

“What it’s saying is, don’t accept cheap labor, we need to just hire Americans,” Shepherd says. “The answer in his logic is not to help those people who are getting exploited. There’s no solution to it.”

The offensive against foreign workers carried over into electoral campaigning—Traldi was asked repeatedly to research contributions to state and federal Republican candidates in Pennsylvania from Cohen and Grigsby, a law firm that counseled companies on the rules around the H-2B visa program, which allows the hiring of temporary foreign workers if no Americans are available. Martire had learned about the firm’s activities on CNN’s Lou Dobbs Tonight, and passed on a clip from the rabidly anti-immigrant CNN host to explain what he needed.

Guzman says that when he presented Martire with an organizing strategy for a campaign at Lane Construction, where workers had been suspicious of LiUNA because of strikes that didn’t go anywhere, the regional leader replied by suggesting a crackdown on undocumented labor.

“He said, ‘you’ve tried this before. At what point do we call immigration on these illegals?’” Guzman recalls. “So when he said that, I bit my tongue, and said ‘look, Denny, that’s a double-edged sword. Like, sure you’ll get rid of some of the workers and sure they’ll be scared of you. But if you’re going to do that, might as well never organize in the state of Virginia. So he kind of threw up his hands and said ‘well, if they’re not with us, they’re against us.’”

Martire, through his general counsel, denies that the conversation took place.

Why would a union leader raise the prospect of calling immigration enforcement officials onto a worksite, where they could potentially deport those found to be undocumented? There are a couple rationales, from a business perspective. One, you make workers fear not joining the union more than they fear their employer, by punishing them for not organizing quickly enough. And two, you could force a company that employs illegal immigrants out of business, which betters the position of those companies with whom you can sign agreements to provide pre-screened workers through a hiring hall.

As an immigrant himself, Guzman saw it as a betrayal of everything the campaign was supposed to mean. Having it come from the union’s vice president shook his confidence to the core.

After Shepherd resigned in early October, Traldi raised concerns about the direction the campaign was taking with the regional office. Part of the problem was that UCW never got the funding it was promised. But more fundamentally, Traldi saw the contradiction in the messages LiUNA was trying to send. “Are we on the side of immigrant workers, or not?” he said in an interview later. “Any union has to make that decision in order to be honest with community organizations, politicians, and workers themselves. The moment a union says, I’m for some workers and not others, it starts sounding like a special interest.”

(Photograph by Darrow Montgomery)

Days later, Traldi was let go, as was Guzman. They quickly got new jobs with SEIU, which had scooped up Shepherd as soon as he left UCW.

After the departure of the director and two senior organizers, the UCW campaign started to crumble, with staffers confused and demoralized. Out at the work sites, engaged workers went “off the program,” according to the young Latina organizer (she quit this Monday, after being hired by SEIU as well). It doesn’t take much to break someone’s trust.

Contemplating the aftermath, Guzman brought up the people Southland had brought in to dissuade workers from joining the union.

“The union buster will sit down and say look, I’ve worked at unions before, they really just want your money. I think their rap was that ‘other unions, like in the nursing homes, those are good unions, but the unions in construction, they’re not that good,” Guzman said, and then paused to think for a second. “Like, I kind of believe her! I’m sorry to say, but I do!”

The disintegration of the United Construction Workers is a textbook example of a problem that labor scholars have been chewing over for half a decade: Union leaders know they have to bring in new workers, but they can’t override the habits of entrenched, mid-level bureaucrats who think in terms of protecting existing members.

On the highest level, LiUNA talks the talk. The International, headquartered in a stately building just north of the White House on 16th Street NW, doesn’t support E-Verify in the absence of comprehensive immigration reform, and opposes the deportation of undocumented workers. But communications director Rich Greer says they don’t tell regions, district councils, or local branches what to do. If someone calls the authorities on undocumented workers, well, it’s a free country.

“I’m sure we have members who are very frustrated, from all backgrounds,” Greer says. “If you’re a long-time LiUNA member, maybe the son of an immigrant many years ago, these are really tough economic times. So it wouldn’t surprise me if a member wanted to call an immigration officer because they see an immigrant worker working, and they weren’t. And it wouldn’t surprise me if immigrants were more fearful than they were in the past.”

The union has to know that that sort of attitude among older-line members makes it harder to organize new, often Latino, workforces. Unions with the greatest success organizing Latinos explicitly reject tactics like E-Verify, which can exclude potential union members. SEIU, for example, says it can’t prevent employers from trying to check a worker’s papers, but they’ll advocate for them to be given a chance to work toward naturalization instead, rather than being fired or deported.

“It’s our view that our job as a union is to make sure that all workers, regardless of their immigration status, can share in the wealth that they helped create in this country,” says Jaime Contreras, president of SEIU Local 32BJ, on E-Verify. “We believe it’s unfair because it targets the most vulnerable workers in the country.”

Likewise, efforts to unionize entire industries, which UCW wanted to do with D.C.-area concrete work, takes time. SEIU’s Justice for Janitors campaign, which ultimately organized 225,000 workers around the country, took 20 years, vast resources, and a top-to-bottom commitment to expanding the union base, rather than a focus on quick, high-profile wins. “We’re not a hiring hall,” Contreras explains. “We’re in the business of organizing workers and building density in the labor movement.”

Taking on the construction sector is even more difficult in a recession. Another one of LiUNA’s bold initiatives, organizing mostly Latino workers in residential construction in the Southwest, foundered when the homebuilding industry ground to a halt. From a private contractor’s perspective, going union is a sure way to put yourself out of the running for awards from big general contractors like Clark Construction or Whiting Turner, which are under pressure to deliver projects on tight budgets.

Even in a Democratic-run place like D.C., where pols regularly pay homage to labor, unions haven’t had the muscle to push through even their biggest asks. The same unions who helped elect Vincent Gray as D.C. mayor this year made legislation requiring Project Labor Agreements on city-funded construction projects a “No. 1 priority.” The bill tanked last month in the face of business opposition and a city report that calculated—contrary to unions claims—that the law would cost $67 million over four years. (LiUNA, incidentally, was one of the only unions to support Adrian Fenty over Gray.)

Still, the conflict between old-model union structure and what it actually takes to build power among a large Latino workforce isn’t insurmountable. In Los Angeles, for example, a 17-year-old, labor-supported community organization called L.A. Alliance for a New Economy takes a social justice approach to organizing, with a heavy emphasis on research and partnerships with environmental and faith-based groups. In June, the group signed a “Community Workforce Agreement” with the Port of Los Angeles, under which the employers agree to hire from the local community through union apprenticeship programs, and pay good wages with health benefits.

That kind of comprehensive approach doesn’t exist in the D.C. area. It won’t, unless unions truly make a choice.

For now, the people most happy about the state of the UCW campaign are the firms it targeted. Back at the Consolidated Forensics construction site on a sunny November afternoon, the organizers appear to have vanished. Green, Southland’s garrulous CEO, is smiling, calling out workers by name, clapping them on the shoulder with a jovial “‘Sup, man.” Climbing through the building’s soaring floors, Green brings longtime employees to chat, pointing out evidence of humane working conditions along the way. “Look, water!” he says, pointing at a large cooler.

UCW’s organizing didn’t put a dent in his business, Green says. But he’s glad to have a respite all the same. “They may come back at us,” he says, “but not today.”

To build a union from scratch:

  • Pick a target. It’s important to optimize your chances of success by choosing a company where workers will want to organize, and where management might eventually be persuaded to come to the table. Mid-sized companies are sometimes the best, since there are enough workers to create a critical mass of support, but the company isn’t large enough to brush off organizing tactics.
  • Identify leaders and create a committee. No union drive will be effective if workers themselves don’t take the lead to bring on their colleagues. Find people who are well-liked and charismatic, and train them to talk about why the union would help workers.
  • Figure out what you want. Higher wages? More breaks? Better benefits? Pick a few clear priorities and focus on telling workers that’s what you can help them get.
  • Sign cards. Under current law, if 30 percent of employees sign an “authorization card,” the National Labor Relations Board may certify a union election. If more than half of a company’s employees sign cards, and the NLRB determines that the company has engaged in tactics that would make an election unsuccessful, the union may be automatically recognized.
  • File Unfair Labor Practice charges with the NLRB, which may result in judgments against the employer and build your case for unionization.
  • Optional: Get the company to sign a neutrality agreement, by which they commit to not make negative statements about the union, easing the election process.
  • Win the election.
  • Negotiate a contract.
  • Move on to the next company. Unions are stronger when employers don’t feel like they’re putting themselves at a disadvantage by allowing workers to organize.

To prevent a union from taking root in your company:

  • Treat workers well. Satisfied employees are harder to organize.
  • Employ union busters. Bring in former union activists to tell workers how unions will just take their money and dole out work based on seniority instead of merit.
  • Recruit moles. Persuade or pay a few workers to spy on union activity or disrupt it by questioning the legitimacy and motives of organizers in union meetings.
  • Get rid of agitators. Find any legitimate reason to fire active worker leaders, which chills organizing. But watch out for unfair labor practice charges!
  • Say you’ve changed. An admission that you’ve recognized worker concerns and will take steps to address them might convince workers that they don’t need to form a union to get what they want.
  • Lawyer up. Since an NLRB election is a legal process, attorneys can do a lot to cast doubt on the legitimacy of petitions or ask that other divisions of the company be included in the vote, slowing down organizing and showing workers that the union isn’t in control.