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Union activists, immigrants rally for workers' rights

Jun. 10, 2000 | 8:21 p.m.

Associated Press Writer

LOS ANGELES (AP) -- Chanting and waving flags of every color, a crowd of union activists and church leaders joined forces with thousands of illegal immigrants Saturday to push for rights for undocumented workers.

Thousands of demonstrators marched around the Los Angeles Sports Arena, then crammed inside until fire officials locked the doors to prevent a safety hazard, leaving an estimated 2,000 to 3,000 people outside.

The atmosphere inside seemed more like a fiesta than a conference as 13,000 people feasted on tacos and burritos while a band played Mexican music.

The conference was sponsored by the AFL-CIO in an effort to repeal a 14-year-old federal law banning employers from hiring illegal immigrants. The nation's estimated 6 million undocumented laborers could be a large new power base for unions.

Organized labor officials have called for amnesty for undocumented workers, saying the 1986 law only punishes laborers, not the businesses that exploit them.

"We are on the side of working people everywhere," Linda Chavez-Thompson, an AFL-CIO executive vice president, told the crowd. "We don't care whether their families came here on the Mayflower or slave ships 400 years ago, or 100 years ago through Ellis Island, or 25 years ago on a plane from Manila, or last year across the Mexican border."

Jorge Sepulveda, an undocumented worker at a Los Angeles auto repair shop, attended the rally wearing a Statue of Liberty crown on his head and handcuffs. His white T-shirt was emblazoned with the words: "Do you know where the liberty is?"

"Sometimes they take one look at you, see you are Latino and know this is someone who gets low pay," he said. "But this is the United States. We're supposed to have rights."

Immigrants from Peru, Mexico, Thailand, Korea and numerous other countries filled the arena waving their home country flags and American flags. Many said they were illegal immigrants.

Rally organizers hoped to generate support for their cause and get suggestions for an alternative U.S. policy on immigrant workers. The current law can be used to deport or fire illegal workers if they complain about labor violations, low wages or lax safety standards, Chavez-Thompson said.

Labor leaders want a new policy that would make it easier to unionize undocumented laborers and harder for employers to punish workplace whistleblowers, she said. It also would help eradicate so-called sweatshop conditions and improve safety and wages for undocumented laborers, she said.

The AFL-CIO still objects to increasing the number of immigrants allowed to work in the country legally.

"The system is broken and we're here to fix it," she said. "In Los Angeles, they know what those problems are, and we're hoping that people here can tell us what would work best for them."

One suggestion has been to form worker centers where immigrants could go to learn about their rights, she said.

Maria Sanchez, a Mexican immigrant and hotel cleaning woman in Salinas, told the crowd her employer tried to fire workers who formed a union.

"Bosses will use immigration against us when they can't beat us other ways," she said. "Amnesty will give all workers the right to win respect."

AP-CS-06-10-00 2105EDT