Ernie Miller starts the day off at 5 a.m. with a smile, a pocketful of pamphlets and a cooler full of water as he tries to recruit Latino workers near Catonsville for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local 70.
But by 6:30 a.m., he has depleted his supply of pamphlets, water and much of his optimism. "This is like banging your head against a wall," he said.
Experts and union organizers say that immigrant workers, particularly Latinos, are becoming increasingly important to Baltimore-area unions. Many have recently hired Spanish-speaking organizers or developed a program aimed at Latinos, a well-established practice in cities like Los Angeles, New York and Washington.
But recruiting Latinos can be difficult for organizers like Miller and his partner, Jerry Deinlein Sr. Many they try to contact are fearful of retribution from employers or deportation. Neither Miller nor Deinlein speaks Spanish well and must depend on translators to talk to workers and computer programs to translate pamphlets into Spanish.
"We're learning," Deinlein said. "A lot."
Labor relations experts say that most unions have similar programs targeting immigrants. In the past, many unions took a hard stance against immigrant labor, fearing they would work for low wages and take jobs from union members. But "unions have learned that if you do not protect the immigrants, you undermine the protection for everyone else," said Marley Weiss, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Law who focuses on immigration law.
Immigrants are often among the most exploited employees, experts say. In a 2001 study conducted by the AFL-CIO, 30 percent of Latino workers said they faced ethnicity-based discrimination, compared with 18 percent of all employees.
On a July morning, Miller and Deinlein started at dawn, packing themselves into Deinlein's van with boxes of work gloves, doughnuts and bottles of water before they drove to work sites to talk to workers before they started their shifts.
"Hey, do you want better wages?" Deinlein asked the workers in English as they gathered around trucks. "How about a doughnut? Take two."
While most took the doughnuts and gloves, they seemed perplexed by the union pamphlets Deinlein and Miller offered them. "You want health insurance? You can read about it here," Deinlein asked one man.
"Can you understand me a little bit?" Deinlein asked.
Many unions, especially in areas like Washington and Montgomery County where there are sizable Latino populations, have hired Spanish-speaking organizers. There are about 11,000 Latinos in Baltimore, according to the most recent U.S. Census. There are almost 45,000 in Washington.
"You see that 85 or 90 percent of workers are Latinos and we have to work hard to get them," said Miguel Diaz, a fluent Spanish speaker who has been organizing for the Laborers International Union in Washington for nearly two years.
And out of the 20 staff members at the Service Employees International Union Local 82 in Washington, all but three speak Spanish, said Maria Naranjo, the union's organizing director.
"It's something you have to do these days," Naranjo said.
The service employees union has also negotiated contracts with provisions designed specifically for immigrant workers. A contract the union finished negotiating in May with an association of cleaning contractors in Washington had a provision that allowed workers to keep their seniority even if they have to return to their countries of origins for an extended time to get immigration papers or resolve their immigration status.
Deinlein and Miller haven't thought about extra provisions to offer potential union members although "it's something we should do," Deinlein said.
For now, they will concentrate on basics. Miller is taking Spanish lessons and perhaps they are paying off. "We signed up three guys last week," Deinlein said.