UNION ORGANIZER Odriel Garcia is tearing through the poorly manicured campus of a suburban Tacoma middle school, trying to find the boss who's only paying his workers about $7 an hour to paint the public building. The workers should really be making the state's prevailing wage--$25.40 an hour.

Garcia, 28, will not slow down, not even after being chided by a colleague to take it easy. "What the fuck do I care? He's a fucking bastard-shit!" Garcia retorts. His posture is pitched forward like a battering ram.

Inside, there's no boss, just more underpaid workers. Garcia takes advantage of the time alone with them, though. He warmly greets the workers--most of whom are illegal aliens--in Spanish. Everyone's amiable enough with the Mexican-born Garcia, until he pitches the idea of fighting their boss for more money. Friendly looks turn into glassy-eyed stares. They're calculating a real problem: Should they risk deportation to get paid what they legally deserve? Garcia, however, is not deterred. "The more they learn about workers' rights, the better off they are," he says. Even after the workers don't respond, he promises to visit some of them at their cramped SeaTac apartment that night.

Welcome to labor organizing in the 21st century: fighting for the rights of undocumented workers. Union organizing isn't what it used to be. Just a few years ago, Garcia and other Latinos were calling unions a country club, with the implicit idea that the sign out front read, "For Whites Only." Now he's an organizer himself, representing one of the Seattle area's most progressive unions, the International Union of Painters and Allied Traders District Council No. 5. "We try to help everybody," Garcia asserts. "It doesn't matter about their nationality. It doesn't matter if they're not with the union."

Organizers like Garcia are at the heart of this new union tactic. The push, however, means adding complications to the old problem of persuading workers to join unions. First, there's the constant fear of generating interest from the law-enforcement arm of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. "Helping" illegal aliens means potentially barring them from the workplace, something the 28-year-old Garcia, who used to be an illegal alien himself, doesn't want. And what about the other side--do current rank-and-file members feel ignored by the new emphasis on immigrants?

Regardless, unions have stepped into this thorny arena for good reasons. For one, they finally woke up to the fact that minority population growth in the U.S. is outstripping white population growth by leaps and bounds. Caucasians can no longer be the unions' sole institutional base. For another, it's easier to be sympathetic with illegal aliens when the country's economy is still booming and most people can find a job. Last February, the AFL-CIO called for a general amnesty for all illegal aliens currently living in the United States. The undocumented workers--who have been accused in the past of breaking strikes and depressing wages in general--aren't the enemy anymore. The enemy is now any company that would exploit workers in America.

Garcia's union has a company that seems to fit that description: Glory Developers Inc., a general contractor from Federal Way that was awarded a $147,451 contract two months ago to paint four schools in the Lake Washington School District. (Glory Developers also has a separate contract to paint the Lochburn Middle School in the Clover Park School District.) The union, which has filed a complaint against Glory Developers with the state's Labor & Industries, claims that the contractor owes 15 workers a total of $40,567 in unpaid wages. The state agency opened an investigation into the contracting firm on August 8. Among other things, the agency has demanded a list of payroll documents from Glory Developers. Company President Hun Young Park was out of the country and could not be reached for comment.

Watching Garcia in action illuminates the problems he faces, even when he's trying to organize against an obvious "bad guy." We visit Lochburn Middle School in Lakewood first. All the painters we encounter there--about a dozen--say they've been working 10-hour days for Glory Developers, but have only been receiving $70 a day. Garcia confronts the workers. Their eyes bulge a little when they discover how much they should be making, but they remain silent throughout much of Garcia's spiel. Most are unmoved. Garcia has brought along Victor Lopez-Garcia, who says he was fired by Glory Developers after he asked for just compensation. One of the painters asks Lopez-Garcia about his situation. "They didn't give me any work anymore--that's it," he replies. Tellingly, this ends the dialogue. "The union guys come to help out, but as soon as the union leaves, they fire us," one painter complains in Spanish. Later on, Garcia drives to the Lake Washington School District to find other painters who can attest to Glory Developers' policies. The schools, however, are mysteriously empty. The walls are only half-painted. It turns out that district officials are refusing to pay Glory Developers any more money, because the contractor has yet to provide the school district with proper employee payroll documentation. (A week after our visit, the school district fired Glory Developers.)

At Norman Rockwell Elementary, we run into a solitary janitor, a heavy white man pushing a mop and bucket. Garcia and the janitor belong to the same union, and they greet each other with huge handshakes. The janitor begins to gossip freely with Garcia, but the conversation turns sour. The custodian is suspicious that the now- absent painters were illegal aliens. Garcia takes him aside, and, well, lies to him. "I told him they had brought some union members from California," Garcia tells me later. This had mollified the unionized janitor, who Garcia says immediately turned his passion from the undocumented workers to the company abusing them. "He said, 'Let's get those motherfuckers!'" Garcia recounts as we drive off to visit another school.

Garcia's mission is based on his fundamental belief that everyone benefits only if you help all the workers, and he won't let much stand in his way from pursuing that--not exploitative companies, not reluctant illegal aliens, and not even foot-dragging members of his own union.