Striding onto a Seattle-area work site with a white hard hat, Jimmy Matta converses in Spanish with Latino laborers who carry paintbrushes...

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Striding onto a Seattle-area work site with a white hard hat, Jimmy Matta converses in Spanish with Latino laborers who carry paintbrushes, power drills or spackling tools.

How much are you getting paid?

How many hours are you working?

Matta gives them his business card, promises his help and drives off to the next site.

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A decade of organizing Latino construction workers is paying off for Matta, 32, who recently became the first Latino organizing director of the Pacific Northwest Regional Council of Carpenters.

Born in Idaho to illegal migrant farmworkers, Matta spent much of his early childhood in the Central Washington cities of Quincy, Wenatchee and Ephrata and began working summers in the fields at age 10.

He is now among the union’s senior leadership, responsible for organizing efforts in Western Washington, which accounts for nearly half of the union’s 23,500 members in five states.

His promotion “is a big step forward for the carpenters and for the Latino population,” said Chris Elwell, executive secretary of the Seattle-King County Building and Construction Trades Council.

At the same time, Matta and the carpenters union have been criticized for aggressively recruiting and going to the defense of nonunion Latino workers, many of them undocumented.

Sunday in Everett, Matta distributed checks to Latino drywall tapers as part of a class-action lawsuit over wages and overtime he helped bring about against a large Snohomish County drywall contractor.

Critics also have complained that the carpenters union goes beyond recruiting Latino carpentry workers to also solicit Latinos working as drywall tapers, painters and others who typically would be organized by other trade unions.

The carpenters union says its only aim is to help those whose illegal status leaves them vulnerable to exploitation and also those whom other unions have neglected.

Matta’s rise in the union reflects changes within the construction work force, said Eric Franklin, spokesman for the carpenters regional council.

Over the past couple of decades, the construction industry has become dependent on a steady influx of Latino immigrants, many of whom are here illegally.

In 1990, about one in 10 construction workers in the U.S. was Hispanic. By 2005, the rate was nearly one in four; by 2006, Hispanics, most of them new arrivals, filled two of every three new construction jobs, according to the Pew Hispanic Center, a Washington, D.C., nonpartisan think tank.

Nationally, the carpenters union was one of the first to open up to the growing Latino work force, despite political fallout from traditional union members who opposed helping illegal immigrants.

“The membership has been divided over the issue,” Franklin said. “We do not make citizenship a requirement for membership.”

Matta, a U.S. citizen, recalls sleeping in a van as a child along with his Guatemalan parents and sister as they followed the work from Washington to Utah to Oregon.

He dropped out of school at 15 to work full time in the fields. He then went into construction work, opening his own company at 20. After moving to Western Washington, he was hired in 1998 by the carpenters union to enlist nonunion Latinos into its ranks.

He has also helped nonunion workers win back pay.

In the case of Artistic Drywall of Everett, Matta persuaded Latino workers to come forward to testify that they weren’t paid prevailing wages on a Seattle job and were denied overtime.

The company denied any wrongdoing but settled the case for $495,000, said labor attorney David Mark, who helped litigate the case. The average worker will receive $3,000, Mark said, though some will get up to $12,000.

“Jimmy has done a great job of being involved in the Latino construction community and giving them the experience of American unionism for all the right reasons,” Mark said.

In another bid to expand its base, the regional carpenters union signed a deal last year with the Northwest Wall and Ceiling Contractors Association that permits the union to pursue some of the drywall finishing and painting work that historically was performed by members of another union, said Elwell of the building and construction trades council.

The council reprimanded the carpenters union last summer over that contract.

The backlash from other unions led to the carpenters union to withdraw from the trades council in September, Elwell said.

Though their unions have been at odds, Jeff Kelley, organizing director at the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades, District Council 5, praises Matta, calling him “a stand-up guy.”

Sanjay Bhatt: 206-464-3103 or