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Immigration Reform: House Of Labor Marches With Immigrants

The complicated relationship between the forces fighting for immigration reform and the labor movement have been on display this week and will be on display this weekend.

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Labor’s involvement in immigration has not always been smooth.  Some unions and locals still  flirt with the anti-immigration side and the rift between the AFL-CIO and the Change to Win coalition has been difficult and made united advocacy difficult at times for the House of Labor.

The biggest sticking point has been over temporary workers or “guest workers.”  America’s experiments with “guest worker” programs have been  huge failures – as they have been almost everywhere in the world.  The  Bracero program brought Mexican labor to the U.S. during and after World War II to fill farm labor shortages, but the workers were poorly paid, poorly treated, had few rights, and were essentially indentured to their employers.  Current temporary visa programs aren’t much better.  The central problem is that employees are tied to an employer and their ability to make money in this country is at the whim of the boss.  In an industry like agriculture where working conditions are brutal, this has severe consequences for the ability of workers to fight for their rights, organize, and stand up for themselves.

During 2006 and 2007, the inclusion of a temporary worker program for future immigrants split the House of Labor in two.  Some unions, especially in the AFL-CIO, were unwilling to support any legislation that contained temporary worker provisions.  In the 2006 version of immigration reform, crafted by Senator Kennedy and Senator McCain, workers would have been admitted under the temporary worker program but were free to change jobs and after a certain number of years in the U.S., they could apply for permanent legal status on their own – without their employer having to apply for them.  The number of visas issued per year would have fluctuated with growth or contraction of the economy.  These caveats to traditional “guest worker” programs were enough to keep many of the Change to Win unions in the pro-immigration reform movement and fighting to pass a bill.

Labor Unity

In 2009, the AFL-CIO and the unions in the Change to Win coalition developed a new approach and joined together to support  a new unified labor position on immigration.  This  unity statement, adopted in April 2009, rejected traditional “guest worker” programs, but called for a mechanism to determine how many visas would be issued in the future for workers:

The system for allocating employment visas—both temporary and permanent—should be depoliticized and placed in the hands of an independent commission that can assess labor market needs on an ongoing basis and—based on a methodology approved by Congress—determine the number of foreign workers to be admitted for employment purposes, based on labor market needs.

The goal is to have a process, but not the one we have now.  The commission would be more flexible than having the level of immigration set through Congressional action (or inaction) – with all the dysfunctional, partisan, and sound-bite driven politics that implies.

But the U.S. Chamber of Commerce hates the commission idea and wants the labor unions to support a “guest worker” program.  And it is all about politics.  Business leaders worry that a commission could be dominated by the unions and may not be as flexible or generous with visas as business wants.  The Chamber prefers a temporary visa program that supplies workers to employers in large numbers if the employers say they want them.  Furthermore, they prefer the workers be temporary so that they do not have the full labor rights of citizens and so the whole idea is more palatable to Republican lawmakers who don’t want a lot of future citizens to get the vote someday.