POLITICS
02/07/2013 01:53 pm ET Updated Mar 01, 2013

Unions Push For 'Data-Driven' Fix To Guestworker Piece Of Immigration

WASHINGTON -- As unions and the business lobby meet in talks over immigration reform, the head of the AFL-CIO union federation stressed Thursday that organized labor wants to see a "data-driven solution" in whatever foreign guestworker program Congress produces as part of its comprehensive immigration package.

Each year, tens of thousands of foreign workers come to the U.S. to work on temporary visas, many of them in low-wage industries. Leaders on Capitol Hill have indicated they want to overhaul the current guest worker programs, which businesses complain are too cumbersome and unions complain are rife with employer and recruiter abuse.

Disagreements over these guest worker programs -- sometimes referred to as the "future flow" of immigrant workers -- arguably played a role in derailing the 2007 immigration talks. Now, the AFL-CIO and the Chamber of Commerce have come to the table to hash out their differences.

The business community does not want to see heavy restrictions placed on the number of guest worker visas available to employers, but unions would like to see the availability of visas determined by labor market conditions in particular industries and locations. Without such restrictions, they argue, employers will avail themselves of an unlimited pool of cheap labor, suppressing wages for Americans.

"We're proposing a data-driven solution to address the future flow of workers coming into the U.S. on employer-based visas," AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said on a Thursday call with reporters. "We've constructed a solution that responds to legitimate employer needs while protecting workers."

He said he didn't buy arguments that such a system wouldn't be flexible enough to respond quickly to changes in employers' needs.

"A data-driven system would take care of those things," he said. "The system would plan ahead and be able to predict where shortages were and where. The system is fair, it's flexible, and it meets the needs of employers."

An official for the Chamber, which didn't respond to a query from HuffPost regarding the guest worker discussions, indicated recently that the group does not want to see any kind of restrictions put on visas.

Trumka said organized labor's discussions with the Chamber would continue Thursday and Friday. He described the negotiations as "going well." He wouldn't say whether the AFL-CIO would ultimately oppose an immigration package that included a more traditional guest worker program without data-determined caps on visas.

AFL-CIO officials stressed that the group's top priority was a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented workers who are already in the country. Giving them citizenship would help curb workplace abuses and raise wages for all workers, they said.

"There are many many people in this country who want to work in good jobs," said Maria Elena Durazo, secretary-treasurer of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor. "We can't have this cheap labor pool of 11 million people."

As part of its immigration campaign, the AFL-CIO will be hosting demonstrations this month in Nevada, Georgia, Colorado, Washington, Oregon, California, Florida and Texas.

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