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Jeffrey Kaye

Jeffrey Kaye

Posted: March 16, 2010 08:07 PM

Business/Labor Blowout Imperils Immigration Reform

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As if the prospects for serious overhaul of the immigration system weren't dim enough in an economic downturn, organizations representing business and labor--groups that have supported immigration reform--are now publicly fighting each other.

At issue is the contentious matter of "future flow," the desire by business for legal temporary worker programs. Unions and business interests are at loggerheads over how to regulate the flow of foreign workers. Organized labor has proposed a government commission to set numbers in order to protect American jobs. Organized business prefers a more market-oriented system. Talks aimed resolving differences have broken down, a dispute that has gone public with the release of opposing statements issued by the AFL-CIO and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The groups issued dueling press releases following meetings last Thursday between President Obama and immigration reform advocates.

"A new temporary worker program in today's economy would be political suicide," declared AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka in a strongly-worded broadside aimed at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

"American workers are facing a prolonged jobs crisis and nearly 10 percent unemployment, with no sign of recovery in sight. If immigration reform is to have any chance of passing this year, the Chamber of Commerce is going to have to abandon its insistence on the creation of a new temporary worker program and embrace a solution based on real employment needs," said Trumka on Friday.

On Saturday, the Chamber's Randel K. Johnson struck back. "The AFL-CIO tells the Chamber to 'abandon its insistence' on a new temporary worker program when they know that this is a pivotal area that must be discussed and negotiated. By taking this position, the AFL-CIO ends any realistic chance of legislation this year," said Johnson in his statement. "The new program must also give the U.S. labor market, not a commission, the primary say in how many workers enter the country annually through workable legal programs."

The White House meetings and the public disputes come just ahead of a planned rally for Sunday, March 21 on the national mall in Washington, D.C. Organizers hope that their "March for America" will bring pressure to bear on wavering politicians and will remind them of pledges to reform the immigration system. A chief focus of the Washington demonstration, according to planners, will be a system of legalization that seeks to end deportations and prevent families from being torn apart. For much of the American public, the battle over "amnesty" proposals represent the most controversial aspects of immigration reform. But for business, keeping the immigration valve open so as to allow a supply of foreign labor flowing in has always been a key requirement for immigration policy.

"From the business perspective the most important element of immigration reform is a program to supply the U.S. economy with the workers it needs to recover from the downturn and grow in years ahead, replacing the current unlawful influx with a legal flow," said the Chamber of Commerce's Johnson.

Keeping workers mobile and available to stoke the fires of industry has been a perennial requirement of organized business. After all, imported slaves and indentured servants helped build the United States. I'm not suggesting that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce proposes a pernicious return to bondage; I'm just pointing out the self-interest of business groups which promote immigration reform. A more pertinent analogy might compare modern day immigration advocates from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to factory owners during the times of the Industrial Revolution in Germany. Nineteenth century urban industrialists actively campaigned to have serfs freed from agrarian estates so they would be able move to cities. That way, peasants would be available for industrial labor and not tied to farms.

Organized labor's advocacy on behalf of immigrant workers in the U.S. and its qualified support for temporary worker programs represents a sea change, made haltingly over the past decade. Taken at face value, the AFL-CIO's support of a plan that, as Trumka puts it, "ties the number of new foreign workers coming into the US labor market to established labor shortages" would have old-time labor leaders turning over in their union-dug graves. The AFL-CIO's goal of first protecting U.S. workers while seeking protections for migrants is a logical step for a labor movement that has only gradually and recently come to terms with the reality of migrant workers. But it is no surprise that its position on "future flow" puts it at odds with business interests.

Although any immigration reform legislation will have a hard slog this year, to the extent that a bill will have any viability may be determined by the capacity of labor and business to work out their differences. Immigration reform is going nowhere without Republican support in the Senate, and the chief GOP advocate on the issue is Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina). After meeting with President Obama, Graham who with Sen. Charles Schumer (D-New York) is hashing out the details of the bill, made clear where he stands on the issue of temporary workers. "I ... encouraged the Administration to become engaged with the unions on the creation of a temporary worker program which meets the needs of business community," said Graham.

Forcing concessions from labor is only one part of Graham's strategy around immigration reform. Another arrow in his quiver is the seemingly unconnected issue of health care. "I expressed [to President Obama], in no uncertain terms, my belief that immigration reform could come to a halt for the year if health care reconciliation goes forward," said Graham. "For more than a year, health care has sucked most of the energy out of the room. Using reconciliation to push health care through will make it much harder for Congress to come together on a topic as important as immigration."

Will Republicans really tie an immigration bill to an up or down vote on health care? Will labor withhold support for immigration reform if business prevails on a temporary worker program? Might opponents of immigration reform watch its prospects implode without lifting a finger? Stay tuned.

Jeffrey Kaye is a veteran journalist and author. His book, Moving Millions: How Coyote Capitalism Fuels Global Immigration (Wiley & Sons) will be available in April 2010. www.jeffreykaye.net.