Union officials are embarking on what is likely to be a protracted fight with business over the programs that enable immigrants to enter the country for temporary work.
On Tuesday, leaders of two rival labor federations announced a framework for overhauling the U.S. immigration system that includes setting up an independent commission to assess how many immigrants should be admitted to fill temporary and permanent jobs without displacing U.S. workers.
The AFL-CIO and Change to Win propose that such a commission would analyze regional and industry needs to make recommendations to Congress on annual levels of employment visas. The unions argue that current visa levels are outdated and often keep immigrant workers in temporary status, with fewer benefits and job protections. Business groups say temporary-worker programs are effective and don't disadvantage workers.
Given the economic downturn and other administration priorities, several observers said they don't expect quick action by Congress on the complex immigration issue. But the labor announcement is expected to rekindle debate and give congressional Democrats and the Obama administration new leverage to try to push through legislation.
Business groups also favor overhauling the nation's immigration laws and have found common ground with labor on a range of issues. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce supports several of the labor coalition's proposals, as broadly outlined, including granting citizenship to many of the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the U.S., revamping the current system of verifying immigrants' credentials, and revising border policies.
But temporary-worker programs remain a major sticking point. "We think any legislation should allow for a robust temporary-worker program," said Randel Johnson, vice president for labor policy at the Chamber. He said he did not expect immigration legislation to come to a vote until 2011. "This sets the table for long negotiations."
Such programs garner strong support from business, particularly agricultural interests, because the sector says it hasn't attracted U.S. workers in recent decades. Business believes such programs are vital to filling labor-intensive, low-skill jobs that Americans shun.
"Because of domestic unemployment, the guest-worker program flies in the face of the perceived need for such a program," said Bob Gray, chief executive of Duda Farm Fresh Foods Inc., a large grower, packer and processor of fresh fruits and vegetables in California and other states. "Still, we have the issue of whether American workers are willing to work outdoors, in fields and on farms. It's the kind of work that is traditionally hard to recruit and fill."
Trade groups that focus more on skilled workers also favor the programs, and some expressed concern about the idea of creating a new commission to adjust immigrant flows to meet labor demand.
"I think that's just a way to avoid having a guest-worker program, and our view is that there is definitely a need for that," said Dan Yager, chief policy officer of the HR Policy Association, a Washington business group. He said he expected the issue to continue to be contentious.
The move resolves a past division within labor. In the past, the Service Employees International Union has favored a guest-worker program, while the AFL-CIO has opposed it, arguing that some employers seek out temporary foreign workers they can exploit by providing poor pay and working conditions instead of hiring U.S. workers.
Read it all here.