Labor unites around new immigrant workers rights initiative

A major breakthrough has occurred in the long running struggle for the rights of immigrant workers and their families.

On Tuesday representatives of the AFL-CIO and Change to Win, the country’s major labor union federations, announced agreement on a new legislative plan to achieve immigration reform.

AFL-CIO President John Sweeney and Joe T. Hansen, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union and chair of the Change to Win Federation’s Immigration Task Force, announced the plan in a press conference also attended by Art Rodriguez, president of the United Farm Workers union and Eliseo Medina, executive vice president of the Service Employees International Union. Key components include:

*A mechanism to legalize, and put on a path to citizenship the 12 million current undocumented immigrants.

*”Rational operational control of the border” which “must respect the dignity and rights of our visitors, as well as residents in border communities,” and should focus on controlling criminal activities.

*A “worker authorization mechanism.” The joint union statement says the current method of authorization is “defunct, ineffective and has failed to curtail illegal immigration.” A new program should be accurate and contain due process safeguards, and there must be penalties on employers who abuse the system.

*A key element is that a new mechanism would be created to control the future flow of workers from overseas. “The system for allocating employment visas – both temporary and permanent – should be placed in the hands of an independent commission that can assess labor market needs on an ongoing basis.' The work of this new commission would involve also assessing the impact of the allocation of work-based visas on the working class in the U.S.

Up to now, there had been sharp divisions within organized labor on the issue of new “guest worker programs.”

In the previous three Congresses, Democrats had proposed legislation which would have legalized undocumented immigrants as part of a package deal which would also have increased the number of guest worker visas, plus increased internal and border enforcement mechanisms.

The guest worker aspect was a bottom line demand of those Republicans who were willing to co-sponsor or vote for legalization, a reflection of the wishes of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other employers’ interests. Democrats went along, as at least a few GOP votes were needed to stop a Senate filibuster and get anything passed. But with this and other concessions, and even with millions marching in the street for immigrants’ rights, all bills failed.

Organized labor was badly split over the guest worker issue, a split that became more visible after the Change to Win unions left the AFL-CIO in the summer of 2005. While none of the Change to Win unions saw guest worker expansion as actually positive, several of them (Unite Here, SEIU, FLOC and the United Farm Workers) thought that trading off the legalization of 8 million workers, who could then be more easily organized, against 400,000 hard-to-organize guest workers was a legitimate maneuver under the circumstances. The AFL-CIO, on the other hand, along with several other Change to Win unions including the Food and Commercial Workers, the Laborers, the Carpenters and the Teamsters, were opposed.

The difference of opinion became sharp and public. This meant that there was no united labor push on either Democrats or Republicans to pass the available legislation. This was especially detrimental to the bills’ prospects in districts represented by more conservative “blue dog” Democrats, who were not receptive to pressure from the immigrants’ rights movement but might have responded to pressure from organized labor.

What has made the difference is the election of Obama and the increased Democratic majority in Congress, as well as the general rapprochement between the AFL-CIO and Change to Win camps. Though the U.S. Chamber of Commerce issued a querulous criticism of the new labor-sponsored immigration reform package, they are also not in a good position to be demanding hundreds of thousands of new guest-worker slots while millions of people in this country are losing their jobs.

It is not clear yet when the legislation will be introduced in Congress or by whom, or at what point the Obama administration will want to push it. It is also still an uphill fight, since anti-immigrant agitators will continue to claim that undocumented immigrants are to blame for high unemployment. But it seems likely that the other components of the broad movement for immigrant rights will be able to back this plan and, alongside labor, fight hard for it.