The leader of the nation's largest organized labor coalition is hopeful Congress will pass comprehensive immigration reform, but said there is a chance labor and business groups may not come to a final agreement on the future flow of immigrant workers to the United States.
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said negotiations continue with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a major business group, over a new visa program to allow low-skilled workers into the U.S. But a bipartisan Senate group drafting an immigration bill has struggled to come up with language that will satisfy business and labor, and the issue has emerged as a major sticking point in the process.
"I'll be honest with you. I can't guarantee we'll get an agreement with the Chamber," Trumka said during an interview with Univision News last Friday. "But one thing I can guarantee you is that we won't stop fighting for immigrant workers until they get citizenship."
A path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, workplace enforcement and border security often attract more attention in the immigration reform debate. Yet, how to handle the future flow of immigrant laborers into the U.S. has loomed as one of the most complex and difficult issues to solve.
In 2007, senators could not agree to include a temporary, guest-worker program for low-skilled foreign laborers, which helped scuttle the overall bill. Labor received part of the blame for the bill's failure since its own factions split over the proposal. The AFL-CIO opposed the bill over the guest-worker program, while the SEIU supported it, despite having reservations.
Trumka was unapologetic for opposing that program, saying that it would have given a raw deal to workers.
"Programs like the bracero program or temporary guest-worker programs where individuals were tied to an employer, they got exploited," he said. "They got cheated out of wages they weren't given what was rightfully due to them. They were forced to work under unsafe conditions. They were forced to accept substandard wages. They couldn't say anything, because if they did, [the employer] would jerk their permit and deport them."
This time around, there are signs that labor organizations and big businesses are closer to an agreement on how to handle lower-skilled immigrants who want to work in the U.S.
After months of negotiations, the AFL-CIO and the Chamber of Commerce agreed on a set of broad principles in February on how to bring in low-skilled workers.
Under this agreement, the government would create a new visa that would allow workers to move beyond a temporary immigration status and provide the option to switch jobs. It would also do it "in a way that still gives American workers a first shot at available jobs." And, the future flow of low-skilled workers would be determined in part by a new, independent federal bureau that would calculate labor needs based on market data.
"It will help all workers, whether they're immigrant workers, new workers, or they have been here since the Mayflower," Trumka said.