Trumka added that it's a priority for him that such a program includes a path to citizenship for low-skilled immigrant workers, that those workers aren't "tied" to a single employer, and that they are paid wages that are equal to American workers. He also said that labor favors provisions that would allow immigrant workers to reunite quickly with their families in the U.S. He reiterated that the proposed 2007 guest-worker program was a "bad program" that "exploited workers."
"They're not temporary and they're not guests," Trumka said of the foreign workers. "If it allows Latino workers to be continually discriminated against, that would be a deal breaker for us."
The principles agreed upon by the bipartisan Senate group, known as the "Gang of Eight," also call for the creation of a "humane and effective system" to attract low-skilled workers. It would include "strong labor protections" and a path to citizenship for those who have "succeeded in the workplace and contributed to their communities over many years." Future flows would also be based on demand if Americans are unable to fill those jobs.
While the principles appear similar on the surface, how to finalize all of that in writing has proven difficult, according to senators.
"Future flow of immigration into the country … particularly on low-skilled workers and agricultural workers [remain an issue]," Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), a top Republican in the "Gang of Eight," told The Wall Street Journal this week. "The unions for their own reasons, and I am not being critical of them, have always been strong opposition. They feel that they are in a strong position as a result of the last election. So we're having [some] pretty spirited discussions.
"We've still got some significant obstacles and disagreements," added McCain. "Overall, I'm guardedly optimistic we can reach an agreement."
Despite the contentious nature of the talks with business leaders and members of Congress, Trumka said that he is committed to participating in them.
"You always have to go back and forth over that. And we continue to do it," he said.
The Chamber of Commerce said that both business and labor would need to make key concessions in order to agree on a plan to bring in low-skilled labor in order for an immigration reform bill to be successful, calling that an essential part of a final deal.
"A failure to reach an agreement on future flow will jeopardize the entire comprehensive reform package. This would be very unfortunate for the country as a whole," said Chamber spokesperson Blair Latoff Holmes.
Negotiations have proven tough, but Trumka and the labor movement are working to show skeptics they are sincerely committed to passing immigration reform after taking part of the blame for scuttling the effort in 2007.
Certainly, the political dynamics have changed for labor unions in recent years. The union membership rate for U.S. workers in 2012 was 11.3 percent, the lowest its been in decades, according to the Department of Labor. And unions have looked to immigrant workers to refresh their ranks.
That's why Trumka said that the AFL-CIO is willing to put money where its mouth is. In February, the group embarked on a 14-city tour to promote immigration reform. The organization also plans to launch radio and TV ads and knock on doors in the congressional districts of members who are on the fence about supporting immigration reform. Today, Trumka appeared at one of the events in Chicago.
"We're putting on a campaign, the same type of campaign we used to elect the president of the United States. It will be nationwide," Trumka said. "The entire labor movement is united around this issue and we will continue to fight for [immigration reform].
"I am optimistic and I have a lot of hope that it's going to get done," he added. "But hope and optimism aren't a plan. We're putting together a plan that is going to get this done."