March 7, 2013 -- 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.
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."