Where Do Unions Stand on Immigration Reform?

Unions find common ground on immigration.

January 22, 2013, 4:56 PM

Jan. 23, 2013— -- For decades, the traditional logic has held that unions and migrant labor don't mix.

Cesar Chavez, the Mexican American labor hero, opposed the use of undocumented immigrants as "scabs" and even had union members form a "wet line" at border crossings to intimidate Mexican workers crossing into the U.S.

See Also: Obama and Rubio Immigration Plans: What's the Difference?

But there are indications that labor unions are now onboard with comprehensive immigration reform. And after they split over reform in 2007, the two biggest union groups, the AFL-CIO and Change to Win, have agreed to a common set of principles.

Unions have plenty of reasons to support reform, according to a recent article in Talking Points Memo. Immigration reform would boost pay for low-wage workers, and that could lead to increased union enrollment. And many unions have undocumented immigrants members, like the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which represents workers in fields like home healthcare and janitorial services.

In addition, unions feel they have an achievable political goal in reform. Eliseo Medina, secretary treasurer of SEIU, told Talking Points Memo that after being "anti-immigrant or at least anti-undocumented immigrant" through the mid-1990, the unions have adopted a new tone on immigration, and are ready for a legislative victory. The country's largest teacher's union, the National Education Association, also supports immigration reform. According to Medina, that means the vast majority of union members nationwide want a change in immigration policy.

But unions aren't on the same page as some other pro-reform groups when it comes to one potential aspect of reform: guest worker programs.

President Obama and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio both mentioned guest workers as part of their early outlines for immigration reform, but unions oppose what they've called "indentured" worker programs.

Republicans and pro-reform businesses consider guest workers an essential piece of reform. And if President Obama's early plans are any indication, Democrats may be open to the idea, as well.

The union stance on guest worker programs has split their coalition before. In 2007, the AFL-CIO opposed a reform effort with a guest worker program, while SEIU decided to support it. The bill ultimately died in the Senate. That issue could fray the coalition this time around, too.

Along with the opposition to guest workers, AFL-CIO and Change to Win outlined their five principles of immigration reform in 2009, a blueprint they're still using today:

1. An independent commission to manage future flows of immigrants

The unions believe that the future flow of legal immigration needs to be flexible and able to respond to the demands of the labor market. They support setting up an independent commission that would determine the number of temporary and permanent visas using guidelines from Congress.

2. Effective workplace enforcement

The blueprint calls for a mandatory system to verify whether employees are eligible to work in the U.S. A federal program, E-Verify, does that now, but it has been criticized for inaccuracy and inefficiency. Some proponents of reform have suggested another option: revamping Social Security cards to make them harder to counterfeit. The outline says it's also important that the worker verification system "contains sufficient due process and privacy protections and prevents discrimination."

3. "Rational" control of the border

The unions stress that they want a "rational" approach to border security. Their main point is that an enforcement-only approach to immigration won't work, and that any enforcement strategy needs to incorporate other parts of reform, like improved streams of legal workers. Any immigration enforcement on the border, the blueprint says, "should respect the dignity and rights of our visitors, as well as residents in border communities."

4. A path to legal status for the 11 million undocumented

The blueprint says that until undocumented workers can gain legal status, they'll continue to drive down wages for legal workers. Whether that legal status means citizenship or something else isn't stated, but the unions want a reasonable and accessible process that encourages people to apply.

5. No new guest worker programs.

One of the principles that sets the unions apart from pro-reform business groups is their stance on guest workers. The unions oppose new guest worker programs, and instead think future flows of immigration should be regulated by the independent commission outlined above. The blueprint cites the "limited civil and employment rights" of guest workers. While not mentioned in the outline, the subtext is that guest workers -- perhaps working without healthcare or other benefits -- could drive down salaries for native-born workers. Even existing guest worker programs should be reformed, according to the SEIU's Medina. Since guest workers are tied to a single business through their visas, "employers use that to threaten and control workers," he said.

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