... 06010/1003

Unions split over immigration debate
Posted by the Asbury Park Press on 05/8/06
A congressional proposal to let thousands of immigrants enter the United States as temporary workers is splitting unions over whether the result would be a surge of potential new members or a flood of exploitable laborers who would drive down wages.

The Service Employees International Union, which represents many lower-wage workers such as janitors, and Unite Here, which serves hotel and restaurant employees, support the proposal to allow as many as 400,000 immigrants to enter the United States annually. The AFL-CIO, a federation of unions representing such higher-wage workers as auto workers, machinists and electricians, opposes any guest-worker plan.

"We're basically looking at it through different lenses,'' said Eliseo Medina, a vice president of the Washington-based SEIU, which claims more immigrant members than any other union. "There's a difference of vantage points.''

The lack of a united front by labor may make it easier for Democratic lawmakers to support legislation that includes a guest-worker program over the opposition of their traditional allies in the AFL-CIO, said Angela Kelley, deputy director of the Washington-based National Immigration Forum, which supports that proposal. "I don't think we're going to lose many Democrats,'' she said.

The split is a part of the broader debate within the labor movement about whether globalization is an opportunity for unions or threatens to accelerate their decline. The percentage of all U.S. workers in unions fell to 12.5 percent in 2005, and union participation rates for private-sector workers fell to their lowest level in seven decades.

The disagreement also represents another example of divisions among the country's 15.7 million union members. SEIU President Andrew Stern last year pulled his union out of the Washington-based AFL-CIO, the nation's largest labor organization, over differences in how to organize new workers.

The Senate has been considering an overhaul of immigration laws, including a proposal backed by President Bush and congressional leaders in both parties to create as many as 400,000 new visas for unskilled workers. Unite Here says such a measure, provided it includes adequate protections, is needed in part because the number of American workers is declining.

"Our view is this is an economic necessity because the native-born
work force in this country will continue to shrink over the next two decades,'' Unite Here Co-President John Wilhelm said in an interview.

To push for passage of the Senate proposal, the SEIU and Unite Here have been encouraging members and local union groups to contact home-state lawmakers as well as Senate leaders to make sure the measure is taken up.

"We've asked all of our local unions to get their members involved,'' Medina said.

The AFL-CIO's Washington staff, meanwhile, has been meeting with members of the House and Senate to explain the union's concerns about guest-worker programs.

The unions aren't the only ones split by the politics of immigration, as lawmakers consider whether to also allow an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants to gain legal status in the U.S.

Republicans in the Senate have been divided between those who want to focus on border security and enforcement measures and those who support creating a new guest-worker program and giving undocumented immigrants already in the United States a path to legal status.

The House of Representatives last year broke with its allies in business, such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the nation's largest business lobby, and approved legislation calling for the construction of 700 miles of fencing along the Mexican border and a new program for requiring that companies verify that they only hire workers who are legally in the U.S.

Unions were united in opposition to that measure, saying it didn't address immigrants now in the country illegally.

Senate proposals would allow undocumented immigrants in the United States for more than two years to apply for legal status after meeting other criteria, such as learning English and passing a background check. Most of the proposals being considered include temporary-worker provisions.

Union opposition to guest-worker programs focuses on concerns that larger numbers of immigrants would drive down the wages of native-born workers, particularly those without a high-school education.

A report by Harvard University economist George Borjas for the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington found that wages for people without a high-school diploma were reduced 7.4 percent by immigration from 1980 to 2000.

Democratic Senator Byron Dorgan raised those concerns when he spoke on the Senate floor to oppose a guest-worker program.

"We can't absorb a massive inflow of immigration from around the world willing to work for substandard wages,'' Dorgan said.

Other economists disagree. "There's quite a bit of evidence'' that the impact of immigrants on the wages of native- born workers is "very low,'' said David Card, a professor of economics at the University of California in Berkeley. The negative effects are "extremely exaggerated by people who are opposed to immigration basically on other grounds.''

The unions also disagree over how best to give immigrant workers legal protections against unscrupulous employers.

"From our perspective, temporary-worker programs, in their very structure, limit their workers' rights,'' said Sonia Ramirez, the AFL-CIO's legislative representative.

The different Senate proposals would let as many as 400,000 unskilled workers come to the U.S. and work for as long as six years. During that time, the immigrants could apply for legal residency and then U.S. citizenship.

Backers of the worker program say giving workers a legal path to come to the United States for jobs will give them more power to fight employers who pay unfairly low wages or put them in dangerous workplaces.

"People with rights are infinitely in a better position than people who have no rights,'' Medina said.

Ramirez said the AFL-CIO would support the hiring of permanent immigrant workers, who could get immediate permanent residency once companies prove they can't find Americans to do jobs.

"If there are long-term needs, then those long-term needs should be filled with long-term workers,'' said Ramirez.