THE AFL-CIO went down to sin city, New Orleans, for its biannual leadership meeting earlier this month and ended up in bed with management on the issue of immigration reform.
Or so it would seem. The labor federation did a one-eighty on the thorny issue, abandoning its long-held call for immigration limits. Instead, organized labor called for amnesty for an estimated 6 million illegal immigrants and an end to the sanctions leveled on employers who hire them.
Business groups were ecstatic. What gives?
To understand labor's newfound generosity with regard to immigration policy, you have to go back to 1986, when then-President Ronald Reagan signed the euphemistically titled "Immigration Reform and Control Act." The bill was Mr. Reagan's attempt -- some called it racist -- to control the tsunami of immigrants that had been crashing across America's vast borders.
The new law hit employers with up to $10,000 in civil penalties for hiring illegal aliens. That disincentive was supposed to stop businesses from creating jobs for illegals and slow the mostly Mexican immigration rate. At the time, most labor leaders thought the law was a good idea, one that would protect jobs for Americans and keep wages from declining.
But the law didn't work that way. The lure of a large population of young, unemployed Mexicans -- made to order for American industry's hunger for low-wage, unskilled workers -- doomed the effort from the start.
Still, organized labor, loping along on the side of xenophobic groups like the Federation for American Immigration Reform (with the ironic acronym FAIR), hoped for the best.
It never came.
By 1995, after witnessing nearly a decade of hopeless enforcement, scads of false documentation and unreliable verification systems, labor pressed the Clinton administration to step up its efforts under the 1986 law. New personnel came in to investigate employers and examine hiring practices. That effort didn't work either.
So labor has decided to cut its losses. Some have already labeled the move a cynical ploy to develop new "markets" for organizing.
Others interpret the shift toward business' immigration posture as a bit of bad bargaining on the part of today's labor leaders. Is amnesty for 6 million illegal workers worth letting business off the sanctions hook in terms of future hiring? Without sanctions, won't companies seek out illegal workers so that the threat of deportation can be used to keep them docile? Labor proposes criminal penalties to prevent this from happening, but a Republican-led Congress, or even a divided one, is unlikely to go for that solution.
Still others, myself included, see a glimmer of hope in labor's turnaround.
Reaching out to immigrants reconnects labor's past to its future. For two centuries, unions in this country have been at the forefront of battles for better wages, hours and working conditions. And who's been at the forefront of those unions? American immigrants.
One labor official called the recent embrace of immigration reform an example of "getting back to our roots." He's right, of course. Equality, inclusion and justice are labor's heritage.
But for several decades that legacy has been buried under the smothering insistence by labor leaders that providing service to existing members came before organizing new ones. In the past several years, that emphasis has been reversed. Bigger chunks of union budgets have gone toward mounting aggressive organizing campaigns.
Along this road, labor seems to have found more than large, needy pools of immigrants workers. The leaders gathered in New Orleans may have found the heart that will make labor a movement again.
Robin Gerber, a senior fellow at the James MacGregor Burns Academy of Leadership at the University of Maryland, College Park, is former political and legislative director for the United Brotherhood of Carpenters.
Copyright 2000 Baltimore Sun