Published on Thursday, February 17, 2000 in the San Francisco Chronicle
Unions Urge Amnesty For Illegal Immigrants Legalized workers would be easier for labor to organize
by Steven Greenhouse

New Orleans - Adopting a significant change in policy, the American labor movement called for blanket amnesty for illegal immigrants yesterday and an end to most sanctions against employers who hire them.

In past decades, labor unions often saw immigrant workers as the enemy, accusing them of depressing wages and breaking strikes. But the executive council of the AFL-CIO adopted a more sympathetic approach, contending that too often, U.S. immigration rules have enabled employers to exploit illegal immigrants.

The new policy comes as business groups are pushing for similar legislative changes to help industry cope with a shortage of workers.

Immigrants make up an ever-larger part of the nation's workforce, and labor leaders are stepping up attempts to unionize hundreds of thousands of immigrants who work in farming, hotels, construction, meat packing and many other industries. Labor leaders complain that unscrupulous employers often fight off unionization drives by threatening to fire illegal immigrant

employees who support unions and by calling immigration officials to deport them.

``The present system doesn't work and is used as a weapon against workers,'' said John Wilhelm, chairman of the federation's Committee on Immigration Policy and president of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union. ``The only reason a lot of employers want to hire a large number of illegal aliens is so they can exploit them.''

Labor leaders said they hope their new policy will help persuade Congress to pass an amnesty law that would enable immigrant workers to stand up for their rights.

``I think the AFL-CIO's decision is going to be a shot heard 'round Washington,'' said Frank Sharry, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, an immigrants' advocacy group.

``You have a variety of employer groups saying, `We need more immigrant workers and we want our workers to be legal,' and you have the AFL-CIO saying, `We want more immigrant workers to be legal and we're willing to talk to employers about their legitimate needs.' You have the makings of a business-labor compact that could draw new immigration policies for the next decade,'' Sharry said.

The labor federation's resolution calls for blanket amnesty for the estimated 6 million illegal immigrants in the United States.

Yesterday's action came after union officials in California, the state with the most illegal immigrants, urged AFL-CIO officials to support an amnesty, telling them that many illegal workers face low wages and lives of misery because of the way immigration rules enable unscrupulous employers to exploit them.

Some advocacy groups criticized labor's change on immigration. Dan Stein, executive director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which has taken a hard line against increased immigration, said the call for amnesty, coming after an amnesty granted in 1986, would encourage more illegal immigration.

Also at the meeting, AFL-CIO officials outlined an ambitious campaign yesterday to persuade Congress to oppose President Clinton's drive to normalize trade relations with China.

The officials buttressed their case by issuing the results of a poll that found most Americans opposed to normal trade with Beijing.

The administration's trade accord with China, if approved by Congress, would remove trade barriers against the Chinese and ease their entry into the World Trade Organization.