For most of their history, labor unions opposed
attempts at loosening immigration laws and often threw their weight
behind restrictionist measures. During the most recent overhaul effort
in 2007, a schism among unions cracked an otherwise willing liberal
coalition and helped defeat the reform bill. But now, in the wake of
Arizona's strict and highly controversial new immigration law, labor has united to support immigration reform with unprecedented vigor.
Richard Trumka, president of the 11.5-million-member AFL-CIO,
gave a pivotal speech on June 18 at the City Club of Cleveland that
crystallized labor's shift in outlook. Trumka, the nation's most
powerful labor voice, made a moral and economic case for reform and
pledged to "face head-on our own contradictions, hypocrisy and history
on immigration." AFL-CIO has joined forces with the 2.2-million-strong
Service Employees International Union and the United Food and
Commercial Workers International Union to pour resources into the
fight, and the three have written a joint letter to Congress detailing labor's "unified position and unfailing commitment" to sweeping reform.
Labor leaders have come to view an immigration overhaul as an
opportunity rather than a threat to their interests. A large population
of unlawful immigrants undercuts both the working class and the
influence of unions, while legalized immigrants could be tapped to
expand union membership. Likewise, joining forces with the pro-reform
and growing Hispanic community can help secure the movement's future.
Labor unions' share of the U.S. workforce has declined steadily since the 1950s, when the figure peaked at roughly one-third. Last year it was 12.3 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
"Immigrant workers are the growth sector in today's labor movement,
so they're a big part of its future," said Kate Bronfenbrenner,
director of labor education research at Cornell University.
Mark Krikorian, executive director of the restrictionist, "low-immigration"
Center for Immigration Studies, put it more bluntly. "Unions obviously
see immigration as their only chance at future growth," he said, "since
American workers have pretty much given up on them."
A January report
by the liberal Center for American Progress and Immigration Policy
Center noted that a large population of unauthorized immigrants - 10 to 12
million, per most estimates - depresses wages for low-skilled jobs.
Unscrupulous employers can hire and underpay unlawful workers, who have
no ability to unionize or push back politically. In other words, the
larger the undocumented population, the smaller the clout of organized
Legalizing unlawful immigrants and ensuring the rights of all
workers, the CAP and IPC study concluded, would "help American workers"
by "rais[ing] the ‘wage floor' for the entire U.S. economy." Newly
naturalized workers could also give unions a boost, particularly if
they view them as allies early on.
"We want a strong legalization program, and we want to legalize as
many workers as fast as possible," said Ana Avendaño, director of
immigration at AFL-CIO, adding that the AFL-CIO supports the creation
of an "independent commission" to structure requirements for future
immigration inflows based on the needs of the economy.
While these undercurrents have been brewing for years, the newly
galvanizing force for labor is the Arizona crackdown on illegal
immigration, which requires law enforcement officials to probe the
residency status of suspect individuals during lawful encounters.
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"Right now, the big fire that's pushing the labor movement is what's
happening in Arizona," said Bronfenbrenner. "It's hurting workers all
over the country." Trumka forcefully criticized the law in his
Cleveland speech as part of "a hate campaign" against "working people,"
one that's designed to "make anyone who might look like an immigrant
live in fear of the police."
Civil rights groups say the law will disproportionately target Latinos - the fastest-growing U.S. demographic, and one that strongly backs an immigration overhaul. Unions are already leveraging their pro-reform stance to reach out to Hispanics - an effort that, if successful, could substantially boost their membership prospects in the long run.
The battle over this issue is ongoing, as five states are currently
developing similar laws to Arizona's, and 17 more have shown interest
in it, according to the think tank NDN. "We're very concerned that Arizona is going to become the model for the United States," Avendaño said.
A sticking point for labor continues to be the expansion of the
current guest worker program, the primary reason for AFL-CIO's
opposition in 2007. This business-backed clause comprises non-immigrant
visas such as the H-1B, which grants skilled foreigners the temporary
right to live and work in the United States. But because these
short-term workers have limited job flexibility and are essentially
unable to unionize, the provision has been a roadblock to labor's goals
of having a politically active workforce and protecting low-skilled
Trumka, who calls recipients of these visas "vulnerable, indentured
workers," reiterated his union's opposition to them in Cleveland. "We
will not support the return to outdated guest worker programs that give
immigrants no security, no future here in the United States, no rights
and no hope of being part of the American Dream," he said, demanding
that all workers be "able to assert their legal rights, including the
right to organize, without fear of retaliation."
But Avendaño declined to say whether AFL-CIO and other unions might
again seek to kill reform over this provision. "It's really hard to
picture how this will end up," she said, adding that labor "won't
support reform that puts working people in a bad position." During the
2007 effort, dissenting progressives such as Sens. Sherrod Brown
(D-Ohio), Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt) cited the
bill's expansion of this program as a prime reason for joining
all but 12 Republicans to narrowly defeat it. Labor unity on the next
effort could play an important role in swinging the votes of liberals.
With the midterm elections approaching, Democrats appear to have put
off immigration reform until next Congress, but have intensified
support for it since the Arizona law's enactment. They released a broad template on April 29 - less than a week after the Arizona bill was signed into law
- proposing to beef up border security, create a pathway to citizenship
and overhaul the systems for employment- and family-based immigration.
After helping Democrats pass health care reform, unions are poised to
flex their muscle on this new priority.
To Krikorian, labor's embrace of immigration reform is part of a
broader cultural shift. "The U.S. labor movement has changed and become
more like European unions - post-patriotic, culturally leftist - and
the change in immigration policy is just part of that change," he said.
For Trumka, however, the case for immigrant rights isn't just about
workers, politics or the economy - it's also about the fabric of
American society. Critiquing the Arizona law, he said, "All of us
should fear such a system. In the end, don't all of us who aren't
Native Americans look like the immigrants and children of immigrants
that we are?"