When President Obama delivered a major speech trumpeting immigration reform from Las Vegas earlier this week, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka sat in the front row, right in front of the podium.
Such a show of support from Big Labor would have been unthinkable just a few years ago when President George W. Bush unsuccessfully pushed legislation to offer illegal immigrants a pathway to citizenship. In fact, the AFL-CIO turned against the 2007 deal in part because leaders thought the temporary worker program pandered to corporate interests.
So what’s changed? For one, unions have a much stronger relationship with the current Democratic administration, which bailed out the auto industry and adopted other pro-labor policies. And as the fast-growing Hispanic community demonstrated its political power in the 2008 and 2012 elections, immigration reform rose to the top of the labor movement’s agenda.
A survey of AFL-CIO members in December found 62 percent favor comprehensive immigration reform that includes a route to citizenship.
“Opinion throughout the country has changed a lot, and labor has been at the forefront,” said Michael Podhorzer, political director of the umbrella organization over 57 unions and 12 million workers. “There’s a greater awareness that when immigrants have the same rights of other workers, that helps all workers.”
But the political gamesmanship is already beginning. While immigrant advocates and Democrats largely blame the conservative wing of the GOP for sinking the 2007 legislation -- and fear it will again -- Republicans point to labor’s ongoing concerns about a new guest worker program. That’s a priority for the business community, particularly the agricultural industry, which relies on low-wage, seasonal labor. Unions worry about an easily exploited underclass.
"The labor unions don't like that, and that's going to be a big fight the president is going to have to have if he's really interested in moving this forward," Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a major player in the debate on Capitol Hill, said last week on the Mark Levin talk radio show.
Another sticking point for unions will be making sure the requirements for undocumented workers are not so arduous as to put citizenship out of reach. AFL-CIO leaders say the framework for laid out Monday by a bi-partisan group of senators, including Rubio, is better than the 2007 plan. Another sign of progress is that the Chamber of Commerce and labor leaders have been talking in recent weeks in an effort to reach common ground.
The turning point, union leaders say, came in 2009 when the AFL-CIO and the Service Employees International Union – divided over the 2007 legislation -- drew up a shared set of guidelines for sweeping immigration reform.
“Immigration reform was not party of labor’s agenda years ago because illegal immigrants were seen as competition and cracking down on undocumented workers was what people thought needed to get done,” said Eliseo Medina, the SEIU’s point person on immigration. “After 2009, labor was on record as being for immigration reform and fighting for the rights of immigrants.”
The heavily Hispanic SEIU represents 2.1 million janitors, maintenance workers, nursing home employees, bus drivers and other service workers. “The undocumented are our current members and our future members, so if we are going to reorganize our movement, we need to be on their side,” Medina said.
One high hurdle to reaching an agreement in Congress will be persuading skeptical Republicans that legalizing the 11 million undocumented workers living in this country is not a ploy to boost dwindling union membership and the voting rolls of a friendly Democratic Party. “Republican immigration reformers with an eye to political reality should begin by appreciating that Latinos are a Democratic constituency,” wrote the editors of the National Review Online.
The number of American workers in labor unions dropped by 400,000 in 2012 to 11.3 percent. Union workers made up 20 percent of the workforce in 1983. The ranks have been thinning as manufacturing jobs moved overseas, and more recently, as Republican-controlled state governments enacted right-to-work legislation and limited collective bargaining rights.
After losing the battle during President Obama’s first term over legislation that would have made it easier for workers to join unions, immigration reform looks like labor’s best opportunity in his second term. The political winds are at the movement’s back, with Republicans growing increasingly concerned about the party’s future if it doesn’t attract more Hispanic voters.
“If Republicans are afraid that fixing the immigration system will make more Democrats, standing in the way will be a self-fulfilling prophesy,” Medina said. “If they take it off the table, at least they will have a chance to have a conversation with the Hispanic community.”
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