Strange Bedfellows Join Forces on Immigration Bill

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An unusual coalition of groups including labor unions and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is joining forces support the immigration bill that would legalize millions of illegal workers. The move shows unions' conflicted attitudes toward immigrants as they struggle to stem declining membership.


A call for immigration reform today from an interesting coalition bringing together labor unions and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The Service Employees International Union, or SEIU, says it not only wants to legalize the millions of immigrant workers here already, but also supports a guest worker program.

That position is at odds with the AFL-CIO. As NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports, the disagreement shows the conflicted attitude unions have toward immigrants as they struggle to stem declining membership.

JENNIFER LUDDEN: Unions have opposed illegal immigrant workers about as long as unions have been around. At the turn of the century, Samuel Gompers, the father of the labor movement, made his case while trying to keep Bohemian immigrants from Central Europe out of New York's cigar making shops. He called it simply a case of the self-preservation of the American working class.

In 2000, the AFL-CIO made a dramatic break with that tradition. It decided the best way to boost membership was to embrace the immigrants increasingly filling the ranks of low wage jobs. But the AFL-CIO was only willing to go so far.

Associate General Counsel, Anna Avendano, says making immigrants permanent, vested members of the working class is a good idea; giving a job to a guest worker is not.

ANNA AVENDANO: You staff it with somebody who is a temporary worker, who's only there for a limited period of time, usually with no benefits, usually hired through an independent temporary agency, you're changing the fundamental nature of that job. And that's what guest worker programs do.

LUDDEN: Avendano points to the high tech industry, which has seen in expansion of temporary workers in the past two decades. She contends that's led to more outsourcing, lower wages, and fewer benefits, something she fears will be replicated in other areas if the guest worker program were enacted.

But some analysts contend that without a guest worker program, there's little hope of stemming the flow of undocumented workers across the Mexican border. That seems to be the position of Service Employee International's president, Andy Stern. He said today, immigration reform must stamp out the underground economy this flow produces.

ANDY STERN: An economy where workers have little protection, work for substandard pay, and in hazardous conditions, which undermines standards for all workers in this country, and creates divisions in workplaces and in our communities.

LUDDEN: The SEIU made a high profile break from the AFL-CIO last year, in part over how much to reach out to immigrants. SEIU has led the way for years, and continues to have success. It recently unionized healthcare workers in California and janitors in Houston, no easy thing, says Kimberly Elliot of the International Institute of Economics, when a large percentage of those workforces is no doubt illegal.

KIMBERLY ELLIOT: They're very reluctant to come forward, to any way stick out to assert their rights, because they're afraid of being deported or arrested.

LUDDEN: The U.S. Chamber of Commerce may seem a strange bedfellow for the SEIU, as it calls for a guest worker program. Elliot believes the alliance will have its limits.

ELLIOT: Clearly, the Chamber of Commerce is interested in having access to a larger legal supply of workers. My guess is they have not made a commitment to the SEIU that they will welcome in their organizers to organize these people, assuming that they're allowed in.

LUDDEN: How interesting it would be, Elliot says, if legislation for a guest worker program required immigrants to be given information on their right to unionize. But she doubts that's likely to happen. The Senate takes up immigration reform next month.

Jennifer Ludden, NPR News, Washington.

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