Part 6: Unions change sides on immigration : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread

Part 6: Unions change sides on immigration Monday, 3 September 2001 13:37 (ET)

Part 6: Unions change sides on immigration By MARK BENJAMIN, UPI Congressional Bureau Chief

(Part 6 of UPI's 14-part series on immigration)

WASHINGTON (UPI) -- When word came this summer that President George Bush was considering taking some of the most aggressive steps to revamp immigration policy since the mid 1980s, it cast a spotlight on a series of unconventional strategic alliances and political somersaults considered bizarre even by Washington standards.

A Republican president is leading the charge to grant some form of legal status to millions of undocumented immigrants, pitting him against members of his own party in Congress -- especially if Bush wants to make those workers permanent citizens. Powerful business groups, like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, are meanwhile bucking a traditional alliance with those conservative Republicans and are clamoring for the legalization of immigrant workers.

And, the business lobbyists have eschewed tradition to join hands with labor unions, who themselves have executed a complete about-face on immigration that political experts have said is particularly illustrative of nearly Byzantine immigration politics.

Faced with steadily declining membership and, unions said, concern for the welfare of immigrant workers, major labor unions have gone from the most tenacious opponents of increasing immigration to the greatest advocates as they seek out a new generation of members.

Union leaders have made their new goals in the debate crystal clear.

"We basically want legalization for everybody who is in this country," Service Employees International Union Vice President Eliseo Medina told United Press International. "In our position, that is natural."

SEIU is the biggest union in the AFL-CIO, with 1.4 million members.

Experts on immigration said unions have changed their song over the past several years mostly in the interest of self-preservation. Just over 9 percent of private sector workers are currently enrolled in labor unions, down from a high of nearly 40 percent at the middle of the last century, according to the libertarian Cato Institute. Until relatively recently, unions have seen largely non-union immigrant workers as a threat to their members' living standards and their own domestic beachhead. The big unions, including the AFL-CIO, now see the immigrants as their possible savior.

"They have given up trying to keep labor competition out of the United States and now what they are doing is trying to incorporate them in the labor movement," said Dan Griswold, associate director of the Cato Institute's Center for Trade Policy Studies. "It is a classic case of, 'If you can't beat 'em, join 'em - or ask them to join you.'"

The vast majority of immigrant workers toil in the service sector, and the change of course by the unions began in earnest after the 1995 election of current AFL-CIO President John Sweeney. Sweeney came directly from the SEIU ranks and understands the complexities of unionizing that growing sector of the economy, labor union officials said.

Union leaders said early efforts to unionize immigrant workers were easily foiled by employers threatening participants with deportation, and unions began to understand that legal status would help immunize potential members from those scare tactics.

"In the early 1990s, unions started to put more resources into organizing. Wherever we went, whatever the industry, what we found was immigrants," Medina said. "We would have an organizing drive that was broken because of threats of deportation."

Medina said labor unions are now at the front of a powerful force of Hispanic leaders, business lobbyists -- and some Republicans concerned with the Hispanic vote -- who are pushing a re-evaluation of immigration policy.

"Labor is playing a major role in this campaign, not only with our own members, but also in building a broad-based coalition," Medina said.

The unions, and the entire coalition, face tough opposition in Congress from other Republicans who have vowed to fight any immigration program -- even a temporary "guest-worker" plan -- if it ultimately leads to permanent legal status and rewards illegal aliens for breaking the law by crossing the border.

The leader of the GOP's Congressional Immigration Reform Caucus, Rep. Thomas Gerard Tancredo, R-Colo., predicted that the unions' effort would only undermine the best interests of domestic workers.

"They are losing members in every other category so they are looking to immigrants to fill out the ranks," Tancredo told United Press International. "But it is to the detriment of the members who are here today. Massive immigration has a significant depressing affect on wage rates."

Union officials also said they have the opportunity to help immigrant workers who are more likely to receive lower pay, poorer working conditions, and fewer benefits than their domestic counterparts.

Most proponents of legalizing immigrant workers argue that most or all employers will certainly use any ambiguities in a worker's legal status to the employer's benefit. Sometimes, employers will even take advantage of temporary work visas where a worker's stay in the United States depends upon the employer.

For example, three major class-action lawsuits are pending against companies like Georgia-Pacific and International Paper for allegedly violating a raft of labor rules for thousands of forestry workers here on temporary work visas. Those alleged violations, lawyers said, were made easier because temporary work visas still tie a worker's residency to a single employer. Asked for response, Jenny Boardman, media relations manager for International Paper, said the company hired contractors to carry out seed planting work. Provisions in those contracts require the contractors to abide by all labor laws.

"I think one of the problems is that the workers can only work for one employer," Derek Dexter, an attorney at the Virginia Justice Center, said. "They can't go anywhere else."

Labor union officials also cite data indicating that legalization alone generally raises worker wages by 15 percent to 20 percent.

"Immigrants have the same problems as everybody else: low wages, lack of benefits. They also get cheated. They don't get overtime and they don't get minimum wage," Medina said.

"But the main difference for undocumented workers is their vulnerability. If they speak up or unionize, the employers can say, 'Listen, I know you don't have any papers and I can call the INS and you are out of here.' That is the single biggest problem, when those workers are vulnerable, it drags everybody's standard of living down."

Some immigration experts think that organizing workers in the highly transitory service sector, marked by high turnover, could be a challenge. They also said they detect a note of irony because the unions, for years, led a movement that helped perpetuate the legal limbo in which many immigrants live. Now, those same unions are turning around and reaching out to the same workers.

"Fifteen years ago, the unions wanted these people stopped at the border and employers that helped them punished," Griswold said. "They played a big role in pushing these people underground."

-- Copyright 2001 by United Press International.

-- Martin Thompson (, September 07, 2001


Why are we even having this discussion???

Fifteen years ago, we enacted restrictions on AMERICAN workers in terms of required Identification, etc., etc., etc. Part of that law package (Simpson Mazzoli) were significant punishments for employers who hired undocumented workers.

Just what the H*LL Happened??? Why haven't these persistant Corporate Violators been hit with RICO and ASSET FORFEITURE???

Who gave the Corporations a pass??? For the last EIGHT years, WHERE WERE THE DEMOCRATS and LABOR LEADERS???

-- lael (, September 07, 2001.

Moderation questions? read the FAQ