Union Leaders Prepare for Final Push on Immigration; Ignore Member Concerns

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Richard Trumka"Comprehensive immigration reform," like virtually any initiative containing the magic word "comprehensive," looks good on the surface. But the details of the comprehensive immigration bill passed by the Senate in June by a 68-32 margin reveal much wrong underneath. Oblivious to this, top union leaders are gearing up for an all-out blitz this fall to secure passage of a similar bill in the Republican-majority House of Representatives. Led by AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka (in photo), they are obsessed with providing 11 million or more persons illegally in this country with amnesty and eventual citizenship, and with enabling millions of family members to come here to join them. Yet the campaign underscores a lack of accountability to dissenting voices within their own ranks. 

National Legal and Policy Center on April 18 explained in detail the egregious nature of the Senate's immigration bill, and the large role that labor unions played in shaping it. The measure had been introduced in full the previous day. Originally weighing in at 844 pages before the inevitable onslaught of amendments (the final version was about 1,200 pages), the bill for the most part was drafted by staffers of Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., the lead lawmaker in a group of senators - four Democrats and four Republicans - known as the "Gang of Eight." These hand-picked immigration enthusiasts held no hearings nor conducted any debate. They even kept fellow senators in the dark. They did, however, pay close attention to a parade of lobbyists with a strong stake in mass immigration. This circumvention of parliamentary transparency was deliberate. The "gang" knew all too well that if exposed to outside scrutiny, the measure wouldn't have stood a chance.

The Senate bill, known as the Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act (S.744), despite its title, in a number of key ways, would serve as a near-blank check for open borders. Not only would it grant amnesty to illegal immigrants already here, it also potentially would triple current levels of legal immigration. Among its provisions, the measure would: enable illegal immigrants here prior to January 1, 2012 to gain legal residence (i.e., amnesty) and eventual U.S. citizenship over a 13-year period; provide green cards to millions of arriving family members; expand dramatically the availability of work visas; and allow persons who arrived here illegally as minors to remain and to obtain legal residence, so long as they finish high school and then enroll in college or serve in the military (i.e., the long-sought DREAM Act). As concessions to concerns over border security and document fraud, the bill would mandate employer use of the E-Verify system to check job applicant eligibility; double the number of U.S. Border Patrol agents; and complete the 700-mile border fence along the Mexican border. Those are needed steps, but architects of mass immigration have a way of playing bait-and-switch when it comes to restriction. It's highly significant that one of the key architects of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA), which eventually provided amnesty to around 3 million illegals, was none other than Charles Schumer, then a representative.   

Organized labor has its handprints all over the legislation - especially the portions that would promote explosive immigration growth. The AFL-CIO, which represents 57 unions, worked closely with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Tom Donohue from the very beginning. Having helped write the bill, union leaders then furiously lobbied to get it passed. The effort paid off. On June 27, the Senate approved the measure by 68-32, with 14 Republicans joining all 54 Democrats in favor. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka beamed, "The United States Senate today moved our country a big step closer to building a common sense immigration system that will allow millions of aspiring Americans to become citizens." Leaving no cliché unturned, Trumka vowed to create a continuous and huge flow of immigration:

There is much that works for working people in the Senate bill. Most of all, it allows people who are American in every way except on paper to come out of the shadows, lift themselves out of poverty and be recognized as contributors to our communities and our country. Unfortunately, the bill has become less inclusive, less compassionate and less just since it emerged from the Gang of 8's bipartisan compromise. We will work to see the bill offer even more protections to workers, more access to needed benefits, a far less militarized, more sensible border security program and fewer obstacles to aspiring Americans. Clearly, no further compromise to the roadmap can be tolerated by the labor movement or our allies.

As this bill goes forward, we renew our call to President Obama to ease the deportation crisis that is wrecking workforces, families and communities. More than a thousand aspiring Americans are being deported every day for no reason other than the absence of a working immigration system in the United States.

Now it is the time for action. Working people are more committed than ever to enacting meaningful, common sense immigration reform with a real path to citizenship.

This statement, steeped in moral indignation and sentimentality, underscores Trumka's conviction that immigration - regardless of legality, country of origin or ulterior motive - is an unalloyed good. Any effort to deport persons illegally here, or to prevent illegal entry from another country, constitutes a denial of elementary compassion and justice. Any effort to restrict availability of public benefits to immigrants, legal or otherwise, likewise is unjust. Since the contributions that immigrants make to America are overwhelmingly positive, they deserve full citizenship as soon as possible. Only legal paperwork, xenophobes and compromising legislators stand in the way of this magnificent future. So the official story goes.

In the wake of passage of the Senate bill, Trumka and his allies these last several weeks have been preparing for a big push in the House. Organized labor views immigration as the reigning issue. On July 9, several AFL-CIO-affiliated unions, along with a Washington, D.C.-based lobbying group, the Alliance for Citizenship, held rallies in Washington and several state capitals to urge House Republican leaders to allow a floor vote on the Senate bill. Trumka said that House Speaker John Boehner and other GOP leaders "face a decision that will have ramifications for a generation." In typical overheated language, the AFL-CIO chieftain put forth the choice ahead: "Block a road map to citizenship vote, obstruct the will of overwhelming majorities of working people and face a generation of electoral decline - or support citizenship and embrace America's diverse future." For the record, the Alliance for Citizenship's website declares: "Together we can fix our broken immigration system once and for all, and offer a path to citizenship for 11 million aspiring Americans living in our country."

The AFL-CIO is one among many labor organizations working overtime to deliver amnesty/immigration surge legislation. This past April, upon the release of the Gang of Eight Senate bill, Service Employees International Union President Mary Kay Henry, along with SEIU Secretary-Treasurer Eliseo Medina, issued a statement in support of the measure. Ms. Henry explained: "Today's announcement creates real hope for the vast majority of Americans who think it is time for common sense immigration reform and for the millions of hardworking families who live every day in fear of being torn apart at any moment. This bill would provide a roadmap to citizenship, protect workers and transform the lives of 11 million aspiring Americans by bringing them out of the shadows so they can fully contribute to our shared future." Medina filled in the requisite blanks. "We thank the group of bipartisan senators who introduced this bill today for their leadership that has made common sense immigration reform a national priority," he said. "Their hard work has paid off with a bill that sets the stage for a debate over how we can produce a bipartisan solution that honors our American values and strengthens our economy. This legislation is long overdue and there is no question that our immigration system is broken." Medina put his words into action last Thursday,  August 1, by getting arrested on Capitol Hill "marching with his immigrant rights brothers and sisters," as the SEIU website put it. At least 30 others were arrested as well, including several union leaders: AFL-CIO Executive Vice-President Arlene Holt-Baker; Communications Workers of America President Larry Cohen; and United Farm Workers President Arturo Rodriguez. 

The script was the same elsewhere. The Teamsters opined: "The International Brotherhood of Teamsters supports a path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented men and women already living and working in this country. Keeping these workers in the shadows would continue their exploitation and the downward pressure on wages and labor standards. Bringing them out of the shadows is good policy." United Food and Commercial Workers President Joe Hansen remarked: "I commend the Senate for taking a major bipartisan step toward making comprehensive immigration reform the law of the land. This bill includes many of the UFCW's principles including a roadmap to citizenship for those already here, strong labor protections for immigrant workers, and a modernized system for allocating employment-based visas based on hard data, not politics." The Laborers International Union of North America declared: "Comprehensive immigration reform must include an earned path to citizenship so there is no underclass of workers that employers can use to drive down wages and working conditions," adding, "LIUNA members and fellow workers will be joining efforts across the country to support a comprehensive reform measure that will help undocumented workers step out of the shadows." And UNITE HERE President Donald "D." Taylor praised the Senate bill as "creating a comprehensive and bipartisan framework for immigration reform."

For now, heaven can wait. This past Sunday, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., though hardly an advocate of immigration restriction, told Fox News that he has no immediate plans to commit to amnesty and immigration surge legislation. Though supportive of the House GOP's "Kids Act" alternative to the DREAM Act, Cantor said he wants something other than a copy of the Senate bill. His statement stands in contrast to one made the previous week by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., indicating that the House could take up legislation as early as October.

Instead of lobbying the House to create its own proposal, all the better to be passed without hearings or debate, labor leaders would do better by their country - and their own members - by paying more attention to dissenting unions who have come "out of the shadows," as it were. These labor organizations, while still supportive of mass immigration in principle, are providing sorely needed reality checks that have gone missing from carefully spun union statements. If only out of self-interest, these dissenting unions are pointing out a number of inconvenient realities.

Communications Workers of America (CWA). With 700,000 members, the CWA, an affiliate of the AFL-CIO, is one of the largest and most powerful unions in the country. It also lately has broken with the official Trumka party line. On June 5, a little over three weeks prior to passage, CWA President Larry Cohen - the same Larry Cohen who would be arrested at that Washington rally on August 1 - termed the Senate bill "appalling." The measure, he said, would "allow preferential treatment by corporations for foreign workers at the expense of U.S. workers." This comment came in the wake of an amendment successfully pushed through by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, that weakened a requirement that employers prove they can't find skilled technology workers here before they can issue H-1B visas. In his press release, Cohen noted:

The changes Senator Hatch proposed in the Judiciary Committee will allow preferential treatment by corporations for foreign-born workers at the expense of U.S. workers. Since the senator made clear that he would not support the bill in the Judiciary Committee without those changes, they were accepted.

Senator Hatch's amendments allow high-tech companies to bring in H-1B visa employees even when an equally or better qualified American is available. This is especially appalling when recent unemployment for STEM graduates is above 5%. Senator Hatch also proposed a new formula that will allow for an increased number of new H-1B visas annually and that will underreport the extent to which U.S. tech workers are unemployed, along with the elimination of a requirement that companies attest that they did not displace existing workers in order to hire H-1B visa holders. This, in fact, will pave the way for employers to fire Americans, not for cause, but because they can find cheaper and younger workers.

The rest of the press release, unfortunately, did not criticize other parts of the bill. Indeed, the CWA called the measure "long overdue." Union spokeswoman Candice Johnson affirmed to the Washington Examiner via email: "CWA supports immigration reform and a path to citizenship for 11 million immigrants. We will try to gain improvements in H-1B areas, but overall we support reform. There will be compromises on both sides."

International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW). Like the CWA, the Electrical Workers union opposes adding more foreign guest workers to electricians and other construction trades. In a June 20 letter to senators, IBEW President Edwin Hill urged lawmakers to consider the impact of raising levels of immigrants workers in the construction labor force, many of whom are less skilled and more subject to employer exploitation. Hill supported sensible amendments to the Gang of Eight bill that would require employers to give American workers first priority for all jobs, hold the present annual H-1B cap to 65,000 workers, and limit the availability of visas in all guest worker programs whenever the U.S. economy is at less than full employment. For good measure, AFL-CIO Building and Construction Trades Department President Sean McGarvey stated that America does not suffer from a shortage of workers, but rather a shortage of job opportunities.

National Immigration and Customs Enforcement Council. The council, an affiliate of the AFL-CIO-affiliated American Federation of Government Employees, represents more than 7,500 employees of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement who work on the front lines of combating drug smugglers, human traffickers and other criminals who seek to cross our borders. And its leaders, as Union Corruption Update noted back in early May, aren't happy with the way they've been shut out of the immigration debate by the AFL-CIO. "With most of the nation's immigration enforcement experts at his fingertips, to include immigration officers, agents and attorneys, Trumka has refused our union input on comprehensive immigration reform...He doesn't speak on behalf of our workers," said ICE Council President Chris Crane back in January. Last August, Crane and other council officials and members filed suit against Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and two other top DHS officials claiming they had failed to do their duty by allowing President Obama two months earlier to halt deportations of adult illegal immigrants under age 30 who had come to the U.S. as minors. That presidential action, known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), effectively provided amnesty to would-be beneficiaries of the DREAM Act. Worse yet, in Dallas this past July 31, U.S. District Judge Reed O'Connor dismissed the suit, concluding that the courts lack jurisdiction over what amounts to an administrative case.

American Federation of Government Employees Council 119. This union represents 12,000 officers and staff at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), which like ICE, is part of the Department of Homeland Security. Council President Kenneth Palinkas this May delivered a stern rebuke to the Senate immigration bill, arguing it would create needless risks for national security. He denounced the USCIS as a "rubber stamp" for illegal immigrants - and with good reason. By the end of April, the agency had approved 99.2 percent of applications that had been decided upon pursuant to Obama's deferred arrivals announcement. "The culture at USCIS encourages all applications to be approved, discouraging proper investigation into red flags and discouraging the denial of any applications," Palinkas noted. "USCIS has been turned into an approval machine." As for the immigration bill, he stated: "The legislation was written with special interests, producing a bill that makes the current system worse, not better," emphasizing that the bill "will damage public safety and national security and should be opposed by lawmakers." AFL-CIO top brass, needless to say, did not take any of this into account in their celebration a month later over Senate passage of its immigration bill.

That these dissents spring from self-interest rather than broad principle in no way minimizes their compelling nature. The union dissenters are right: The Gang of Eight bill is harmful to both national security and the economy. Given the nature of unions, the latter concern looms especially crucial. Since the coming of the Industrial Revolution, employers have sought to minimize labor costs so as to maximize capital investment and profit. On a practical level, this means they have a natural preference for hiring people willing to do work as cheaply as possible. That this work force may come from abroad and impose high costs on taxpayers is of relatively little concern to them.  Moreover, to understand current immigration policy is to understand that it is heavily oriented toward this desire for labor cost-savings. According to various estimates, current immigration policy results in an annual cumulative shift of 2 to 3 percent of GDP from labor to capital, or roughly $300 billion-$450 billion. In 2011, the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) published a monograph, "Immigration, Poverty and Low-Wage Workers: The Harmful Effect of Unskilled Immigrants on American Workers" (see pdf), concluding that in 2009 less than 6 percent of legal immigrants were admitted to the U.S. because they possessed skills deemed essential to our economy. Moreover, low-skilled immigrants, especially those here illegally, impose a high fiscal cost because they are much more likely than native-born Americans to live in poverty, lack health insurance and thus use the welfare system. And Harvard economist George Borjas, in a review of the literature for the Center for Immigration Studies (see pdf), this year concluded that all immigrant workers - legal and illegal combined - add a net benefit to the U.S. economy of only two-tenths of 1 percent. Borjas wrote: "There is little evidence indicating that immigration (legal and/or illegal) creates large net gains for native-born Americans." Unions effectively would be less of a countervailing force to employer reluctance to offer generous entry-level wages and benefits.

A large influx of workers with limited education and skills necessarily undercuts union bargaining strength. It is hard to see how it could be otherwise. One thus has to ask: What possesses union officials to work against their own interests? Why has it not occurred to them that mass immigration from the Third World and dramatic relative declines in membership are related? If not out of concern for the nation as a whole, then at least out of concern for dues-paying members, the leadership of AFL-CIO, the SEIU, the UFCW, the Laborers and other amnesty-boosting labor organizations should entirely rethink their position. There are two reasons, unfortunately, why they're unlikely to do so.

First, union leaders are fixated on numbers. For them, increasing the work force  means potentially increasing their own membership. The proposed amnesty and accompanying immigration surge is just the ticket to reverse the long decline in union density. Back in the late 50s and early 60s, close to a third of all U.S. nonfarm private-sector employees on average belonged to a union. Yet by the close of 2012, noted the Bureau of Labor Statistics, union members comprised only 11.3 percent of all workers and only 6.6 percent of private-sector workers. Labor leaders have come to believe that large numbers of immigrants to this country, even if lacking in formal education, job skills and English-language proficiency, can grow their organizations back to former glory. During his 14-year tenure as SEIU president (1996-2010), Andrew Stern made this his cause célèbre, going so far as to lead a walkout at the 2005 AFL-CIO convention and shortly thereafter form a rival labor federation, Change to Win. The move wasn't really necessary. Virtually all union leaders are open borders fanatics. They are unable to entertain arguments, even from within their organizations, that immigrants are not prime organizing material. Yet for the sake of argument, let's assume immigrants can be organized en masse. Experience has shown that unless they are highly skilled - and a great many are not -- they can't drive strong contracts. The SEIU's "victories" during the last decade in organizing and negotiating collective bargaining agreements on behalf of heavily Hispanic nursing home workers in California, by any reasonable measure, were pyrrhic; indeed, the contracts may have left these employees worse off.

Second, as Center for Immigration Studies Executive Director Mark Krikorian notes, union leaders have come to embrace ethno-radicalism. The symbolic turning point occurred in 1995 with the election of the far-Left John Sweeney to the AFL-CIO presidency. In 2000, the federation formally issued an endorsement of amnesty. A half-decade later, the AFL-CIO's aforementioned 50th anniversary convention in Chicago was permeated with resolutions, all passed by voice vote, to promote racial, ethnic and gender "diversity." As part of the press contingent, I witnessed this first-hand. And as I noted the following year in an NLPC Special Report, "Why Unions Promote Mass Immigration: Behind Organized Labor's Interest-Group Alliances" (see pdf), unions have become full partners with corporations and various Hispanic and other ethnic identity organizations in a full-scale demographic transformation. Each segment of the coalition, though for different reasons, has an interest in raising already-high levels of immigration to even higher levels. For unions, this has represented a reversal of a longstanding position. As late as the late-1980s, union officials generally opposed mass immigration. Yet in a 180-degree turn, they now view immigration restriction as not only economically harmful, but also socially unjust and even "racist."

Support for mass immigration is now a default setting for American unions. It is a setting so powerful that it overrides any objections, internal or external. Indeed, it is an obsession. The desire to sell this obsession to the nation explains the mindless, robotic similarity of union proclamations. There are no illegal immigrants, we incessantly are told, only "undocumented" ones. Such persons moreover need to be brought "out of the shadows" and placed on a "path to citizenship," so as to fix a "broken" system. Subject to scrutiny, these prefab clichés lose their power to persuade. That's why union leaders, like their allies in Congress, avoid scrutiny. Their way of fixing a "broken" system, ironically, would accelerate the breakage that has occurred - classic self-fulfilling prophecy. Labor leaders, if they are capable of leadership, should listen to the critics in their ranks.

Related:

AFL-CIO, Senate Snub ICE Employee Union on Immigration Bill

New Senate Immigration Amnesty Plan Bears Union Imprint

Why Unions Promote Mass Immigration: Behind Organized Labor's Interest-Group Alliances