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Will the unions retreat from their call for amnesty?
Labor and immigration

By Lee Sustar | May 5, 2006 | Page 11

WILL ORGANIZED labor line up behind Democratic Party "compromises" on immigration laws that would include guest-worker programs? Or will the unions stick to their guns in calling for amnesty for undocumented workers?

With tens of thousands of union members participating in May Day marches for immigrant and workers rights, labor finds itself straining to keep up with mass pressure from the growing ranks of immigrants in their unions, who want full equality and justice--amnesty, by any other name.

In fact, the AFL-CIO formally broke with its historic anti-immigrant position six years ago, when the federation's Executive Council voted to support amnesty. Since then, the Democrats' right turn and last year's split in the AFL-CIO has left labor's stance on the issue murky, to say the least.

For its part, the AFL-CIO continues to oppose plans for guest workers and calls for full legalization of undocumented immigrants.

"I believe deeply that immigrant workers are our sisters and brothers and that every person who works in this country is entitled to the full range of rights and opportunities America provides," AFL-CIO President John Sweeney wrote, criticizing guest-worker programs. "We must support immigrant workers because supporting all working people is the core of what it means to be a trade unionist. We are always--always--stronger together than when we allow ruthless employers and the politicians they own to drive wedges between us."

That's an excellent statement of labor principles on immigration. But in that article, as in other AFL-CIO articles and speeches, the A-word is missing. Instead of amnesty, there are formulations like "path to citizenship" reflecting the impossible task of bridging the earlier stand with the Democratic Party "talking points" on the issue.

The breakaway Change to Win (CTW) coalition, however, appears ready to ditch amnesty in favor of a "fair" guest-worker program.

Like the AFL-CIO, the CTW opposes the criminalization of immigrants contained in HR 4437--but the coalition wants everyone to know that it's not soft on the "war on terror." "Border enforcement," wrote CTW chair Anna Burger in March, should "focus on detecting and deterring terrorists and cracking down on criminal smugglers and lawbreaking employers."

Burger is content with guest workers if the program includes "a rigorous labor market test that would determine the need for new immigrant workers and the absence of willing U.S. workers"--a formula that's a concession to the "immigrants steal our jobs" crowd.

And in Burger's proposal, guest workers wouldn't even necessarily get a shot at citizenship. She calls for a "path for foreign workers to self-petition for permanent status" to avoid reliance on employers for sponsorship for permanent immigration.

Another CTW leader, UNITE HERE President John Wilhelm, also publicly backed a Senate compromise calling for guest workers--which shocked many in the immigrant rights movement, given that Wilhem, as head of the then-HERE union, helped initiate the Immigrant Worker Freedom Rides of 2003.

So is support for guest workers Change to Win's official position? Carole Forman, spokesperson for the CTW, said in an interview that the coalition has not formally endorsed any proposed legislation.

But the CTW's leader on the issue is Laborers President Terrence O'Sullivan, who collaborates with the National Immigration Forum, the group of employers seeking a guest-worker program. Another of the biggest CTW unions, the United Food and Commercial Workers, supported guest-worker programs in public statements in March.

And Burger's own union, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), is torn between SEIU President Andrew Stern's efforts to play inside politics in Washington and the demands of the immigrants who make up a huge proportion of the SEIU's 1.8 million members.

For example, SEIU Local 1877 in Los Angeles backed Cardinal Roger Mahoney in opposing a May 1 boycott of work and school--only to be compelled to negotiate the day off for janitors at the city's airport and other employers.

On the other hand, SEIU Local 790, the big public-sector workers' local in Northern California, passed a strong resolution calling for amnesty and supporting May Day actions. And the SEIU International also stepped forward to file a national unfair labor practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board on behalf of workers fired for participating in immigrant rights protests.

The irony is that, while a liberal labor leader like Stern is willing to cut a deal on guest workers at the expense of immigrant workers' rights, it was the conservative Teamsters President James Hoffa who took a hard line against guest-worker laws.

"This proposal is tantamount to government-sanctioned indentured servitude for workers, whose rights and livelihoods would be left in the hands of their employers," Hoffa wrote of an earlier proposal. "Historically, guest-worker programs have only led to the abuse of workers and the conversion of good full-time jobs to temporary positions with low pay and poor working conditions."

Hoffa's position falls far short of amnesty. But it does reflect the fact that millions of immigrant workers are on the move. And when it comes to deciding labor's position on immigration issues, that is what will matter most.

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