Business & Economics

What immigration reform could mean for American workers, and why the AFL-CIO is embracing it

Robert Reich

Their agreement is very preliminary and hasn’t yet even been blessed by the so-called Gang of Eight Senators working on immigration reform, but the mere fact that AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka and Chamber of Commerce President Thomas J. Donohue agreed on anything is remarkable.

The question is whether it’s a good deal for American workers. It is, and I’ll explain why in a moment.

Under the agreement (arrived at last weekend) a limited number of temporary visas would be issued to foreign workers in low-skilled occupations, who could thereafter petition to become American citizens.

The agreement is an important step toward a comprehensive immigration reform package to be introduced in the Senate later this month. Disagreement over allowing in low-skilled workers helped derail immigration reform in 2007.

The unions don’t want foreign workers to take jobs away from Americans or depress American wages, while business groups obviously want the lowest-priced workers they can get their hands on.

So they’ve compromised on a maximum (no more than 20,000 visas in the first year, gradually increasing to no more than 200,000 in the fifth and subsequent years), with the actual number in any year depending on labor market conditions, as determined by the government. Priority would be given to occupations where American workers were in short supply.

The foreign workers would have to receive wages at least as high as the typical (“prevailing”) American wage in that occupation, or as high as the prospective employer pays his American workers with similar experience — whichever is higher.

The unions hope these safeguards will prevent American workers from losing ground to foreign guest-workers.

But employers hope the guest-worker program will also prevent low-wage Americans from getting a raise. As soon as any increase in demand might begin to push their wages higher, employers can claim a “labor shortage” — allowing in more guest workers, who will cause wages to drop back down again.

So why would the AFL-CIO agree to any new visas at all?

Presumably because some 11 million undocumented workers are already here, doing much of this work. The only way these undocumented workers can ever become organized – and not undercut attempts to unionize legal workers — is if the undocumented workers also become legal.

Remember, we’re talking about low-wage work that U.S. employers can’t do abroad – fast-food cooks and servers, waiters, hotel cleaners, hospital orderlies, gardeners, custodians, cashiers, and the like. (Construction jobs were exempted from the agreement because the building trades are already well-organized and saw more risk than gain from guest-workers.)

They’re the fastest-growing job categories in America, and also the lowest-paying. According to new data out last Friday from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, seven of the ten largest occupations in America now pay less than $30,000 a year.

A full-time food prep worker — the third most-common job in the U.S. – earned $18,720 last year. Cashiers and waiters pocketed less than $21,000.

The trend is in the wrong direction – toward even more of these jobs, and lower pay. And that’s not because of undocumented workers. It’s because of structural changes in the economy that have shipped high-wage manufacturing jobs abroad and replaced other semi-skilled work with computers and robots. If you don’t have the right education and connections, you’re on a downward escalator.

The real median wage of Americans is already 8 percent below what it was in 2000. The median pay of jobs created during this recovery is less than the median of the jobs lost in the downturn.

One way to reverse this trend is enable these workers to join together in unions, and demand better pay and working conditions. And one strategy for accomplishing this is for the unions to embrace immigration reform, and organize like mad.

This is the next frontier for organized labor. Immigration reform is part of its long-term strategy.

Cross-posted from Robert Reich’s blog.

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Comments to "What immigration reform could mean for American workers, and why the AFL-CIO is embracing it":
    • Tom Shillock

      “It’s because of structural changes in the economy…” Well, no it is not the global invisible hand. It’s because of policies implemented by the federal government particularly unrestricted capital flows that benefit owners and managers of capital at the expense of workers.

      Just because undocumented workers become legal does not mean that they can be organized. It would help to force employers to pay H1B imports the same compensation as Americans provided that the law against age discrimination was enforced instead of completely ignored.

      And in that vein it would also help if economists, e.g., Krugman, ceased repeating their unsupported metaphorical mantra about how people who have been unemployed for months have “rusty skills” and are therefore reasonably discriminated against by employers..

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    • greg eversman

      Mr.Reich I apologize for going off subject, but I was wondering if you would do a google search for Pension-law proposal It is a 2 page Wall street journal article about reducing pension funds up to basically 60% for some 10 million ufcw and teamster workers who are now retired. Nobody in the mainstream media is reporting on this. Up to 10 million retirees could be affected by this proposal supported by democrats, republicans and unions.

      My issue is they are hiding this and a lot of people are going to get the shock of their lives. So far I have gotten the word out to over 2,000 people but this needs to be addressed nationally. Please read the article. Thank you sir. So far my understanding is that Senator Harkin has not responded to requests for comment. Thank you sir.

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    • Nicholas Martin

      What’s really new here is that it seems finally people from different political viewpoints are working together and may be actually getting something done (at least on the immigration issue).This is definitely not a “giant leap for mankind,” indeed it is the latest step that is ending America’s “Land of Opportunity” Dream.

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    • Sherman

      What’s really new here is that it seems finally people from different political viewpoints are working together and may be actually getting something done (at least on the immigration issue). Now we’ll wait and see whether the politically divided government keeps up this flicker of momentum in moving forward with other critical issues that are in need to be addressed and resolved with meaningful compromises from all sides.

      [Report abuse]

    • Bill Martinez

      The unions don’t want foreign workers to take jobs away from Americans or depress American wages, while business groups obviously want the lowest-priced workers they can get their hands on.

      [Report abuse]

    • Anthony St. John

      Actually it is worse, America has peaked out on quality of life because too many political, economic, social and other groups and institutions are far too willing to sell out future generations to maximize short term personal greed.

      It’s a fact of like, always has been and always shall be, we are wired to survive today regardless of threats we create for future generations.

      And with 7 billion people, climate changes and declining resources, unless we rewire ourselves to actually practice the Golden Rule while we still have time, then we shall continue on our path of self destruction.

      Right now, Pope Francis is the best bet we have today as a new world leader, that is if he actually takes immediate actions to practice what he preaches as soon as possible while he has the power to make the right things happen for humanity.

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    • Anthony St. John

      Interesting that the AFL-CIO gives any support at all to America’s rapidly escalating “The rich get richer and the poor get poorer” / “low-wage work that U.S. employers can’t do abroad” 21st century economy.

      This is definitely not a “giant leap for mankind,” indeed it is the latest step that is ending America’s “Land of Opportunity” Dream.

      [Report abuse]

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