Category: organized labor

The AFL-CIO’s tiny proposed guest-worker program isn’t going to work

Ansel Adams, farm workers in California

Ansel Adams, farm workers in California (Library of Congress)

According to this report, the AFL-CIO wants to cap guest-worker visas at 10,000 a year. This could very well just be a bargaining posture, similar to how the Chamber seems to have floated a (theoretically) uncapped plan that they’re not going to get. But it’s also pretty obviously inadequate to meet any kind of market demand. The unions actually need authorized migration channels that generally meet market demand to keep themselves from being more seriously undercut by unauthorized labor that, notwithstanding border-security improvements, is likely to manifest otherwise.

The Chamber is proposing a 400,000 annual cap, which sounds more realistic. Why the AFL-CIO would care so much about capping guest worker visas for the unskilled is also confusing at first blush, because the AFL-CIO tends to represent semi-skilled or skilled manual workers much more than they represent the truly unskilled (farmworkers and food service workers tend to be in unions that are in Change to Win rather than the AFL-CIO). At some point you’re talking pretty squarely about the proverbial jobs that Americans won’t do, at which point there should be broad agreement that immigrants don’t actually compete with native labor.

One major, sensible thing the unions seem to have wrung from the Chamber is the ability for people on work visas to quit their jobs and look for other work without being deported. A major factor that depresses immigrant wages is the inability to look openly for other jobs. Addressing this through policy should be really helpful in ensuring foreign workers will have similar wage levels to comparable American workers. (Using market mechanisms to do this will probably be more efficient than using regulation to set wage levels.) It’s not completely clear why the Chamber would agree to this, since businesses tend strongly to prefer employees that are tied to them. But it’s good that the sides do seem to agree.

Another interesting part of the proposal is to institute a panel devoted to discerning how many foreign workers are needed by looking at labor market economics. This is much easier said than done. From my experience looking at the UK’s major immigration overhaul in the mid-2000s, this type of data is much more difficult to gather and calibrate on a real-time basis than it may seem at the time legislation is written. The policymaking process ends up being heavily influenced by employers, who, to be fair, probably represent the closest thing to what is objectively the “real” demand for labor beyond what the domestic labor market seems to provide. If labor is concerned about having a government arbiter to ensure business isn’t “gaming” a more market-based system, this kind of setup will work to that end. However, it won’t be extraordinarily efficient at doing what it’s supposed to do, which is discern labor market needs.

The unions’ choice on immigration: The unions don’t really have a choice on immigration

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka (Flickr/Creative Commons)

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka (Flickr/Creative Commons)

I’m not an expert on labor politics, but the basic dynamic between organized labor and immigration isn’t difficult to grasp. Unions want to be able to organize workers and don’t want unauthorized status to cause their members’ wages to be undercut, so they’re all for legalizing existing unauthorized workers. However, additional supply of labor also threatens their members’ bargaining position, so they’re largely against bringing in new immigrants.

The problem, as explained in a 1995 paper by Leah Haus, is that this assumes that governments control migration by fiat. That is, the assumption is that if channels of authorized migration don’t satisfy industry demands for labor, then no labor will arrive through unauthorized channels to fill the gap. This hasn’t been the case, and even if the immigration reform bill delivers on major border-security improvements, it won’t be, since there’s no such thing as a zero-illegal-immigration paradigm.

Consequently, the actual interests of labor are to have legal immigration channels that generally meet market demands, which are much less threatening to the welfare of their members than the risk of a large population of unauthorized workers. Therefore, in theory, unions don’t have much of a choice but to support both these parts of an immigration bill.

Politically, there is tension here between what would be “ideal” for union members and a policy that accords with real-world facts of migration. The unions have to deal with this. SEIU, which typically has been more progressive on immigration issues (partially because of the sectors its members work in), has reached substantial agreement with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, but the AFL-CIO is resistant. The AFL-CIO wants wage guarantees in new immigration programs so that immigrant labor won’t undercut the wages of its members. This is understandable, but it’s politically untenable, because anyone who votes for immigration reform will be open to attack ads that they voted to give higher wage protections to foreigners than to American workers. So it’s simply a non-starter.

This means the AFL-CIO has little choice but to bend. However, if the AFL-CIO stuck to its guns (but SEIU agreed with the Chamber), it would be hard to imagine them blocking the bill, since there are so many reasons for Democrats to vote for it. It’s imaginable that the AFL-CIO could withdraw from the talks and take no position on the bill, since their opposition won’t stop it, it contains things that would be useful to them, and there’s no use getting in the way. In that way, it could look like it stood up for its members while getting what is realistically the best policy option for them.

What is really baffling, though, is the U.S. Chamber’s criticism of the AFL-CIO. There is no discernible reason the U.S. Chamber would want immigration reform to fail. It aims to agree with labor on a framework because doing so would be a boon to the bill. To put it lightly, though, the way to get labor to bend on the wage issue isĀ not to have the Chamber criticizing them. This only signals to union members that the current position best represents their interests. Labor needs to have breathing room to stand down, but this kind of criticism can only entrench their current position.