Union and Business Group Argue Over Guest Workers, a Key to Immigration Reform

The two groups that congressional leaders tasked with coming up with a workable approach to guest workers — a key part of immigration reform talks — appear to be at polar opposites.

On Wednesday, an AFL-CIO official involved in talks with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce took the union’s argument for how it believes guest workers should be handled to congressional staffers. The union, along with representatives of immigrant rights groups, warned against guest worker programs that they say are exploitative and undermine U.S. workers.

In a veiled reference to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the coalition visiting Capitol Hill issued a press release earlier that said that certain “business groups have suggested that Congress create a new or expanded guest worker program to ensure a steady supply of foreign workers for industries that rely on an abundance of cheap labor.”

Last week, the two groups issued their most pointed criticism of each other to date since their talks began, exposing tension that earlier this year they had tried to downplay.

“It is simply untrue that the business community is seeking to pay foreign workers anything other than what American workers receive," said Randy Johnson, senior vice president of Labor, Immigration and Employee Benefits for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. "The unions have jeopardized the entire immigration reform effort, which would provide a pathway to legalization and citizenship for the 10 to 11 million undocumented workers, because of their refusal to take a responsible stance on a small temporary worker program."

The AFL-CIO shot back, saying through a spokesman, Jeff Hauser, "There is an uncomprehending level of anger. We have conceded on so many different grounds. They (Republicans) want to pave the path to citizenship with poverty."

Essentially, business groups favor expanding the guest worker program and making it less restrictive. They argue that employers cannot find enough Americans with the desire or skills to fill certain jobs in industries such as agriculture and construction, and that the Department of Labor’s system for bringing in foreign workers is too bureaucratic and ineffective.

Unions want a guest worker program that provides protections and offers the chance to change employers, which at present is prohibited. They also say that employers must show they’ve made an earnest effort to hire U.S. workers.

“It’s one of the big [issues] right now,” said Naomi Tsu, an attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center, which part of coalition lobbying in Capitol Hill on Wednesday. “Guest workers are routinely shorted wages and they come heavily into debt to guest worker recruiters. We need structural fixes in the guest worker program so that we’re not creating a permanent underclass of workers.”

The guest worker issue scuttled the last attempt at a comprehensive overhaul of immigration law in 2007.

Business groups say that labor unions are concerned about themselves, since guest workers are not union members and unions are struggling with declining membership.

Union representatives say business groups are just using specious arguments to discredit their concerns about guest workers.

“There are economic studies showing guest workers are typically paid less than the prevailing wage in an industry,” Tsu said. “If our economy needs more workers than our country could provide, we should offer higher wages. We would welcome foreign workers in, but they should be able to take any job and not be limited to one employer.”

Tsu said she does not believe the impasse over guest workers will doom the effort to reform immigration laws.

This time, she said, there is too much momentum on all sides for reform.

"The Republicans need it, the president is committed to it," she said.