Business-labor talks on immigration are ‘going well,’ says AFL-CIO chief

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said Thursday that immigration reform talks between union officials and the nation’s biggest business lobby, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, are “going well.”

The labor federation and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) have been meeting with the Chamber to try and forge an agreement on how to resolve the nation’s immigration problems.

One of the key issues in the talks is how to handle temporary worker programs. Disagreement over temporary workers helped scuttle the last major push for immigration reform in 2007, and if unions and the business lobby can unite on the issue this time, it would go a long way to securing passage of a bill in Congress.

Trumka said the negotiations were progressing with the Chamber and that the AFL-CIO would be talking to the business group again on Thursday and Friday.

“I think they are going well,” Trumka told reporters. “We have been working in good faith with the Chamber, and I continue to be hopeful.”

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Trumka acknowledged that there are still a number of issues that labor and business disagree on, but noted that he has worked with Tom Donohue, the Chamber’s president and CEO, in the past.

Donohue and Trumka have a collegial relationship, appearing together in testimony before Congress and on television to push more infrastructure spending. The two have also met for lunch privately several times.

On Thursday, the labor leader pushed for “a data-driven system” to determine where temporary workers are needed.

“Instead of a system being out there that’s the whim of any employer, it would be a data-driven system by an independent group that would decide if there are shortages and where they are,” Trumka said. “In the meantime, that would take a little while to set up. … We would have a transitional system of visas in the meantime to meet shortages … until that data-driven system is set up.”

Farms and seasonal businesses are heavily dependent on foreign workers, many of whom are given temporary worker visas to come to the United States. Several in industry are lobbying Congress to expand those visa programs to fill labor shortages.

Unions are critical of temporary worker programs, since they argue it allows employers to exploit their workforce, leading to low wages and poor working conditions. That’s why it is critical that immigrants have a path to U.S. citizenship, according to Trumka.

“Workers without the protections of citizenship are subject to enormous abuse by employers,” Trumka said.

Trumka’s proposal for an independent group to determine where temporary workers are needed tracks with what the AFL-CIO and the Change to Win labor federation, which includes SEIU, agreed to in August 2009. In that agreement, unions called for “an independent commission that can assess labor market needs on an ongoing basis and — based on a methodology approved by Congress — determine the number of foreign workers to be admitted for employment purposes, based on labor market needs.”

The labor leader said the AFL-CIO is still working out the details of the proposal, but it should be flexible enough to meet the needs of all industries

The labor federation plans to launch a campaign in support of immigration reform across the country.

“Remember how labor helped pass healthcare reform, how we helped elect and reelect President Obama? That's exactly how we are going to help pass sensible, humane immigration reform with citizenship for over 11 million people,” said Maria Elena Durazo, executive secretary-treasurer for the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor.

Durazo said over the next several weeks, the AFL-CIO will be having 14 major launch events in cities including Atlanta, Chicago, Houston, Las Vegas, Miami, New York City, San Francisco and Seattle. The labor federation will employ its year-round campaign arm in pursuit of immigration reform.

“That's exactly the field mobilization campaign that we’re launching and it's proof of the AFL-CIO's commitment,” said Durazo, who is also chairwoman of the AFL-CIO’s immigration committee.

Labor will be key during the immigration reform debate. Some Republicans remain opposed to several goals that advocates want in a comprehensive bill, including a path to U.S. citizenship for immigrants, but they are under pressure to bend.

Obama has also sought out unions' input on immigration reform.

Trumka was at the White House on Tuesday for a meeting with the president, alongside other union and liberal group leaders, to discuss immigration reform. The president also discussed the issue with chief executives.