Business and labor make breakthrough in immigration talks

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO on Thursday announced a breakthrough in talks on immigration reform, releasing joint principles for a temporary worker program.

The labor federation and business lobby have been holding talks for weeks on how to fix temporary worker programs. The issue split unions during the last major immigration push in 2007 and played a part in dooming the effort in Congress.

In a lengthy joint statement, the two groups agreed to a set of three principles for temporary workers and advocated for the creation of an independent agency to determine when and where foreign workers are needed.

First, the AFL-CIO and the Chamber agreed that U.S. workers should get “the first crack” at available jobs. Second, they agreed that there are times where U.S. employers will need foreign workers. And third, the immigration process needs to be fixed with a transparent, data-based solution.

Business and labor leaders believe a new agency in the executive branch could provide the solution to the temporary worker issue that has long eluded lawmakers.

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“The power of today’s technology enables us to use that knowledge to craft a workable demand-driven process fed by data that will inform how America addresses future labor shortages. ... We agree that a professional bureau in a federal executive agency, with political independence analogous to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, should be established to inform Congress and the public about these issues,” the joint statement said.

The Chamber and the AFL-CIO said they would work together to move immigration reform forward in Congress.

“We are now in the middle — not the end — of this process, and we pledge to continue to work together and with our allies and our representatives on Capitol Hill to finalize a solution that is in the interest of this country we all love,” the statement said.

The White House called the joint statement a sign of progress in the immigration debate. "We are encouraged by it,” said White House spokesman Jay Carney. 

Temporary worker programs are considered one of the biggest stumbling blocks to passage of immigration legislation on Capitol Hill.

Business groups are pushing for changes or improvements to several different worker visas that benefit select industries such as agriculture and hospitality. They say businesses often struggle to find U.S. workers for jobs in those industries, leaving them no choice but to fill the gap with foreign help.

Unions, however, are heavily critical of temporary worker programs, arguing they can lead to low wages and poor working conditions for immigrant workers.

The AFL-CIO and Chamber said they are hopeful that a solution can be found to bridge the divide.

“Our challenge is to create a mechanism that responds to the needs of business in a market-driven way, while also fully protecting the wages and working conditions of U.S. and immigrant workers. Among other things, this requires a new kind of worker visa program that does not keep all workers in a permanent temporary status, provides labor mobility in a way that still gives American workers a first shot at available jobs, and that automatically adjusts as the American economy expands and contracts,” said the statement.

In the past, unions have argued for an independent commission to govern temporary worker programs. Earlier this month, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka advocated for “a data-driven system” to handle short-term visas for foreign workers.

The Chamber has also been talking to the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) about immigration reform. SEIU is one of the most active unions on the issue and is aggressively campaigning for a comprehensive bill.

The negotiations between the AFL-CIO and the Chamber have been closely watched in Washington. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), one of the lead Democratic negotiators on immigration, last month pointed to the talks as a possible game-changer on the “future flow” of foreign workers into the United States. He hailed the principles announced Thursday as a “major step forward.”

“While the devil will be in the details in terms of fleshing these principles out, our staffs have had very productive discussions with both sides this week. We are very hopeful that an agreement can be reached on a specific proposal in the next few weeks,” Schumer said in a statement.

The talks have been aided by the friendly relationship between Trumka and Tom Donohue, the Chamber’s president and CEO. The two leaders have worked together in the past, specifically in advocating for more government spending on infrastructure, and are known to grab lunch together periodically.

Last week, the Chamber and the AFL-CIO released a joint statement saying they were still negotiating an immigration framework despite a report that said the talks had stalled.

—This story was last updated at 3:22 p.m.