Business-labor talks on immigration reform hit skids at worker visas

The closely watched immigration talks between the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO are hitting the skids because of a disagreement over temporary worker visas.
    
The business lobby and the labor federation are clashing over how many temporary visas should be allowed in a new program for immigrant workers, and the gulf between the two sides appears to be wide. 

Randy Johnson, the Chamber’s senior vice president for labor, immigration and employee benefits, said Friday that the trade association has pushed to cap the program at 400,000 temporary worker visas. Union officials are pushing for a much lower figure, he said, in the low tens of thousands.
 
“It's not going to be that high. It will be significantly less than [400,000],” Johnson told reporters.

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Johnson, who is helping to lead the talks with the AFL-CIO, described the discussions with union officials as tough. He pegged the chances of a final deal at just better than 50-50.

“It's been difficult,” Johnson said. “I think we are at a juncture where certainly the next week and a half will tell the tale, but we are going to continue solider on and hope that we get there.”

The business group and labor federation said Friday that their negotiations are continuing, but tensions between the two sides are breaking out into the open.

The AFL-CIO issued a terse reply to Johnson on Friday, expressing disappointment that he was spilling details from the negotiations.

“We are disappointed that the Chamber of Commerce is negotiating through the press and we think they are doing so because of political weakness,” said Jeff Hauser, a spokesman for the AFL-CIO.
 
Hauser said the priority for immigration reform should be a pathway to citizenship, not temporary worker visas.
 
“We would prefer that our friends at the Chamber would talk more in public about a roadmap to citizenship and maintaining family unification rather than divulging private details about talks about their special interests,” Hauser said.

Both business and labor agree that action from Congress on immigration is long overdue, but a consensus on what should be included in legislation is proving elusive.

Disagreement on the visa issue helped dash the last push for immigration reform in 2007, and it has remained a major sticking point between the two sides as lawmakers try to draft legislation this year.

Blair Latoff Holmes, a spokeswoman for the Chamber, said that unions are even considering a temporary worker program is “an important development.”
 
“In 2007, the unions wouldn’t concede there should be a program at all. Now, they are recognizing the importance of a temporary worker visa program, which is an important development. The size of the program is a subject of the negotiations and will be determined by Congress,” Latoff Holmes said. 

"There is still no legislation, which is why we are continuing to highlight the Chamber’s long-standing position on all of the pieces of the pie. It is also why we have been willing to work with stakeholders from both parties to come up with reasonable legislation. The fact that we are wide apart on the number of temporary worker visas per year is hardly any secret."
 
The Chamber and the AFL-CIO announced joint principles on a temporary worker program last month. Considered a good sign by lawmakers, the two sides said then they would continue to work together to finalize a deal.
 
Hauser said the AFL-CIO remained committed to that goal.

“We are committed to staying at the table and we are not going to leave the table until a deal is done,” Hauser said.
 
Both the Chamber and the AFL-CIO said Friday that while they are still in talks, senators and their staff have now taken the lead on crafting legislative language to design the temporary worker program.
 
“The senators, as well they should be, are now taking the lead and their staffs are … we play our role advising each side on our opinions on certain things. But in the end, they're the legislators and ultimately they're going to make the call,” Johnson said.
 
The new temporary worker program is supposed to be part of a comprehensive immigration reform bill. A bipartisan group of eight senators have been working on the legislation, which observers expect will emerge in early April and voted on the Senate floor this spring.
 
Business groups consider an improved temporary worker visa program as essential for that final immigration bill. Companies often struggle to fill jobs with U.S. workers and would like access to foreign labor.
 
Unions, in turn, worry that temporary workers can be exploited by their employers, arguing temporary visas can lead to low wages and poor workplace conditions.
 
Both the Chamber and the AFL-CIO have pledged to campaign for immigration reform this year. The labor federation has already embarked on an effort to hold rallies in 14 cities across the country.
 
The Chamber launched a new website this week to push for immigration reform. On Friday, Johnson said the business group would sponsor ads to support lawmakers that back the reform effort.
 
“We will be doing fundraising and we will ramp up. We're going to try to protect people who vote the right way,” Johnson said. “I'm sure that we will be paying for some ads.” 

— This story was updated at 5:47 p.m.