Construction unions bristle at worker visas in talks with Chamber

The strained immigration talks between the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO are being tested further by a demand from unions that represent construction workers.

The influential business lobby and labor federation have been negotiating for weeks in hopes of reaching an agreement on how best to overhaul the nation’s immigration system. Consensus between the two sides could inject momentum into the legislative efforts that are under way Congress.

But the talks hit a rough patch last week when the Chamber and the AFL-CIO sniped publicly over how many visas should be available in a program for temporary workers. 

Unions for construction workers are griping about the number of visas asked for by the Chamber and are demanding that their industry be exempt from the temporary worker program altogether. 

“In the construction industry, there is no need for temporary workers. Period,” said David Mallino, legislative director for the Laborers’ International Union of North America (LIUNA). 

The groups point to the jobless rate among construction workers to argue there’s no need for seasonal help. Sean McGarvey, president of the Building and Construction Trades Department, AFL-CIO (BCTD), noted that the unemployment rate for construction was 15.7 percent for February — more than twice the national average. 

“They are not using the visas available today, so why do they need more for the construction industry?” McGarvey said. 

Exempting the construction industry from the new temporary worker program could endanger business support for a comprehensive immigration reform bill. 

If legislation includes a carve-out for construction, “I think it will be fair to say that we would oppose that bill,” said Geoff Burr, vice president of federal affairs for Associated Builders and Contractors Inc.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce declined to comment when asked about the request from construction unions. 

“This is a subject of negotiations that we are not going to discuss at this time,” said Blair Latoff Holmes, the Chamber spokeswoman.

The temporary worker program has always been the biggest sticking point in the talks between business and labor. Disagreements over the issue helped derail the last major push for immigration reform in 2007. 

Business groups say expanded access to foreign labor is critical for filling open positions employers can’t find American workers for. Unions, however, believe temporary visas lead to low wages and poor workplace conditions. 

“It’s hard to pass the smell test with it,” McGarvey said. “400,000 visas for any occupation that doesn’t require a bachelor’s degree is hard to explain.”

Tensions over the worker program spilled over into public view on Friday. 

Randy Johnson, the Chamber’s senior vice president for labor, immigration and employee benefits, told reporters that the business group had wanted 400,000 visas for a new temporary worker program, only to be rebuffed with an AFL-CIO offer in the low tens of thousands. 

The AFL-CIO issued a curt reply and accused the Chamber of divulging private details from the talks in an attempt to gain more leverage.

The back-and-forth was a change in tone from the previous month, when the organizations released a set of joint principles that they said should guide a new temporary worker program. 

The demand from construction unions is significant because they have a representative in the room for the talks: Sonia Ramirez, the director of government affairs for the Building and Construction Trades Department.

“We are sitting at the table in those discussions,” McGarvey said. “We are going to be engaged until the final bill.”

It’s unclear whether business and labor will be able to overcome their differences in the talks. 

Labor officials argue that construction firms can use seasonal worker visas under the H-2B program to find foreign labor. 

Sixty-six thousand visas are allowed each year under the program to fill temporary jobs that aren’t in agriculture.

“Construction is by nature seasonal, and workers now come in under the H-2B visa program,” said Ana Avendano, the AFL-CIO’s director of immigration and community action. “That seems to us to be the appropriate channel.”

But business has not been a fan of that program.

“We expect the needs will far outweigh that number. Also, the H-2B program doesn’t work very well for the construction industry, which has highly fluctuating and unpredictable workforce needs,” Burr said.

“When the construction industry comes back, we expect that we will experience a significant workforce shortage,” Burr said. “Our members are always going to want to hire an American first. But when you can’t find one, there needs to be another avenue.”

It remains to be seen whether business and labor can unite behind one immigration reform bill this year. 

Burr, as co-chairman of the Essential Worker Immigration Coalition, has been involved in the talks between the two groups. He sounded a sour note on their chances of success. 

“There is a significant impasse. Democrats are not willing to support something unless the unions are OK with it and Republicans are not OK with what Democrats are asking for,” Burr said. “I am struggling to see something right now that both sides can feel comfortable with in the end.”

Johnson of the Chamber has put the chances of success at slightly better than 50-50. 

“It’s been difficult,” Johnson said last week. “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.”