What immigration reform could mean for US workers

Immigration reform is part of organized labor's long-term strategy, Reich writes.

Jorge Duenes/Reuters/File
People stand near the border fence between Mexico and the US in Tijuana, Mexico. The only way undocumented workers can ever become organized – and not undercut attempts to unionize legal workers – is if the undocumented workers also become legal, Reich writes.

Their agreement on is very preliminary and hasn’t yet even been blessed by the so-called Gang of Eight Senators working on immigration reform, but the mere fact that AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka and Chamber of Commerce President Thomas J. Donohue agreed on anything is remarkable.  

The question is whether it’s a good deal for American workers. It is, and I’ll explain why in a moment.

Under the agreement (arrived at last weekend) a limited number of temporary visas would be issued to foreign workers in low-skilled occupations, who could thereafter petition to become American citizens.

The agreement is an important step toward a comprehensive immigration reform package to be introduced in the Senate later this month. Disagreement over allowing in low-skilled workers helped derail immigration reform in 2007. 

The unions don’t want foreign workers to take jobs away from Americans or depress American wages, while business groups obviously want the lowest-priced workers they can get their hands on.

So they’ve compromised on a maximum (no more than 20,000 visas in the first year, gradually increasing to no more than 200,000 in the fifth and subsequent years), with the actual number in any year depending on labor market conditions, as determined by the government. Priority would be given to occupations where American workers were in short supply.  

The foreign workers would have to receive wages at least as high as the typical (“prevailing”) American wage in that occupation, or as high as the prospective employer pays his American workers with similar experience — whichever is higher.

The unions hope these safeguards will prevent American workers from losing ground to foreign guest-workers.

But employers hope the guest-worker program will also prevent low-wage Americans from getting a raise. As soon as any increase in demand might begin to push their wages higher, employers can claim a “labor shortage” — allowing in more guest workers, who will cause wages to drop back down again.   

So why would the AFL-CIO agree to any new visas at all?

Presumably because some 11 million undocumented workers are already here, doing much of this work. The only way these undocumented workers can ever become organized – and not undercut attempts to unionize legal workers — is if the undocumented workers also become legal.

Remember, we’re talking about low-wage work that U.S. employers can’t do abroad – fast-food cooks and servers, waiters, hotel cleaners, hospital orderlies, gardeners, custodians, cashiers, and the like. (Construction jobs were exempted from the agreement because the building trades are already well-organized and saw more risk than gain from guest-workers.)

They’re the fastest-growing job categories in America, and also the lowest-paying. According to new data out last Friday from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, seven of the ten largest occupations in America now pay less than $30,000 a year. 

A full-time food prep worker — the third most-common job in the U.S. – earned $18,720 last year. Cashiers and waiters pocketed less than $21,000.

The trend is in the wrong direction – toward even more of these jobs, and lower pay. And that’s not because of undocumented workers. It’s because of structural changes in the economy that have shipped high-wage manufacturing jobs abroad and replaced other semi-skilled work with computers and robots. If you don’t have the right education and connections, you’re on a downward escalator.

The real median wage of Americans is already 8 percent below what it was in 2000. The median pay of jobs created during this recovery is less than the median of the jobs lost in the downturn.

One way to reverse this trend is enable these workers to join together in unions, and demand better pay and working conditions. And one strategy for accomplishing this is for the unions to embrace immigration reform, and organize like mad.

This is the next frontier for organized labor. Immigration reform is part of its long-term strategy.

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