- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 6, 2006

A group of union members booed Sen. John McCain this week because of his support for a guest-worker program for illegal aliens. But organized labor isn’t speaking with a single voice on the contentious immigration issue that is dominating the attention of Congress and has led to weeks of rallies in cities across the country.

Unions affiliated with the AFL-CIO labor federation led the rambunctious protest Tuesday against Mr. McCain, Arizona Republican, during a legislative conference of the Building and Construction Trades Department at the Washington Hilton.

Officials of the AFL-CIO, which represents 13 million workers in 54 unions, vigorously oppose a guest-worker plan because of concern that it lowers wages and can lead to mistreatment of workers.

The division within the labor movement became evident in January when the Service Employees International Union pronounced its unusual alliance in support of the guest-worker program with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a longtime adversary of organized labor.

The Laborers’ International Union of North America joined the SEIU, the nation’s largest union, with 1.8 million members, and U.S. Chamber in support of legislation to legalize millions of illegal workers.

But the Laborers, which represents 700,000 building trades workers, opposes a guest-worker program, a further demonstration of labor’s dissonant voice.

“It’s not just labor. There isn’t a unified voice on the issue in our country,” said Steve Costlow, president of the Communications Workers of America Local 2390, a union in Fairfax that represents 150 Lucent Technologies technicians.

“Immigration has always been a divisive issue within labor. To me, the differences among the unions reflect their structural makeup. It reflects who they represent,” said Ruth Milkman, director of the Institute of Labor Relations at the University of California at Los Angeles.

SEIU locals represent many immigrants who work in the service sector, she said.

“The SEIU wants a path to legalization for its members and its potential members,” Ms. Milkman said.

AFL-CIO legislative representative Sonia Ramirez said an immigration plan shouldn’t include a guest-worker program.

“We disagree that those programs have been successful in the past or can be successful in the future,” she said.

The AFL-CIO opposes importation of foreign workers on a temporary basis, without the right to stay permanently, because of concern that it can lead to exploitation.

The AFL-CIO has argued consistently that guest-worker programs turn permanent jobs into temporary jobs, relegating workers to a second-class status and lowering wages for other workers.

Guest-worker programs wrongly tie workers to employers, Ms. Ramirez said.

Foreign workers who come to the U.S. to fill labor shortages should come as permanent residents, the labor federation argues.

“If you want to solve this problem, have a real debate. You can’t just say no to a guest-worker program,” said Eliseo Medina, executive vice president of the SEIU who migrated to the U.S. from Mexico when he was 10.

The SEIU sees its position in favor of a guest-worker program as more politically viable, said Robert Bruno, associate professor of labor and industrial relations at the University of Illinois.

Business leaders have been strong supporters of a guest-worker program. Businesses now rely on programs such as the H-2A visa that brings about 45,000 agriculture workers into the country every year and H-1B visas issued to as many as 65,000 high-tech and other skilled foreign workers.

In the end, both the AFL-CIO and SEIU may be disappointed, Mr. Bruno said.

“I think the odds of any bill passing are slim,” he said.

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