- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 10, 2016

A coalition of trade unions is publicly shaming Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski for helping insert a provision into the end-of-year spending bill that massively expanded a guest worker program, which invites a flood of cheap, low-skilled labor from abroad that critics say will drive down wages and take jobs from Americans.

Union officials said Ms. Mikulski, Maryland Democrat and vice chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, betrayed her union allies and working-class Americans by championing a move that potentially quadruples the number of nonagricultural guest workers allowed into the country though the H-2B visa program this year.

The bill would not raise the cap of 66,000 H-2B visas per year, but it would exclude any foreign worker who received one in the past three years. This would allow employers to hire new and returning H-2B workers, raising the number of eligible foreign workers to about 264,000 this year.

“To be blunt, Senator, your actions will induce a race to the bottom on wages and benefits for U.S. workers in impacted industries, including building and construction, and will directly and negatively affect our collective membership,” North America’s Building Trades Unions, a coalition of construction industry unions, said in an open letter to Ms. Mikulski.

The letter, published Sunday in The Baltimore Sun, was signed by the presidents of a dozen labor unions, including bricklayers, plumbers, ironworkers, roofers and the Teamsters.

“We suppose you would like to look the men and women of our unions in the eye, as well as the eyes of non-union construction workers, and tell them that you believe that they no longer need prevailing wage protections, and that they and their responsible employers should compete against ‘low-road’ construction contractors who can assemble a low-wage and easily exploitable and expendable workforce, with no formal assessment, because that is what you have accomplished,” they wrote.

The guest worker measure was inserted into the $1.1 trillion omnibus spending package that passed in December and was quickly signed into law by President Obama.

Conservative lawmakers felt duped by pro-business Republicans, including House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, who delivered the foreign workers as a gift to big business.

The H-2B visas are intended for nonagricultural seasonal workers in industries that can’t find Americans to employ. Critics say it has turned into a scam to undercut U.S. labor markets in industries including resorts, theme parks, construction and seafood processing.

For Ms. Mikulski, the program promised to funnel more white Eastern European workers to jobs on the boardwalk in Ocean City, Maryland, and more Central American workers to pick crab meat on the Eastern Shore.

Ms. Mikulski did not respond to a request by The Washington Times for comment on the union letter.

Mr. Ryan has vigorously defended the expansion, insisting that it wasn’t secretly added to the omnibus and that the Congressional Budget Office estimated that it would add only about 8,000 foreign workers in one year.

“This is a very small provision that was passed in the homeland security appropriations bill last July. It received unanimous Republican votes in the committee. It’s been sitting out here in the light of day since July,” Mr. Ryan said Friday on the Hugh Hewitt radio show.

“It will result in less than 10,000 temporary workers coming here next year for those industries that have work shortages, like surging industries that are seasonal, seafood processing in Chesapeake Bay, the seafood processing industry in Maine, tourism industry in Northern states or the nursery industry in Northern states,” he said. “These are businesses last year that couldn’t find American workers and wanted to bring their returning workers that are seasonal back so that their businesses didn’t shut down.”

He blamed opposition to expanding the program on “lots of misinformation” spread on the Internet.

The lobby clamoring for those supposed 8,000 additional foreign workers included powerful interests such as the American Hotel & Lodging Association, the National Restaurant Association, Associated General Contractors of America, the National Fisheries Institute, the Outdoor Amusement Business Association and the National Hispanic Landscape Alliance.

In the open letter, the union leaders said Ms. Mikulski’s betrayal marked a sad end to her political career.

“It is altogether fitting that you have chosen to retire at the end of your current term. For what was once an illustrious career as a progressive fighter and champion for equality, labor rights and wage parity, has sadly devolved into the spectacle of an out-of-touch politician using her leadership and stature to do nothing more than protect and defend a ‘low road’ status quo that does absolutely nothing for your constituents or the future overall economic and social health of the state of Maryland but does create a host of problems for workers in the construction industry across our nation,” they wrote.

However, the top Democratic candidates seeking to replace Ms. Mikulski in the Senate, Rep. Chris Van Hollen and Rep. Donna F. Edwards, both voted in favor of the omnibus bill that included the guest worker measure.

Ms. Mikulski’s embrace of imported labor also betrayed her constituencies of poor black residents in Baltimore, adding to the economic despair that fueled riots last year in the city, the union leaders said.

Roy Beck, executive director of the immigration reduction organization NumbersUSA, agreed.

“It’s a system that basically allows employers who have large pools of unemployed black Americans available to them in their area and allows them, instead of recruiting and training and hiring from those pools, they can very heavily hire Eastern Europeans to fill these jobs,” he said.

“Ocean City, Maryland, and the whole Atlantic Coast area is a great example,” he said. “Instead of recruiting among this large African-American unemployed young population, they prefer to use H-2B visas to fill those summer jobs. They go to Poland instead of Baltimore to fill these jobs.”

As the unions turned on Democratic lawmakers over the H-2B program, conservative Republican lawmakers turned on party leaders who supported the expansion.

“House Speaker Paul Ryan claims increasing foreign worker visas ‘helps small businesses who cannot find labor when there’s a surge in demand for their labor like seafood processing or tourism.’ This claimed labor shortage is unsupported by jobs or wage data and is political bunk,” Rep. Mo Brooks, Alabama Republican, exclaimed on the House floor.

He noted that 57 percent of Americans without high school diplomas were unemployed in the second quarter of last year.

“That’s a lot of Americans who would love to have those jobs President Obama and Congress denied Americans and gave to foreigners,” said Mr. Brooks. “Unemployed and underpaid Americans desperate for a good-paying job have every right to be angry at a federal government that takes American jobs from American citizens and gives them to foreigners. Americans have every right to be angry at Washington elected officials who care more about special interest campaign contributions than American voters who elected us.”

Sen. Jeff Sessions, Alabama Republican, said Mr. Ryan is wrong about the impact of the change and that the push for more imported labor underscores the disconnect between Washington and voters.

“The House’s inclusion of the H-2B increase underscores that the growing divide between voters and party elites is not simply over means, but ends,” Mr. Sessions said on the Senate floor when the bill passed. “By an overwhelming margin, voters want immigration reduced, not increased. The problem remains that insulated elites think record immigration still isn’t high enough.”

The higher number of nonagricultural guest workers will expire at the end of the year, but opponent are bracing for a push by big business and its allies in Congress to make it permanent.

“This fight has got to be in the open. It’s a good thing the unions are publicizing it because the more publicity it gets, the less likely something like this will get sneaked into next year’s appropriations,” Mr. Beck said.

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