Friday, April 14, 2006

Labor unions, which are among the Democratic Party’s most loyal supporters, are deeply at odds with the party’s push for a guest-worker program, and many Capitol Hill aides say erosion of labor’s support undermined the Senate immigration-reform bill last week.

AFL-CIO President John Sweeney says guest-worker programs supported by top Democrats such as Sens. Edward M. Kennedy and Dianne Feinstein are a “bad idea and harm all workers.”

“They cast workers into a perennial second-class status and unfairly put their fates into their employers’ hands,” said Mr. Sweeney, whose organization represents 13 million workers in 54 unions.

While labor unions say they want immigration reform, there is division among unions who support guest workers, such as the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), and those who fear current Senate proposals will flood the U.S. job market and further undercut American workers with cheap labor.

“This is the corporate strategy in this country now, and Congress seems to be embracing it,” Sen. Byron L. Dorgan, North Dakota Democrat, told CNN’s Lou Dobbs last week.

“The corporate strategy is export good American jobs and then import cheap labor,” he said. “That might be good corporate strategy, but in my judgment, it’s not good for the American worker.”

The proposal of Mrs. Feinstein, of California, would allow for 1.5 million workers over five years to come to the U.S. to work in the agricultural industry.

Mr. Kennedy, of Massachusetts, has proposed creating a new temporary visa to allow as many as 400,000 foreign workers into the country each year. Under both proposals, workers could apply for citizenship after several years.

It is these very proposals that unions blame for low wages and job losses.

“Our failed immigration policies also have encouraged employers to use guest-worker programs to lower labor standards and working conditions for all workers within our borders,” according to the AFL-CIO’s executive council.

“We’ve seen employers turn tens of thousands of permanent, well-paying jobs in the United States into temporary jobs through the use of various guest-worker programs,” the group said.

Federal laws now require employers to file an “immigrant petition” expressing interest in new foreign workers and showing that the employers have advertised but been unable to fill the jobs with American workers.

The new proposals — both the Senate Judiciary Committee’s legislation and the compromise worked out by Republican Sens. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and Mel Martinez of Florida — would allow a temporary worker to apply for a green card on his own even if there are no available jobs.

It would make between 300,000 and 400,000 temporary workers eligible for green cards and eventual citizenship each year.

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 aliens.

In the Senate last week, Republicans offered two amendments to strip out these changes. But Minority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, refused to allow them to be considered.

Mr. Reid blames Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee and Senate Republicans for blocking the legislation last week, saying that the amendments they offered would “gut” the immigration reforms.

The most offensive amendments offered by Republicans, according to his office, were:

• An amendment by Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona to bar from citizenship any illegal alien who has been convicted of a felony or three misdemeanors or has ignored a court order to leave the country.

• An amendment by Sen. Johnny Isakson of Georgia to delay enactment of the guest-worker program until the Secretary of Homeland Security certifies that the border is secure.

• An amendment by Sens. James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma and David Vitter of Louisiana to authorize the “Minutemen” volunteer border watch program along the U.S.-Mexico border.

• An amendment by Mr. Inhofe to make English the official language of the U.S.

Mr. Reid also blamed President Bush for the immigration legislation breakdown in the Senate.

“If the president is serious about moving forward, then he should join me in calling on Senator Frist to bring immigration reform back to the Senate Floor when we return,” he said in a statement yesterday.

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