The Building Tradesman Newspaper

Friday, July 06, 2007

Unions laud demise of immigration bill

By The Building Tradesman

Any chance for comprehensive reform of the nation's immigration laws finally came to an end June 28, when the U.S. Senate voted failed to get enough votes (46-53) to end debate on the matter.

The bill had a strange bedfellows mix of supporters and detractors. Both Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and President Bush supported the bill, but the hotly contested matter ultimately didn't have enough support among either Democrats or Republicans. Most of organized labor didn't like it, either, even though the alternative is the status quo, which no one seems to think is working.

"While we continue to believe we need comprehensive immigration reform, it must be done in a way that upholds workers' most basic rights and removes economic incentives for exploitation. The immigration bill…does neither," AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumka said.

Still, he added: "The current system is unworkable. It has become a blueprint for exploitation of all workers, both U.S. and foreign-born."

Supporters of the bill maintained that it would offer a path to legal status for some 12 million immigrants, help secure the borders and benefit employers and immigrants through a guest-worker program.

Detractors argued that it would unfairly confer amnesty on illegal aliens and do too little to make the borders safer. They also argued against the feasibility of requiring current illegal immigrants to go back to their home nation as part of the "touchback" rule.

The bill would have created a 200,000-person annual 'guest worker' program, to "provide greedy employers with a steady stream of vulnerable, indentured workers they exploit for commercial gain," Trumka said. "Because workers are wholly dependent on host employers for both their livelihoods and temporary legal status, it is virtually impossible for them to exercise what few rights they have.

"Employers play on this vulnerability to downgrade wages and working conditions for guest workers while lowering standards for all other workers."

The building trades and service and hospitality industries are frequently cited as the major workplace sectors that are most affected by illegal immigrants. The AFL-CIO Building Trades Department said it was glad to see the bill go down.

"We are not against immigration reform," said Edward Sullivan, president of the department. "We simply desire a process that places the interests of American workers at the center of the debate. And this particular effort failed miserably on that score."

The Building Trades Department said that construction work is estimated to be the third largest employment sector for undocumented workers, with roughly 14 percent of all construction workers in the U.S. being illegal.

Sheet Metal Workers President Michael Sullivan said in a column: "The serf-like conditions" for guest workers "will further harm working conditions in a construction industry that has seen wages depressed by as much as 30% since the 1980s."

The often-ridiculously low wages earned by those undocumented workers act as an anchor for all industry wages. Moreover, building trades unions face a never-ending battle to uphold prevailing wage laws for unionized workers on both state and national levels.

Even though they don't like the current immigration system - with the rampant employment of illegal drywallers and cement crews working for a fraction of the pay of American workers - union leaders fear that immigration reform without some kind of wage standards for immigrants will continue to drag down construction wage levels.

For the past several weeks, the Building Trades Department said it had mounted an all-out grassroots lobbying effort to defeat the bill. "Our members have been as engaged on this issue as any I have seen in my lifetime," Sullivan said. "They knew right away this approach to immigration reform completely ignored their circumstances and interests, and that made them extremely angry."

Most political observers now say the immigration issue won't be revisited until after President Bush leaves office.