New Orleans Senator Mark Rubio of Florida cautions that there may be much work to be done on a new immigration bill, but I really wonder if that actually means that he is not ready to slip from attention yet or is trying to drag a potential bill down with some of his own issues? Optimism broke out when the Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO seemed to come to some tentative agreements on “future flow” of immigrant workers into the United States. Future flow refers to the number of visas that will be given annually to guest workers. Classically, business wants more cheap labor, while labor resists pushing down more skilled wage rates by allowing too many foreign workers into the country. This disagreement was critical to killing the bill proposed by Arizona’s Senator John McCain and others during the Bush Administration.
This is a classic issue between business and labor, but I wonder how much it is really a contemporary economic concern, especially for the declining membership of unions?
On the lower wage side of union membership, the United Farmworkers, who potentially would be most impacted by temporary visas for additional farm labor hearkening back to the bracero program years ago, have indicated for years their willingness to make a deal in this area. The Service Employees, although not a member of the AFL-CIO, is at the table with Secretary-Treasurer Eliseo Medina, a former immigrant farmworker and UFW organizer in his youth, and SEIU has been a leader in advocating for immigration reform even though theoretically its lower wage janitors, landscapers, and others would feel the most wage pressure from lower paid, temporary foreign workers. Many immigrant workers dominate the home construction industry and there is always hue and cry from construction unions about these kinds of issues, but in reality there is little job competition or wage pressure in the downtown, big development construction projects where unions still have density.
Furthermore, other than the increasingly, politically marginalized agricultural interests, the big drool for more visas comes from the high tech industry and its hopes of raiding top flight software engineers and other geeks from around the world. None of these companies, aside from some legacy plant workers for Xerox, are arguably union, so more tech visas is not something that labor is going to care about much.
Reports indicate that the sugar in the deal for labor was raising the minimum wages of visa workers so that a higher floor was set. This is a smart move! Given that we can no longer pretend, as our membership numbers plummet, that we are really protecting members as opposed to just being a cranky, old uncle advocate, by raising the minimum wage standards, we both protect UFW and other unions and help whatever members we have left by giving our unions more leverage at the bargaining table to push up wages by arguing about compression coming from visa workers.
Finally taking a deep drink of reality, rather than having the vapors from our own nostalgia, may have allowed labor to make a good deal on immigration reform, and this is a good thing!