There is an interesting article in the NYT today about the split between the AFL-CIO and three of the Change to Win unions over the immigration bill before Congress. Although the article is painfully brief and seems more intent on describing a split within labor than actually dissecting why it might be that there are differences within labor, it brings up an interesting point: is the guest-worker program bad for workers who want to form unions to make their lives better, or is it good for them?
Let me preface my response by saying that I know painfully little about this particular immigration bill. I have skimmed the AFL-CIO Executive Council's statement on immigration reform. They cite three basic things that need to change:
- The outsourcing of jobs to other countries. This sounds like the standard AFL-CIO protectionist line, but at least they have the root of the cause underlying causes correct: policies like NAFTA which absolutely restrict the movement of labor while allowing (almost) complete mobility of capital creates a disadvantageous situation from the perspective of workers to the benefit of multi-national corporations.
- Gaming of the current immigration system by corporations. Currently, the only agency responsible for overseeing the proper treatment of undocumented workers is the NLRB. Undocumented workers have no recourse to fair treatment and, thus, corporations use this to their advantage to strike fear into their workers meaning that workers have everything to lose — their job, income, residency, etc. — while the corporations can simply write off any penalties as a "cost of doing business."
- The creation of a guest-worker program create a second-class citizenry in the United States. Here, the AFL-CIO aruges that:
Guestworker programs are bad public policy and operate to the detriment of workers, in the both the public and private sector, and of working families in the U.S. The abuses suffered by workers in the first such program, the post World-War II Bracero program, are well documented. The negative effects of the modern versions of the “guestworker” construct—such as the H1-B and H2-B programs—are all too evident today. Workers around the country are witnessing the transformation of formerly well-paying, permanent jobs into temporary jobs with little or no benefits, which employers are staffing with vulnerable foreign workers who have no real enforceable rights through the guestworker programs. These modern programs have had a major and substantial detrimental effect on important sectors of our economy.
Essentially, the AFL-CIO is looking at the macro-economic picture and looking at high supply driving down demand, and, thus, the value of labor to corporations. As the NYT article points out, labor was behind Democratic efforts to get the number of guest-worker visas halved.
At the same time, it seems like the three Change to Win unions backing this bill — the SEIU, UNITE HERE, and United Farm Workers — are making the same argument that the AFL-CIO is making. While there is no formal statement of policy similar to the AFL-CIO Executive Council statement (probably stemming from the fact that the CtW has very little cohesion, even on this issue the Teamsters are splitting from the federation as it seems they are wont to do), the letter to Arlen Specter and Patrick Leahy from CtW chair Anna Burger is probably the closest thing to the AFL-CIO statement. Both unions are asking for the same things: a full path to citizenship, preventing guest-worker programs to turn into a second-class citizenry, and, most importantly, an avenue for workers to become full citizens of the country.
One could argue that these are really different arguments wrapped in the same veneer of PR double-speak, but I actually believe that the two positions, contrary to the coverage by the NYT are not that dissimilar. What I believe is different is the general goal of the two groups. On the one hand, the AFL-CIO sees the globalization of capital flows without the attendant globalization of labor flows as the essential problem. Their solution, however, would only seem to exacerbate the situation. Mandating that immigrants become citizens of the United States reveals the essentially protectionist argument; while the AFL-CIO is willing to concede that all laborers should have exactly the same protections as long as they reside in the United States. Instead, what the AFL-CIO needs to be doing is making it possible to organize multinational unions and bring protections through the very mechanisms that tie workers together. Currently organizing labor action internationally illegally, so the AFL-CIO says this is an impediment to organizing. If I have my labor history correct, striking itself was illegal before the success of the AFL, the CIO and Wobblies in the 1930s (among others, I am sure).
On the other hand, SEIU, UNITE HERE and the UFW are accepting the guest-worker program essentially, I believe, because it lessens one of the greatest impediments to organizing in the low-wage service sector: the problem of documentation. Employers such as SWIFT use the threat of deportation and ICE crackdowns as a threat against joining unions. And, why are the low-wage service sector jobs so terrible? Because they don't have the ability to collective organize and demand more from their employers. People talk about the glory of manufacturing jobs, but they were looked at with just as much disdain as current service jobs are. They aren't better jobs because they are more "manly" or because they involve machines and big parts; they are better jobs because the UAW, USW, UMWA, and other manufacturing unions fought hard to make those good jobs. The service-sector unions believe that the guest worker program will reduce the barrier of fear and lower the threshold for workers to talk to each other and act collectively to better their lives and working conditions. Of course this, too, comes at a cost: the service sector unions must be willing to accept the potentially terrible conditions that get placed on this guest-worker program which could turn it into a new racist Bracero program designed to undercut costs of all labor in the United States while simultaneously making it virtually impossible for workers to organize.
This problem, like that of trade (which I have discussed previously) is one which is virtually inescapable because the kinds of institutions and policies that we are using as tools to deal with this issue are outdated to the kind of problem that we confront. Both the AFL-CIO and the service-sector unions are confronting the problem with old tactics: the AFL-CIO gave up its anti-immigrant protectionist stance to form a pro-immigrant protectionist stance while the service-sector unions are willing to compromise to eliminate one of the obstacles of organizing with the leap of faith that it will be a step towards larger policy changes. Without organizing across national lines and only using legislation as a piece of a strategy rather than the entire strategy itself, these projects cannot have the kind of positive and sustained impact either the AFL-CIO or the service sector wants. Until labor confronts the issues that are presented by the international flow of capital with a sustained and effective campaign to assert workers' rights in that flow, we are doomed to be sticking our thumbs in the dikes of globalization.