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Union Sentiment On AgJOBS
Hinges On Permanent Residency

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, May 1, 2009

We have often discussed the immigration issue, and our piece, Will US Citizens Harvest Crops? led those who are promoting AgJOBS to write quickly to assure us that we had misinterpreted the joint announcement of the two big national labor federations and that AgJOBS still had labor’s endorsement.

We ran the piece under the title, Pundit’s Mailbag — Guest Worker Programs, and the key component was a statement from Luawanna Hallstrom, who is, among other things, co-chair of the Agricultural Coalition for Immigration Reform (ACIR):

“Considerable media attention has been given to statements released this past week by the AFL-CIO and Change to Win Coalition regarding the conditions for their support for comprehensive immigration reform legislation. While media reports indicate that major national labor unions do not support expanded guest worker programs but would consider a Commission to study the need for future guest worker programs as part of comprehensive immigration reform legislation, there is no doubt that the guest worker policy positions of these labor organizations do not include the H-2A guest worker reform provisions of AgJOBS. This union support has been communicated by representatives of the United Farm Workers Union to leaders of the national agricultural coalition spearheading efforts to pass AgJOBS this Congress. To the contrary, these labor organizations have and continue to support AgJOBs, including its H-2A guest worker reform provisions, as part of comprehensive immigration reform. It is important that this accurate message be communicated to the grower and farm worker communities.”

Although we had no doubt about the sincerity of the people from ACIR, we know that politics sometimes makes strange bedfellows, and coalitions are built and collapse. We wanted to get a sense of what was behind the union endorsement of AgJOBS and thus how sturdy this coalition will be. One of the things we try to do here at the Pundit is not just talk about the past but also reflect on what the future may hold.

In order to get a better sense of union sentiment on this matter, we spoke to some union leaders privately, and Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slott spoke to a representative of the AFL-CIO on the record. Here is what we were told:

Sonia Ramirez
Legislative Representative
AFL-CIO

Q: What is AFL-CIO’s position on the AgJOBS bill?

A: The most controversial piece involves regulatory changes made before the Bush Administration left office. If the Ag compromise was successful, it could have prevented damage.

Q: Could you specify the regulatory changes?

A: The Bush Administration had eliminated the adverse wage protection, and many of the safeguards that had been associated with the H-2A program. We sent many letters citing our opposition.

Under the Obama Administration, the Department of Labor has acted to stop those changes from being implemented.

The AgJOBS bill hasn’t been reintroduced in Congress, but AFL-CIO has endorsed the AgJOBS bills in previous congresses. We haven’t seen any of the language in a new bill, so we wouldn’t be in a position to comment on it except to say we have endorsed previous versions. I was on the Hill (April 23) trying to find out from Diane Feinstein, who is sponsor of the bill, when it will be introduced.

Q: Could you clarify your position on guest worker programs?

A: We do not support expansion of guest worker programs, but we do support their reform. We can’t have a position on a piece of legislation not yet introduced.

H-2A is a seasonal program for ag workers. An agreement came about when United Farm Workers sat down with growers and concessions were made on both sides and we came up with an agreement. It streamlined the process for certification for employers. It freezes the wage protections, a concession for labor and in exchange, offers for the first time a path to legal residencies for guest workers. This was a tremendous victory, for no longer is this simply a transient labor force but it offers workers the chance to stay and have permanent residence. We’ve made specific concessions in AgJOBS compromises that we don’t like, but in doing so give ag workers a path to citizenship, which is a huge victory.

This agreement brings concession on the part of labor and growers. We think it’s the best way to arrive at compromise.

The Bush Administration slashed wages in H-2A programs without offering any aid to farm workers. What the Ag concession does, it freezes the adverse wage calculation; it was a negotiation, fairly entered into by labor and growers and resulted in concessions on both sides.

There have been regulatory changes to H-2A, and concessions on wages, but what has never been done before is a path to residency. This is an historic win.

So, when all is said and done, this is what we come up with:

1. Labor unions are waiting to see the exact language of this year’s AgJOBS bill before they endorse or oppose.

2. Labor unions have supported AgJOBS in the past and probably will support it again.

3. However, there are a lot of things in the bill labor doesn’t like. The big win for labor is the offer of a path to permanent residency for currently illegal workers and to achieve that they will compromise.

We would add two caveats:

First, unemployment in Spain just broke 17%. If, God forbid, we see domestic unemployment go anywhere near that number, large segments of the labor movement will oppose both guest workers and legalization, and the whole AgJOBS compromise will collapse.

Second, the other variable is President Obama. If he was to decide to offer a transition to citizenship for workers already in the US illegally without regard to what industry they work in, then the reason labor is endorsing AgJOBS — namely the path to citizenship for ag workers contained in the bill — would be superfluous.

AgJOBS has many passionate devotees. Right now organized labor is with the bill. Yet it is a bill that contains many things unions don’t like. Let the dynamic change just a bit and the future of labor support for the bill would quickly become uncertain.

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