When President Barack Obama came to Las Vegas last week to push for reform of the immigration system, several leaders from the largest unions in the country were in attendance, including those that helped scuttle immigration reform efforts in 2007.
After the 25-minute speech in which Obama outlined four key principles of his plan, organizations from every side of the issue released statements.
"President Obama's plan offers nothing to American workers except the certainty of even greater competition for scarce jobs and further suppression of their wages," Dan Stein, president of the Federation of American Immigration Reform, a restrictionist group that advocates for a focus on border security and strict limits on immigrants, said in a release.
It was the kind of statement that could have come from the AFL-CIO in the early 1990s, but instead Richard Trumka, the AFL-CIO president, joined several other union representatives from around the country in Las Vegas at a rally after the speech supporting immigration reform.
"We are going to do a whole national campaign for comprehensive immigration reform, because the current system is what depresses wages," Trumka said. "They can't cheat people out of wages, and they can't pay them half the wages. When they try to assert any of their rights (the employers) call in ICE, and they get deported. The new system will allow them to have the same rights as every other worker, and be paid properly. They'll come out of the shadows and have full rights like other workers, and it will be good for America and good for our economy."
On Thursday, the AFL-CIO is expected to announce further details of its campaign to support immigration reform. On Monday, Culinary Union Local 226 will stage an event at Cashman Field in which it will lay out local and national union efforts to bolster support for immigration reform.
A week after his speech, Obama met in Washington, D.C., with top union leaders including Trumka, Eliseo Medina of the Service Employees International Union, and Arturo Rodriguez of United Farm Workers. While the unions are publicly supporting the push for reform, the details of the final legislation will play a large role in final approval from labor organizations.
In 2007, as George W. Bush pushed an immigration reform proposal, the AFL-CIO and SEIU split, with the former siding against the program due to concerns that a touted guest-worker program would undercut unions and that the path to citizenship for existing undocumented immigrants was too difficult.
In 2009, the AFL-CIO and SEIU came together with other groups to announce a common set of principles for approaching immigration reform. The proposal specifically advocates for "improvement, not expansion, of temporary worker programs" and an "adjustment in status for the current undocumented population."
Until the start of the millennium, the AFL-CIO openly opposed immigrants living and working in the country illegally. In 2000, the group's executive council voted to endorse a new policy including a path to citizenship.
The shift occurred for a variety of reasons, labor analysts say, and is reflective of changing union membership levels and demographics. Figures from the Department of Labor released in January show union membership has fallen to its lowest point since the 1930s. Nationally, union membership fell by 400,000 from 2012 to 2013 and now stands at 14.4 million workers.
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