AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka issued an angry statement Tuesday blasting Senate immigration bill negotiators for agreeing to a package of amendments at the behest of the tech industry that expand the H-1B visa program. Trumka called the amendments, which were sponsored by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, unambiguous attacks on American workers.”

So does that mean that Trumka and the rest of the AFL-CIO are now opposed to the immigration reform deal? Not at all. After he finished denouncing the amendments, his statement reiterated the union coalition’s prior endorsement of comprehensive immigration reform. It concludes: “We will continue to work with our allies to pass immigration reform with a roadmap to citizenship in 2013.”

Trumka issued a similar statement Wednesday morning applauding a Senate committee for passing the compromise bill. The statement even begins by invoking Martin Luther King Jr. : “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Confused? Well, immigration has long been a vexing issue for Big Labor. For most of its history it opposed liberal policies, viewing new immigrants as low-wage competition for American workers. Big Business’s support for immigration usually hardened labor’s opposition.

That has changed in recent years because Big Labor has gotten much better at organizing immigrants, especially in the service sector. One of the largest labor unions is now the Service Employees International Union, though SEIU is not an AFL-CIO member, having split acrimoniously with coalition some years ago.

That added with the fact that labor leaders as a whole have grown more liberal and are aggressively pursuing with coalitions with progressive groups, like the environmentalist left, has resulted in most coming out strongly in favor of immigration.

But many of the underlying issues that originally caused labor to oppose immigration in the first place still exist. As a consequence, the AFL-CIO supported poison pill amendments to the 2007 McCain-Kennedy bill that helped to kill it. This time around it has been aggressively lobbying the current Congress to “fix” the parts of the comprehensive reform that it doesn’t like.

It took several months of negotiations for them to reach a fragile compromise with the Chamber of Commerce over a guest worker program in the current bill. Now they are going to aggressively lobby Congress on the high tech visa issue. Today’s AFL-CIO statement said:

We applaud the progress by the Judiciary Committee, but we will still work to make a good bill even better. We will continue to pursue constructive amendments where needed — whether on family reunification, skilled-worker visas, worker protections, or the Uniting American Families Act.

But the question is how far is the AFL-CIO willing to go here? Is it prepared to come out against the bill if the H-1B visa provisions are not taken out? Given how urgently they have called for comprehensive reform, can they even do that now without damaging their credibility? And if they don’t have the flexibility to come out against the bill, how much leverage will they have in Congress to amend it?

In his statement yesterday, Trumka said:

There is no reason why this strong coalition should accept anti-worker amendments. And let’s be clear: Senator Orrin Hatch’s H-1B amendments are unambiguous attacks on American workers.

Hatch’s amendments change the bill so that high tech companies could functionally bring in H-1B visa holders without first making the jobs available to American workers. Hatch’s amendments would mean that American corporations could fire American workers in order to bring in H-1B visa holders at lower wages.

The next Sergei Brin (Google co-founder) might be sitting in an American classroom right now. But if that future innovator cannot get an entry-level job in high tech because employers prefer importing temporary workers, entrepreneurial innovations will not occur in the United States.

The Hill provides some background on the visa amendments here:

The amendments from Hatch softens the requirements that employers would have to follow when hiring highly skilled workers on H-1B visas. Hatch had argued that the requirements, as written, would make it more difficult for tech companies to secure the visas they need to fill technical job positions, potentially forcing them to move those jobs abroad.

The tech industry has issued positive statements about the Gang of Eight bill, citing its expansion of the H-1B visa cap to 110,000 from the current cap of 65,000. Tech companies use H-1B visas to hire foreign workers with specialized skills, including computer programmers, engineers and scientists.


A coalition of trade associations that represents major tech companies such as Google, Facebook, Intel and IBM issued a letter on Tuesday urging members of the Senate Judiciary Committee to back Hatch’s proposed changes.

The letter, signed by 11 major tech associations, included an underlined statement that attacks the core of the AFL-CIO’s arguments against the deal.

“Just as important, the bill preserves all of the U.S. worker protections listed above: American workers will be recruited, American workers will not be displaced, and American workers will not have their salaries undercut,” the group wrote.

“With these critical improvements, U.S. employers will be better able to keep and create jobs in this country.”