Unions could again be key to immigration reform

Story highlights

  • Obama sits down with labor leaders to discuss immigration reform
  • Conservatives are again pushing a temporary guest worker program
  • Both the AFL-CIO and SEIU are lobbying for an easier path to citizenship

It should come as no surprise that prominent union leaders are among the first group President Barack Obama courts as he seeks support for overhauling immigration policy.

It was organized labor that helped ensure defeat of a bipartisan effort to reform the nation's immigration laws five years ago.

At that time, the AFL-CIO and other prominent union groups came out against the initiative, fearing a proposal for a temporary guest worker program for seasonal workers would weaken union membership and bargaining clout.

That led to a handful of liberal-leaning Democrats to vote against the bill, including Sens. Sherrod Brown, Tom Harkin and Debbie Stabenow.

Mindful that a potential split in the Democratic coalition this time around could again prove fatal to the passage of an immigration bill, Obama met on Tuesday with more than a dozen labor leaders.

They included AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, Eliseo Medina of the Service Employees International Union, and Arturo Rodriguez of United Farm Workers.

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The purpose of the hour-long, closed-door meeting was to engage in a "dialogue" about "immigration reform and how it fits into his broader economic agenda," the White House said.

In comments to reporters following the meeting, there was evidence the president had sought to ensure that the union leaders were in his corner before he unveils an immigration proposal.

"It was an excellent conversation," Trumka said outside the White House. "I think we are all on the same page."

The White House has long been hopeful that the labor movement get on board.

Despite a contentious relationship at times with labor, the president's agenda has largely been supported by the major union leaders. Trumka also notably attended Obama's immigration speech last week in Las Vegas.

Nonetheless, the same sticking points that turned labor against immigration reform five years ago remain.

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Conservatives, including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, are again pushing a temporary guest worker program that is favored by the business community and agricultural interests that depend on seasonal employment.

But the major unions remain opposed to such a measure.

In 2009, both the AFL-CIO and the SEIU jointly released guidelines on an immigration reform package they would support.

Those guidelines called for "improvement, not expansion" of temporary worker programs. Obama has so far not mentioned a guest worker program in his broad outlines of an immigration reform plan.

The burden of attaining citizenship is another trip wire.

Both the AFL-CIO and SEIU are lobbying for an easier path to citizenship than was proposed by the 2007 effort.

That is in part because union membership has declined significantly over the past two decades along with contraction of U.S. manufacturing. A surge of new citizens, many of whom will seek unionized jobs, could boost their numbers.

"We were talking about trying to fix a broken system," Trumka said after the White House meeting. "We were talking about commonsense reform that has an inclusive and broad path to citizenship that allows us to bring people in and take advantage of that."

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Trumka declined to specify the kind of path to citizenship the president suggested he would support.

Another leader said she thought there was agreement between the labor groups and Obama.

"There was joint agreement by everybody in this room and the president that there must be a pathway to citizenship and it must be meaningful and real," said Janet Murguia of the National Council of La Raza, also a participant in the meeting. "It's our job to get the kind of solution that will reflect that meaningful path."

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