LEVI TILLEMANN: Addressing union labor pains is part of solving the immigration conundrum

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    The immigration fix needs to be about more than children who came to America without papers (aka DREAMers). I passionately support DREAMers and have called on Democratic leaders to shut down the government for a clean DREAM Act if need be. But the DREAMers are, at the end of the day, the unwitting victims of larger economic and political forces that drew their parents to this country in the first place. And there are other unintended consequences of large-scale immigration, including the weakening of labor unions and worsening economic inequality – which has reached crisis levels.

    The harsh truth is that large-scale undocumented immigration weakens the hand of trade unions as they fight for workers’ rights. In addition to doing battle with companies that seek to replace workers with robots, computers and outsourcing, labor unions also have to deal with the impacts of undocumented immigrant labor pushing down their wages. Any long-term solution to our immigration problem needs to recognize and reconcile this conflict. We’ve figured out how to do that through something we call the TEAM Act.

    For more than a century, owners of mines, mills and factories have stymied unions through importing immigrant labor. A 1914 essay on Czech and Italian immigration sums it up:

    “The facts assembled by the Immigration Commission shatter the rosy theory that foreign labor is drawn into an industry only when native labor is not to be had. . . frequently foreigners were brought in when a strike was on.  . . . [T]he pouring in of raw immigrants has weakened [labor’s] bargaining power, and many have gone on to make a last stand in the mines of New Mexico and Colorado.”

    It’s no wonder that labor leaders have historically been skeptical of guest worker programs. In 2007, one of the major sticking points in the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2007 was foreign guest workers. Initially, the annual number was set at 400,000, then reduced to 200,000. Finally the bill was scrapped.

    But a long-term immigration fix is likely going to require a guest worker regime. Without one, undocumented workers are likely to continue to gravitate to America’s economic engine. And its no coincidence that since 1983 the proportion of Americans represented by organized labor in the private sector has shrunk from almost 17% to less than 7%.

    So why not pursue immigration policy that strengthens, rather than weakens labor? Let’s put labor to work doing what it does best: defending the interests of vulnerable workers and combatting systemic inequality.

    The Twenty-first century Economic Alliance for iMmigration (TEAM) Act would consist of a guest worker program administered by the unions. There would be no haggling in Congress regarding the number of guest workers allowed annually. But every guest worker would have to be approved by unions, and labor would decide if they should be unionized. This would deal with the labor shortages in certain sectors of the American economy. CEOs would have unlimited access to the workers they need, so long as they came to an agreement with unions on terms and conditions. It would give foreign workers bargaining power they have hitherto lacked; and labor would increase membership, strengthen its finances and expand its reach.

    Inequality is spiraling out of control, and a revitalized labor movement is one of the few forces capable of helping labor push back in an era of increased concentration of capital in the 21st century. Under the TEAM Act, guest workers would swell the ranks of unions: paying dues and attending meetings. Unions would negotiate compensation, protect worker rights and bargain for their collective wellbeing.

    Long-term employees might become citizens. But many would undoubtedly return home. Stiff penalties for employers who transgress fair labor practices combined with an ample supply of guest workers would vastly reduce the incentives for undocumented immigration.

    We’d still need programs for DREAMers, but their numbers would be far fewer than they are under today’s system – which incentivizes undocumented labor. There are profound moral, ethical and philosophical reasons most Americans support DREAMers; And I know when Americans prioritize morality over bureaucratic rule keeping DREAMers can have happy endings.

    My parents (Democrats) ended up adopting an young undocumented immigrant who lost her only parent to cancer and faced deportation. She eventually received citizenship thanks to an amnesty championed by Ronald Reagan (a Republican). She’s a proud, productive American citizen today.

    But Congress can’t abandon the other 10 million undocumented immigrants in this country. The best solution for immigration reform will include worker protections for all working families (citizen and non-citizen) and build robust coalitions among working Americans of all stripes and colors.

    Levi Tillemann lives in Aurora and is seeking the Democratic nomination for the 6th Congressional District. Reach him www.leviforcolorado.com