AFL-CIO’s Backward Step on Immigrant Workers

On February 16, 2000 the AFL-CIO called for an amnesty for all undocumented workers in the U.S. This was a welcome shift in AFL-CIO policy, which in the past had tended to favor immigration controls. In an statement (dated August 6, 2003) that seems at first sight to continue this progressive thrust, the AFL-CIO writes that “[The] system of workplace immigration enforcement in the United States … is broken, targets workers instead of the egregious employers who exploit them, and needs to be fixed.”

But a closer reading of this statement reveals that the organization has taken a step backward by calling for tougher restrictions on the hiring of foreign nationals in the tech sector. The thrust of the August 6 article is to call for “reforming” the H1-B and L-1 visa programs. Citing the fact that there are more than a million immigrant workers in the tech sector while layoffs continue to mount, the article goes on to list a series of immigration controls as the solution. This stance on restricting the entry of foreign tech workers, which has been taken up by the CWA as well, is profoundly misguided.

It fails to recognize, first of all, that U.S. nationals are not the only workers suffering in the economic downturn. Thousands of immigrant workers have also lost their jobs and are further subject to immigration restrictions regarding work. While the 1990s hi-tech boom was produced by the workers in this sector—both American and foreign-born—these workers are now being asked to pay the price for the reckless, frenzied pace of overinvestment set by the bosses. The bosses, on the other hand, have had it easy in the recession, with CEO pay, for instance, remaining at shamelessly indulgent levels. And now the AFL-CIO wants to help them out by blaming immigrant workers for unemployment in the tech sector.

To be sure, the AFL-CIO statement has its contradictions. It rightly points out that current immigration laws allow employers to ill-treat foreign-born workers:

“[G]uest workers must depend on their employers not only for a job, but also for their legal status. Employers also have the power to renew guest worker visas at their pleasure. This creates an unequal relationship inherently subject to abuse, in which employers have the upper hand to intimidate guest workers who seek better wages and working conditions, seek to join a union or complain of discrimination. Employers can threaten to end these guest workers’ employment and thus their visas, or by threatening to deny the renewal of visas in the future.”

The response of labor, then, ought to be to prevent employers from being able to exercise such power over their workers. And the AFL-CIO statement seems to recognize this by calling for granting H-1B workers the right to form unions.

But what good is the “right” to form a union when the union movement has done so little to actually exercise that right? If these sentiments are to be more than rhetorical sops to its progressive image, the AFL-CIO will need to launch an aggressive organizing campaign among workers, and not just in the tech sector alone. The success of the campaign will depend a great deal on breaking down anti-immigrant prejudices among American-born workers. Targeting the very workers it needs to organize by calling for stronger immigration restrictions is not only misguided, but self-defeating.

And the list of immigration restrictions being proposed by the AFL-CIO is quite long and complicated. It includes making H1-B visas non-renewable (they can currently be renewed for up to six years). H1-B workers who are laid off for “legitimate reasons,” it states, “must return to their home country within 90 days.” Perhaps most egregiously, it calls on the government to “ramp up enforcement” of immigration law, and then calls for transferring the primary responsibility for oversight to the Labor Department!

Many of these proposals are dressed up in rhetoric about “employer abuse of the system,” and the statement ends by calling on Congress to “reform” H1-B and L-1 visa programs so as to protect American workers and to ensure that “foreign workers are protected from exploitation.” Since when has Congress or the INS been the guardian of workers, immigrant or otherwise? Isn’t this the labor movement’s task?

Of course, the employers have used the increased H1-B quota to their advantage; indeed, this is precisely why the politicians backed the increase. At the same time, many tech jobs are being outsourced to non-union labor in India and China. Under the L-1 visa, companies are able to bring in foreign workers through “intra-company transfers” and thereby bypass the quota provisions of the H1-B. This has led to the positively disgusting practice of making current employees in the U.S. train workers in other countries who are then brought in to replace the very workers who trained them.

But the current job crisis is not restricted to the tech sector, and once we look at the larger picture, the flaws in the AFL-CIO’s position become clearer. Since the downturn in the economy, some 2.6 million jobs have been axed all over the U.S., with barely a sector of the economy escaping the hatchet. Here in North Carolina, for instance, the textile giant Pillowtex just laid off 4,000 workers. In response, leaders of UNITE, the union representing some 400 workers laid off in Eden, N.C., teamed up with owners of the textile plants to call for governmental protections against foreign competition. Small wonder, then, that the state politicians jumped on the bandwagon, with even Elizabeth Dole presenting herself as a friend of (American) workers. So while UNITE unites with its bosses and right-wing politicians, its actual membership is taking a hit.

The North Carolina textile industry has no doubt been hit by cheaper imports, particularly from South Asia and China. But rather than team up with bosses to call for protectionist measures, the unions need to focus on organizing workers and taking job actions to prevent plant closures. Only workers’ mobilizations and combativity can stem this tide of layoffs. On the other hand, blaming foreign competition or immigrant workers is a bosses’ tactic: it serves to deflect attention from the real culprits—the corporate CEOs who continue to rake in millions while slashing jobs—and it weakens the unions by teaching workers that they are powerless.

The AFL-CIO and the labor movement in general need to present a workers’ response to this crisis, rather than adding their voices to the bosses’ solution. By suggesting that immigrant workers and foreign competition are to blame for the current job crisis, by calling for increased immigration control and protectionist measures, the labor movement is giving the bosses a badly needed alibi. “Don’t blame us, blame those foreigners taking your jobs!” This is precisely what the employers want to encourage.

Granted, the skilled professional and hi-tech workers who enter the U.S. on H1-B and L-1 visas do not belong to the same group as the low-wage, unskilled workers who make up the majority of undocumented immigrants. But the current debate about immigration controls has repercussions beyond this sector, and is of a piece with the protectionism being advocated by UNITE and other unions.

What would a properly labor-oriented solution entail? At the very least, it will mean placing the blame where it really belongs: corporations and their politician friends who have run the economy into the ground to satisfy their own insatiable lust for profit. Second, it will entail organizing workers regardless of nationality to fight to keep plants open and prevent layoffs. Third, it would have to expose the hypocrisy of the politicians who are dishing out tax cuts to the fat cats while mouthing platitudes about job creation. Fourth, it will need to build workers’ solidarity from below, and across national boundaries. Fifth, it will need to fight against the national chauvinism of its own membership to assert that an injury to one is indeed an injury to all. And finally, it needs to prove in practice that workers’ collective action on the job can actually win.

Ganesh Lal is an activist in Greensboro, N.C., and writes for Socialist Worker newspaper, which can be found online at He can be reached at

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