On February 16, 2000 the AFL-CIO called for an amnesty for all undocumented workers in the
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 â€œreformingâ€ 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
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:
â€œ[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 workersâ€™ employment and thus their visas, or by threatening to deny the renewal of visas in the future.â€
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 â€œrightâ€ 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 â€œlegitimate reasons,â€ it states, â€œmust return to their home country within 90 days.â€ Perhaps most egregiously, it calls on the government to â€œramp up enforcementâ€ 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 â€œemployer abuse of the system,â€ and the statement ends by calling on Congress to â€œreformâ€ H1-B and L-1 visa programs so as to protect American workers and to ensure that â€œforeign workers are protected from exploitation.â€ Since when has Congress or the INS been the guardian of workers, immigrant or otherwise? Isnâ€™t this the labor movementâ€™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
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-CIOâ€™s position become clearer. Since the downturn in the economy, some 2.6 million jobs have been axed all over the
The AFL-CIO and the labor movement in general need to present a workersâ€™ response to this crisis, rather than adding their voices to the bossesâ€™ 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. â€œDonâ€™t blame us, blame those foreigners taking your jobs!â€ This is precisely what the employers want to encourage.
Granted, the skilled professional and hi-tech workers who enter the
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 workersâ€™ 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 workersâ€™ collective action on the job can actually win.
Ganesh Lal is an activist in