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Policy: Labor

Telecom union: Immigration bill is bad for our workers, but we support it anyway

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Politics,Beltway Confidential,Sean Higgins,Labor unions,Immigration,Labor

My column today focuses on the strange bedfellows and ironic situations created by the immigration reform bill. I highlight the case of the Communications Workers of America and its concerns regarding the bill’s increase in H1B visas. CWA, which is the largest telecom worker union in the world with 700,000 members, has said unequivocally that the “appalling” bill will hurt its members. Nevertheless, a CWA spokeswoman said the union supports it.

What’s going on here? Well, first off, let’s understand why the union doesn’t like the bill. Here’s how I explain it in my column:

The current bill increases those high-tech (H1B) visas from 65,000 annually to at least 110,000 and potentially as high as 180,000. Some unions say as high as 230,000. You need a diploma from MIT just to understand the series of mathematical triggers in the bill that determine the number.

Unions that represent the high-tech sector are not happy with the changes. Communications Workers of America President Larry Cohen said in statement the Senate bill “will allow preferential treatment by corporations for foreign workers at the expense of U.S. workers.”

Cohen’s comments come from a June 5 press release. It was put out after Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, succeeded in amending the bill in committee. The changes weakened its requirement that companies prove they cannot find high-tech workers in the U.S. before they can get visas for foreign workers.

In the CWA press release, Cohen said:

The changes Senator Hatch proposed in the Judiciary Committee will allow preferential treatment by corporations for foreign born workers at the expense of U.S. workers. Since the senator made clear that he would not support the bill in the Judiciary Committee without those changes, they were accepted.

Senator Hatch’s amendments allow high tech companies to bring in H-1B visa employees even when an equally or better qualified American is available. This is especially appalling when recent unemployment for STEM graduates is above 5%. Senator Hatch also proposed a new formula that will allow for an increased number of new H-1B visas annually and that will underreport the extent to which U.S. tech workers are unemployed, along with the elimination of a requirement that companies attest that they did not displace existing workers in order to hire H-1B visa holders. This, in fact, will pave the way for employers to fire Americans, not for cause, but because they can find cheaper and younger workers.

That sounds pretty tough, but if you read the rest of the press release, you’ll notice that nowhere does Cohen actually urge the defeat of the bill. Instead the statement affirms several times that CWA supports immigration generally, calling reform “long overdue.” The release says “we reject [the] changes” Hatch made, but that is as far as it goes.

So I asked the union clarify the release: Do they support the Senate immigration bill or not? CWA spokeswoman Candice Johnson responded to the Washington Examiner via email:

CWA supports immigration reform and a path to citizenship for 11 million immigrants. We will try to gain improvements in h1b areas, but overall we support reform. There will be compromises on both sides.

So there you have it: The bill is bad for CWA’s members but the union is backing it anyhow because the issue of reforming immigration is just that important.

The reason is that other unions have gotten much better at organizing immigrant labor in recent decades. With unionization shrinking to just 11.3 percent of the workforce, Big Labor really wants those 11 million newly legalized immigrants to help the movement grow again. So unions with concerns over the particulars of the bill like CWA are nevertheless opting to go along with the rest of the movement.

I wonder what the rank and file CWA members think of this.

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