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ISSUES IN THE LABOR MOVEMENT
Labor must back rights for all immigrants

By Ganesh Lal | September 26, 2003 | Page 11

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.

But a statement released on August 6 this year calls for increased restrictions on immigrant workers in the tech sector. One of the "reforms" it proposes is 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." And 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!

This stance on restricting the entry of foreign tech workers, which has been taken up by the Communications Workers of America as well, is misguided. The job crisis in the tech sector is real. Many tech jobs are being outsourced to non-union labor in India and China. Call centers in India, for instance, hire customer service workers for U.S. multinationals for about $200 a month.

Under the L-1 visa, companies are able to bring in foreign workers through "intra-company transfers" and bypass the quota provisions of the H1-B. As a result, 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 AFL-CIO's stance fails to recognize 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 high-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 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 targets "employer abuse" of the H-1B and L-1 visas. It also calls for granting these workers the right to form unions.

But targeting the very workers it needs to organize by calling for stronger immigration restrictions is not only misguided, but self-defeating. 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.

In North Carolina, for instance, the textile giant Pillowtex laid off 4,800 workers this summer. 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.

The North Carolina textile industry has been hit by cheaper imports, particularly from South Asia and China. Since the passage of NAFTA, many plants have shut down and shifted production to Mexico. But rather than team up with bosses to call for protectionist measures, the unions need to focus on organizing workers--regardless of nationality or citizenship--and on 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 unions by teaching workers that they are powerless.

Unions need to expose the hypocrisy of the politicians who are dishing out tax cuts to the fat cats while mouthing platitudes about job creation. And they have to prove in practice that workers' collective action on the job can actually win.

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