Just one week after rumors that immigration talks between the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO were in danger of breaking down, the two groups announced they reached a compromise.
The groups on Thursday outlined key principles for handling guest workers. The suggestions include giving U.S. workers preference in jobs, setting up a less complicated system through which businesses can hire foreign workers, and making the system of addressing labor shortages more transparent.
They also recommended forming a special bureau in a federal agency to provide updates to Congress and the public about the U.S. labor market and foreign workers.
“Like the test of America’s immigration system,” the statement said, “the mechanisms for evaluating our labor market needs and for admitting foreign workers – as well as recruiting U.S. workers – for temporary and permanent jobs are broken or non-existent.”
Both groups have spent about two months trying to hash out an agreement to help drum up support for the bipartisan Senate immigration proposal released in January.
Senators Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) met with AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka and Chamber CEO Tom Donohue in December, and enlisted them to come to an agreement that would provide a framework for the guest worker component in any future Senate immigration reform bill.
“The fact that business and labor have agreed on principles is a major step forward,” said Schumer, chairman of the Senate subcommittee on immigration. “While the devil will be in the details in terms of fleshing these principles out, our staffs have had very productive discussions with both sides this week.”
The AFL-CIO and Chamber of Commerce recommended that to give U.S. workers a true first chance at jobs that become available, businesses must ensure that information about those opportunities reach the broadest number of people possible.
For times when U.S. employers face a labor shortage, the two groups suggest any immigration reform include a way to respond to business needs for labor while making sure that foreign workers do not depress wages or compromise working conditions for U.S. workers.
And third, they say it is important to “build a base of knowledge using real-world data about labor markets and demographics. The power of today’s technology enables us to use that knowledge to craft a workable demand-driven process.”
Toward that end, the two groups recommend a special bureau with independence similar to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
But the joint statement from the Chamber and AFL-CIO made clear that more work needs to be done to finalize their deal so that it can be included in a comprehensive immigration package.
"We have found common ground in several important areas and have committed to continue to work together and with members of Congress to enact legislation that will solve our current problems in a lasting manner," the statement said.
"We are now in the middle — not the end — of this process."
Even so, Thursday's agreement represents a significant step in talks that some on Capitol Hill gave little chance of success, especially since the groups missed an informal Feb. 15 deadline for an agreement.
"This is yet another sign of progress, of bipartisanship, and we are encouraged by it," said White House press secretary Jay Carney.
The U.S. already has several temporary worker programs, but they're viewed as cumbersome and outdated, and experts say a large proportion of migrant workers in agricultural and other low-skill fields like landscaping or housekeeping are in the U.S. illegally.
Ensuring that future workers come to the U.S. legally is the goal of the business-labor talks, and will be a key part of comprehensive immigration legislation that also will focus on securing the border and providing an ultimate pathway to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants already in the U.S.
In 2007, comprehensive immigration legislation foundered after an amendment was added to end a temporary worker program after five years, threatening a key priority of the business community. The amendment passed by just one vote, 49-48. Obama, a senator at the time, joined in the narrow majority voting to end the program after five years.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.
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