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Big Labor Scores a Win

Immigration compromise includes union-friendly ‘prevailing wage’ provisions

Immigration rights advocates in New Jersey / AP
• April 3, 2013 11:03 am

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Organized labor succeeded in attaining special provisions in the illegal immigration compromise that will boost union contract prospects.

The AFL-CIO and U.S. Chamber of Commerce endorsed a package of immigration reforms on Friday after months of negotiations. Under the deal, 200,000 work visas would be issued each year, up from 66,000. Companies would be forced to pay those workers "prevailing wages" dictated by the Department of Labor’s regional standards.

Prevailing wages, which were first adopted nationally with the Davis-Bacon Act, require employers to pay workers at industry standards that are often determined by union pay, according to Steve Allen of the Capital Research Center.

"[Prevailing wage is] usually interpreted to be union wages, which gives unions advantages in bidding for contracts," Allen said. "It raises prices for whoever’s paying for the project and by requiring union wage regardless, you might as well hire the union guy."

For example, in Prince George’s County Maryland, prevailing wage laws require any employer to pay electricians about $50 per hour in wages and "fringe" benefits for working on highway construction projects, according to the Department of Labor.

Prevailing wages are higher than many wages the nonunion private sector would pay in a competitive bidding environment, said National Black Chamber of Commerce President Harry Alford.

"Prevailing wages are synonymous with union wages … it means you’re going to use union only," he said.

The immigration deal would advance prevailing wage laws from federal contractors and the construction industry to any employer that applies for a work visa.

Allen said the provisions are a major reason many labor unions have embraced immigration reform, despite historical opposition to bringing in foreign workers to domestic labor markets.

"Without prevailing wages in place you would flood the economy with more workers which could depress wages and take jobs that would otherwise go to union workers," he said. "They’re setting an artificial [wage] floor to protect themselves from the economic consequence of brining in new workers."

Neither the Chamber of Commerce nor the AFL-CIO returned requests for comment. 

AFL-CIO head Richard Trumka has been an outspoken advocate for reforming immigration laws on behalf of the nation’s 11 million illegal immigrants and has stepped up efforts to rally the union faithful.

"With your mobilization and hard work, we can win comprehensive immigration reform with a real, workable road map to citizenship for 11 million people who are American in every way except on paper," he recently told a West Coast gathering of members. "It's time to win real immigration reform. It will make all of us stronger." 

Allen said the reform championed by Trumka would enhance union prestige by raising wages for members and would strengthen the political influence of unions

"They’re thinking that those new workers will benefit you by voting for people to carry out your policy goals—what helps the Democratic coalition helps labor," he said.

The Department of Labor would be in charge of enforcing the prevailing wage standards. Thomas Perez, President Barack Obama’s nominee to head the department, has championed prevailing wage laws throughout his career and was instrumental to making Maryland the nation’s first "living wage" state.

The compromise package will now move on from the negotiating table of the two interest groups to the eight lawmakers who are trying to pass immigration reform, according to Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.).

"I think we've got a deal," Graham said to CNN’s Candy Crowley on Sunday. "We've got to write the legislation, but 2013, I hope, will be the year that we pass bipartisan immigration reform, signed into law with three goals."