US business, labour have agreement on future worker principles; key to immigration bill

WASHINGTON – Business and labour groups announced agreement Thursday on the principles of a key priority for a comprehensive immigration bill: a new system to bring lower-skilled workers to the U.S.

The Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO reached consensus after weeks of closed-doors negotiations they were conducting at the request of Sens. Charles Schumer, a Democrat, and Lindsey Graham, a Republican, two of the senators involved in producing an immigration deal in Congress.

The principles include agreement on the need for a mechanism to let businesses more easily hire foreign workers when Americans aren’t available to fill jobs. This will require a new kind of worker visa program that does not keep all workers in a permanent temporary status and responds as the U.S. economy grows and shrinks, the groups said in a joint news release.

They also said they see the need for a new professional bureau housed within a federal executive agency and tasked with informing Congress and the public about labour market needs and shortages. That addresses a key demand from the labour side for a more transparent and data-driven process about business’ needs for workers.

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 member 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 as 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.

President Barack Obama has been criticized by Sen. Marco Rubio, a Rising Republican star, for failing to include a temporary worker program in his own immigration blueprint, and Carney would not say whether the White House supports a visa program for low-skill workers. But Carney said that the agreement between the two traditionally opposing sides in the debate “represents significant progress.”

Business and labour have long been at odds over any temporary worker program, with business groups wanting more workers and labour groups concerned about worker protections and any large-scale program that could displace American workers. The issue helped sink the last congressional attempt at rewriting the nation’s immigration laws, in 2007, which was partly why Schumer and Graham asked Chamber President Tom Donohue and AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka to try to forge an accord that Senate negotiators could include in legislation they are aiming to finalize by next month.

The Chamber and AFL-CIO have taken the lead in negotiations that have also included other business associations and labour unions.

The principles announced Thursday make clear that both sides have given ground. Business will get a temporary worker program, and labour will see creation of a government bureau that describes labour market needs, instead of letting employers themselves define their own needs.

The two sides also agreed that American workers “should have a first crack at available jobs,” and to ensure that happens they said they are committed to improving the way information about job openings reaches workers, particularly in disadvantaged communities.

Various thorny issues remain to be addressed, including how many new visas would be provided under the new program and what kind of pay and protections workers would get.