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Immigration reform must include workers’ rights

1:41 pm in Uncategorized by Amy B. Dean

At this moment, various plans to reform America’s broken immigration system are working their way through Congressional debate. On Monday, a bipartisan group of eight lawmakers unveiled a plan that includes what they call a “tough but fair” path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Last Friday, members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus met with President Obama to discuss the issue, and this caucus’ input will be influential in shaping any final legislation.

In the current political climate, immigration reform is broadly popular, with both parties eager to win over the Hispanic electorate in 2014 and 2016. But that doesn’t mean that a bipartisan effort will pass a good law—especially if long-time opponents of immigration reform are only cynically vying for votes. We have every reason to doubt the sincerity of conservatives such as Senator Marco Rubio, who is leading the charge from the Republican side of the aisle with an eye on his own bid for president.

For the Democrats, the challenge will be to avoid simply jumping at the first deal offered by newly converted conservatives. Instead, for the first time in decades, promoters of reform have the opportunity to hold America to its promise of being a land of liberty and justice for all.

Most centrally, that comes down to the issue of work. Holding America to its promise will mean ensuring that immigrants have pathways for securing just and meaningful employment in this country.

Immigrants Rebuilding the Middle Class

The primary reason people come to the United States from other nations is the potential for good work. It’s not enough for immigrants to have legal status to stay here. They must have legal rights as employees to speak out against wage theft and abusive working conditions—and to exercise their freedoms to associate and engage in collective bargaining.

In recent decades, unions that were once isolationist have come around to this position. That’s why, in the current debate, organized labor is one of the strongest institutional voices speaking out in favor of immigrant rights.

A key goal in crafting a legislative package for reform will be to avoid the creation of a permanent two-tiered system of employment—with some immigrants allowed to stay and work, but only on terms that greatly restrict their rights. Some conservatives would like to see a version of immigration reform that emphasizes helping corporations maintain a pool of cheap immigrant labor and that would further weaken unions. Such a system would foster a permanent underclass of workers living little better than serfs.

We go down that path at our collective peril. More than any other institution, the trade union movement was responsible for the creation of a stable American middle class. And more than any other constituency, waves of fresh immigrants to this country’s shores did the most to lay the foundation for the U.S. labor movement.

For this reason, whether or not you are an immigrant or a union member yourself, we all have an interest in ensuring that new arrivals to the United States are able to stand up to fight for better wages and working conditions.

Avoiding the Errors of the Past

In order to make sure that immigrant rights and workers’ rights go hand-in-hand in any new reform package, we must not repeat the errors of the past. And with regard to immigration, the past is the Simpson-Mazzoli Act of 1986. For the last 27 years we have lived, however messily, under the guidelines set out in this bill.

Most consequentially, Simpson-Mazzoli beefed up enforcement partly by making employers turn workers in to the Immigration and Naturalization Service (now called ICE). At the time, this idea had broad support. In an influential editorial from 1982 (the year Simpson-Mazzoli was first introduced), the New York Times argued, “The United States cannot conceivably let in all the worldwide millions who want in. That means controlling our own borders and that in turn, means something called employer sanctions.”

 

This provision was likely the bill’s greatest mistake, as many former supporters have since recognized. Employers should not be made to do the government’s job of enforcing the law. Doing so only deepened the divide between employees based on their legal residency status. More importantly, it opened the door for unscrupulous employers to use the threat of an immigration raid to keep disaffected workers from standing up for themselves and exercising their rights.

Under the broken system, employers looked the other way on employees’ legal status when it was to their advantage, but they used workers’ undocumented status as a tool when it could ensure their employees would never take collective action. Such behavior and unfairness helped lead to depressed wages throughout the economy.

The current bipartisan immigration reform plan promises an “effective” employment verification system. The devil will be in the details, and much remains to be worked out. But this much is clear: To allow employers to have the power to enforce immigration laws in 2013 would be history repeating itself, and it is the wrong way to go.

The folks who supported Simpson-Mazzoli back in 1986 thought they were making our system fairer. Yet everything fell apart after it was passed. The U.S. began to witness a steady climb in illegal border crossings, rampant fraud, and a snarled mess of an enforcement system–the exact reverse of the legislation’s intended consequences. And America’s middle class has only suffered in the years since.

When people come to this country, they are coming because they want to make a living. While it’s important that immigrants be given a pathway to citizenship and the ability to reunite with family members, these goals are not enough. Until immigrants are able to fully exercise their rights in the workplace, America has not lived up to its promise.

Labor Becomes Part of the National Conversation: The Best and Worst of 2012

11:50 am in Uncategorized by Amy B. Dean

Sign: On Strike for Better Schools

The successful Chicago Teachers' Strike was a high point for labor in 2012.

This was a tumultuous year for working people and their families. From the grassroots uprisings last winter to the low-wage workers’ strikes at year’s end, 2012 saw many people coming together for the first time and finding their voices. Below are the items that I would highlight as the best and worst developments of 2012 in the world of labor and progressive social movements.

THE WORST:

  • Conservatives have repeatedly tried to pass anti-worker legislation under misleading names and false slogans in 2012. This approach hasn’t always worked—California’s Prop 32, which would have unfairly restricted workers’ political speech in the state, failed at the polls in November. Sadly, though, at the end of the year, Michigan’s lame-duck legislature, dominated by a billionaire-funded GOP, passed a so-called “right to work” law. As has happened in other states, the new law will pit Michigan workers against each other by forcing those who pay union dues to represent and bargain for those who don’t. The state has been a union bulwark historically, so this is a sad sign for working people all over the country.
  • Neoliberal trade policy has continued to undermine the American middle class in 2012. As reporters Donald Barlett and James Steele have documented, the so-called “free trade” deals modeled after NAFTA are part of a pattern that has resulted in huge job losses here in the United States. This year, the Obama administration has been promoting a new pact based on this same model that would create a “free trade zone” made up of ten countries along the Pacific Rim, called the TransPacific Partnership (TPP). As Matt Stoller has said in Salon, the creation of the TPP has mostly flown under the radar, but it could lead to “offshoring of U.S. manufacturing and service-sector jobs,  inexpensive imported products, expanded global reach of U.S. multinationals, and less bargaining leverage for labor.” None of this is good for Americans who desperately need jobs to be created here.
  • Another disturbing trend that continued this year was giveaways of public funds to private companies. As watchdog Good Jobs First documented earlier this year, state and local governments handed out $32 billion to private corporations in the name of job creation, but with no real accountability or guarantees of public benefit.

 

THE BEST:

Not everything was bad news; there were also some positive developments that offer hope for the future. Four of these were:

  • Student activism allied with union advocacy paid off in San Jose, California, where a student-led coalition got a ballot initiative passed that will raise the minimum wage from $8 to $10 per hour for everyone working within the city limits. Organizers estimate the number of workers who will get a raise to be in the tens of thousands. I see this as a fine example of regional coalition-based organizing, and I hope it becomes a trend.

In 2013, as Obama starts his new term, we can find hope in these examples of regionally based innovation. Rather than waiting for change to come from above, we must take what is working at the regional level and turn it into a people’s agenda for Washington.

This was originally posted on The Century Foundation.

Photo by Shutter Stutter under Creative Commons license.

Help Obama Find His Shoes

5:04 pm in Uncategorized by Amy B. Dean

President Barack Obama’s re-election is a huge relief—we dodged the Romney/Ryan bullet.

However, that’s not the same as winning a better future. If Obama’s first term is a prologue to the second, we should not expect to see much progress in strengthening the rights or bargaining ability of workers. Therefore, in Obama’s second term, we need to be:

• Smarter about the policies we advocate.

• Selective about the candidates we endorse.

• More disciplined about building a strong social movement.

Progressives need to recognize where the real fight is happening. Congress is still firmly under Republican control—or, at least, under threat of a Republican veto that can stop any worthwhile federal legislation. Since progress won’t happen in Washington, we must work for it at the state and local level. We are already seeing some of the most exciting innovations take shape in cities and metropolitan regions. Urban labor-community coalitions are making respect for collective bargaining a precondition for businesses to receive public support. They are also approaching politics in a new way. In exchange for supporting candidates, these coalitions are ensuring that politicians use the bully pulpit to defend workers and denounce union-busting. In San Jose, Calif., student, labor and faith groups demanded that local politicians back an across-the-board minimum wage increase that passed on Election Day. And in Long Beach, Calif., a coalition of LGBT activists, labor and faith groups got city council members to endorse a ballot measure for hotel housekeepers to get a raise, which passed.

Such coalitions must evaluate elected officials on whether or not they understand that their success in pushing legislation forward is directly linked to the strength of social movements. As Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) told me earlier this year in an interview for The American Prospect, “Sympathetic members of Congress have the power to draft, introduce and vote on legislation. But leaders in the progressive community … have the ability to mobilize, educate and organize all across America. We need each other to be successful.” We can no longer afford to invest in politicians who do not understand this.

Most candidates favored by Democratic Party powerbrokers are unable to grasp this concept. The few who do have social-movement roots, such as Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.). Consequently, a long-term electoral strategy must involve cultivating candidates directly from the ranks of social movements and then fighting for them in the primaries.

As Obama begins his second term, Republican obstructionism cannot be an excuse for inaction—particularly when it comes to the president’s use of his bully pulpit.

During the recent attacks on collective bargaining rights in Wisconsin and Ohio, and during the teachers’ strike in Chicago, White House leadership was nowhere to be found. Obama once promised, “If American workers are being denied their right to organize and collectively bargain when I’m in the White House, I’ll put on a comfortable pair of shoes myself. I’ll walk on that picket line with you as President of the United States of America.”

The President seems to have misplaced his walking shoes. We should send him a new pair—and make sure that no future candidates we endorse have any excuse for losing theirs.

Originally published on In These Times.

President Obama Reelected—But Where Is the Pathway to Good Jobs?

2:15 pm in Uncategorized by Amy B. Dean

With Barack Obama’s reelection last night, we witnessed the labor movement once again, as in every successful Democratic presidential race in recent decades, saving the president. Its ground troops and financial backing provided the bulwark to shore up Obama’s lead against Romney. By aiding in Obama’s victory, unions helped avert the crisis that the election of Romney/Ryan would have represented—an attack not only on organized labor, but on women’s rights and the whole of the social safety net.

But what, in terms of a positive agenda, should working people expect that’s different from when President Obama was first elected? After the election of the last two Democratic presidents, organized labor had a clear legislative priority to hand to the successful candidate—the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) in the case of Obama’s first term, and a proposed ban on striker replacement in the case of President Clinton. In both cases, labor waited for the White House to lead on those issues, and that never happened. Neither EFCA nor the striker replacement ban came to pass.

This time around, labor does not have a single marquee piece of legislation that it is rallying around. We already know that any worker-friendly legislation that the White House advances will certainly face a blockade from Congressional Republicans. But that’s no excuse for the president to neglect using the bully pulpit to stand in defense of the rights of working people.

This is not a question of transactional politics. It’s not an issue of President Obama showing appreciation to labor for helping with his reelection. The need to revive the right to collective bargaining is important for a far more fundamental reason: without strengthening the ability of workers to negotiate for living-wage jobs, President Obama’s vows to restore the American middle class have little chance of being fulfilled.

Voters affirmed that the message presented by the Obama campaign was correct: the administration had inherited an economic mess, and under Obama’s presidency we have begun a recovery; it’s not moving fast enough, but the administration has put us on the right path. A Republican win would have destroyed any hope of achieving a true recovery for the 99 percent.

While that message is valid, Obama hasn’t provided an answer for how to make sure that new jobs that are being created in the economy are good jobs. In fact, the evidence is that the preponderance of jobs being created in the recovery do not support a middle-class standard of living. The National Employment Law Project’s report from August of this year, entitled The Low Wage Recovery and Growing Inequality, found that, during the recession, low-wage jobs grew 2.7 times as fast as middle- and high-wage jobs together. A total of 58 percent of the jobs created were low-wage jobs.

It’s not just the latest recession that has resulted in the loss of good jobs: the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) published a report in July that estimated that, since 1979, the economy has lost about one-third (28 to 38 percent) of its capacity to generate good jobs. One look at the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ list of the top thirty fastest-growing occupations bears out CEPR’s observation: a majority of the jobs listed pay less than $50,000 per year.

In the end, the only path to making new jobs into good jobs is to restore and support workers’ collective bargaining rights.

The reason our country has so often gotten itself into the position of being stuck in low-wage recoveries is that no president has taken on the issue of making the right to bargain collectively legal again in this country. If Obama does not address this in his second term, his administration will continue to watch the majority of Americans experience economic hardship.

The key issue for the president’s second term will be whether he understands that the health of our democracy has depended on having an enfranchised middle class, something that was built through collective bargaining and cannot be restored in its absence. If President Obama fails to recognize the stakes, the stated goals of his economic agenda—the creation of good jobs and the rescue of the American middle class—will be perpetually out of reach.

Four years ago, candidate Obama made a commitment to stand shoulder to shoulder with working people if their rights were ever threatened. That time has come. America’s working and middle class is in a fight for its life. The only question that remains in Obama’s second term, given that legislative remedies are not available, is whether America will see the president send a message by walking the picket lines and being an unabashed public spokesperson for workers’ rights.

Originally posted on The Century Foundation.

Can Obama Win Back the Youth Vote?

12:13 pm in Uncategorized by Amy B. Dean

Cross- posted from Huffington Post.

In 2008, young people in America — including many who voted in their first presidential election — rallied behind a youthful senator from Illinois campaigning on the promise of change and hope. Now the incumbent in the White House, Barack Obama faces a difficult challenge in recapturing the youth vote for his reelection. Early this month, The New York Times reported that enthusiasm for Obama among voters aged 18-24 has fallen sharply since the last election cycle. And many of the young people interviewed in the article spoke of feeling alienated from politics.

So what is behind young peoples’ disaffection? And what must President Obama do if he is serious about winning back the country’s youth?

Young People Face a Broken American Dream

Young people are not acting irrationally when they report growing cynical. They are responding to the reality of an American Dream that lies in fragments at their feet.

Traditionally, the promise of prosperity in this country has rested on three foundations: good jobs, decent housing, and attainable college education. In recent decades, each of these three legs of the stool of economic stability has been kicked out from underneath the middle class.

With regard to jobs, young people have been told they could do anything — that they were America’s best hope for a competitive edge over other developed nations. But for those entering the workforce today, the good jobs just aren’t there. A quick survey of Bureau of Labor Statistics data reveals that only one of the ten fastest-growing occupations carries a median income of over $50,000 per year. Five of the ten make less than $30,000.

Second, young people were told that if they studied diligently and prepared themselves for careers, their hard work would allow them to one day earn enough buy a home. Yet home ownership is getting more and more inaccessible, with affordable housing now as distant a reality as well-paying jobs.

Finally, there’s college. University education was supposed to provide the basis for achieving the other two keys to middle class life. However, today’s graduates leave college shackled by ruinous debt, with sky-high tuition meaning that students must take tens of thousands of dollars in student loans. Even in a good case scenario, these loans take decades to pay off.

The New York Times‘ story about growing alienation of young people from politics included interviews with several 18- to 24-year-olds who said the impossibility of finding decent work and the burden of student debt were driving factors in their despair. Their alienation is not baseless pessimism. Rather, it reflects a breakdown in our political and economic system.

The Consequences of Abandoning Our Youth

Failure to invest in America’s youth has serious consequences: a loss of international competitiveness, a rise in disenfranchisement, and an expanding polarization in our politics.

While the United States languishes, other nations are actually investing in their young people. That America is a world leader in student debt leaves members of our next generation with a disadvantage over their foreign counterparts that promises to become a long-term liability. Moreover, countries like Sweden and Germany have government-sponsored workforce investment and apprenticeship programs that help their young people transition into full-time work with some confidence of future security.

The Obama campaign’s 2008 promise of hope inspired many, but it also raised the danger of creating false hope amongst our youth. We need a next generation that is engaged in renewing our politics and making current beltway deadlock obsolete. But young people who feel ever more disenfranchised are ever less likely to take on that challenge. False hope fosters a lingering sense of anger, cynicism, and distance from civic life.

Those who do bother to get involved in politics may be tempted to enter at the fringes. Loss of hope is giving rise to something even more insidious than embarrassment on the international stage; it quietly pushes more young people to the extreme edges of social and political discourse. Those who feel they have been sold a false bill of goods find solace in the messages of conservatives and libertarians, who offer no policies to address the true interests of young people, but who effectively channel popular disaffection into a worldview that pits working people against one another.

Winning Back the Next Generation of Voters

More polarization is the last thing we need. Obama can re-inspire young people, but he will have to show some concrete results, not just rhetoric, in order to do it this time.

First, instead of kicking the can down the road on student loans, the president must take action to ameliorate the pain of existing debts and save young people from crippling financial burdens. After months of stalemate, Congress finally reached a deal on June 29 to extend the low 3.4% percent interest rate on federally subsidized Stafford student loans for one more year. But that means that without further action from Congress and the president, those loans will jump to 6.8 percent next year, hitting young graduates in the pocketbook just as they are exiting school. Obama is using his commitment to student loan reform as a campaign issue: he mentioned the loan rates in his weekly address just days before the vote. But Obama could go further by supporting Rep. Hansen Clarke’s (D-MI) Student Loan Forgiveness Act, a bill that would forgive federal student loans after borrowers have made payments of 10 percent of their incomes for ten years. Those who work in public service would get their loans forgiven after five years. It’s not a panacea, but having the president use his bully pulpit in support of the measure would help to show young people he is serious about making college affordable.

Second, Obama could introduce stronger workforce investment measures, such as expanding vocational certificate programs as a pathway toward improved job skills and higher educational attainment. A June 5 study from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce entitled “Certificates: Gateway to Gainful Employment and College Degrees,” found that certificates, which take less time and money to earn than do college degrees, could serve as an important path forward for a segment of young people preparing to enter the workforce. The study’s authors, Anthony P. Carnevale, Stephen J. Rose and Andrew R. Hanson, recommend investing in certificate programs in order to boost young and displaced workers’ prospects during this period of high unemployment. Indeed, employers say jobs requiring online research (and other skills in which one can earn a certificate) are sitting vacant. Yet Obama’s education budget proposal for 2013 focused almost exclusively on college completion, requesting little or no new funding for non-degree certificate programs.

(Dr. Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joe Biden, has been crisscrossing the country on a campaign tour to showcase community colleges as career-starters. If Biden were to add a few certificate programs to the tour as part of her workforce development boosterism, it could encourage Obama to transform his verbal support for vocational education into actual dollars for these programs in his 2014 budget proposal.)

Finally, Obama needs to work to restore the right for people to bargain collectively with their employers over the conditions of their employment. It was not preordained that the manufacturing jobs that gave rise to America’s middle class would pay living wages and provide decent benefits. Those things were won through collective action. Instead of making empty promises to bring back factories that have moved overseas, the White House should focus on making sure that the jobs that do exist in this country are good ones.

That means reinventing collective bargaining for the next generation, cracking down on corporations that violate rights to free association, and creating new means for workers who are independent contractors or have non-traditional work arrangements to join in employees’ organizations. A variety of innovative proposals — from extending the Civil Rights Act to protect the right to unionize, to instating “just cause” laws at the state level — have been proposed as steps toward achieving these goals. But the Obama administration has yet to make employees’ right to organize a priority.

That is a problem. For without good jobs, affordable housing, and a solution to the student debt crisis, young people will have every reason to cry foul about the choices of political leadership being presented to them — and to demand something better than what the president currently has on offer.