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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.

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.

Not a Union Member?: Why You Should Care About Wisconsin (or Ohio, or Michigan)

4:28 pm in Uncategorized by Amy B. Dean

After two weeks of protests in Wisconsin, we are now watching demonstrations spread across the country. Over the weekend, the on-line advocacy group MoveOn.org helped to mobilize tens of thousands of people, who marched in all fifty state capitals in support of Wisconsin workers. Demonstrators are speaking out against attacks by Republican governors in Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan and their own states.

It is entirely appropriate that protests should spread, because recent events in Wisconsin are only a window into what is happening in states scattered across the country. It is important that we understand the scope of this debate. This is a discussion that has impact on all Americans, not just union members. One point should be clear: This is not a story of public employees trying to feed at the trough. It is a story about whether or not governors can take away fundamental workers’ rights.

Everyone in this country is entitled to their opinion about politics and public policy. Every governor is free to propose policies that he or she feels are in the public interest, even if others might disagree with those actions. But they must follow the rule of law.

In this case, newly elected Republican governors can certainly negotiate contracts with public employees. But there is a lawful process for such negotiation. It involves sitting down at a bargaining table, talking through disagreements, and coming to a mutual agreement. Instead of engaging in this process, governors like Wisconsin’s Scott Walker want to unilaterally take away people’s rights, while claiming that they are doing something entirely different. He and others like him are using budget issues as a subterfuge for their power grab. That is not acceptable. And it is why they have stirred the passions of so many.

Many people may not see collectively bargaining as relevant to problems in their own work lives. You might think, I don’t need a union because I’m a professional. Even if this is the case, you are nevertheless affected by a growing imbalance of power in today’s workplaces.

There was a time in America when employers couldn’t unilaterally decide to take away health care or pensions. Workers had some say in deciding to accept less in wages in order to hold on to their families’ health care coverage. Yet in recent decades, we’ve moved toward a situation where there are little or no counter-balances to the whims of employers. America’s once-strong middle class has dwindled as a result.

Whether any of us happen to be union or non-union, we need to get back to the day when people had a say in negotiating the terms of their employment. In the past, public employees opted to prioritize their health care and retirement over other forms of compensation. They should still have a right to believe their employers will abide by the legitimate contracts they previously negotiatied.. They have the right, in other words, to be treated just as any of us would expect to be treated when we’ve come to an agreement with an employer regarding our livelihoods.

It is important to understand that this is not a question of tightening belts to cope with a moment of economic crisis. Public employees in Wisconsin and beyond have been very clear that they are willing to bear their share of common sacrifice in tough times. But they are not willing to give up the basic rights to associate, to belong to a union, or to organize collectively.

This is something that should matter for all Americans. Because if our rights related to association and collective bargaining can simply be denied, taken away as part of an executive initiative disguised as being about something else, then other rights are also at risk. We avoid restricting freedom of speech in our country because we recognize that encroachments on our freedoms create a slippery slope. One violation of basic rights leads to another. If we don’t stand up now against abuses of power on the part of state executives, the safety of our dearest liberties could be called into question.

Our ability to freely associate and form organizations to advance whatever political and economic interests we might have is one of the things that makes this country great. It is something that Alexis de Tocqueville admired about American democracy when he wrote his renowned observations about our political system in the early nineteenth century.

We abandon this democratic tradition at our peril. A politics that condemns public employees for being greedy because they insist on maintaining their rights is profoundly dishonest and dangerous. The fact that we have elections in this country is not enough to safeguard our democracy. If we allow rights to be restricted, under the auspices of a twisted interpretation of the rule of law, we follow a treacherous path that has historically led the way to tyranny.

Those outside of Wisconsin who have joined in solidarity protests and those speaking out against assaults by their own governors on middle-class employees, understand that this issue impacts us all. Our rights are too precious to be sacrificed without a fight.

– Amy Dean is co-author, with David Reynolds, of A New New Deal: How Regional Activism Will Reshape the American Labor Movement. She worked for nearly two decades in the labor movement and now works to develop new and innovative organizing strategies for social change organizations in progressive, labor, and faith communities. You can follow Amy on Twitter at @amybdean, or she can be reached via the Web site, www.amybdean.com.