AZ Chamber, local union find common interest amid disputes - East Valley Tribune: Capitol Media Services

AZ Chamber, local union find common interest amid disputes

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Posted: Friday, August 30, 2013 3:30 pm | Updated: 3:35 pm, Mon Jan 13, 2014.

PHOENIX — Don't look for the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry to give up this coming year on its perennial bid to limit how union dues can be used to affect politics.

Glenn Hamer, the organization's president, said he continues to believe the money union members are forced to pay should be limited to collective bargaining goals, not trying to defeat candidates who just happen to be backed by business interests and their money.

At the same time, Rebekah Friend, executive director of the state AFL-CIO, will continue to work —successfully so far — to get federal judges to overturn what Hamer and allies manage to push through the Republican-controlled Legislature.

But business and union interests have found some common ground to actually work together in the coming months. They both want the House to approve the comprehensive immigration reform package that already has cleared the Senate.

Hamer said it comes down to a “commonality of interests.”

“Everyone benefits when jobs that are not being filled by American-born workers are filled by international workers,” he said. “We call them 'gaps in the workplace.'”

While business looks at the issue as one of filling jobs, Friend said unions see this on a broader — and perhaps self-interested level.

“I do think you have to have a healthy economy in order to have good jobs,” she said. And by “good jobs,” Friend said that usually means union jobs.

“So there is kind of a synergy that occurs naturally between the chamber and us,” she said.

In both cases, the issue is money — albeit from different perspectives.

Friend said organized labor has a real problem with the current immigration policies, such as they exist, which result in companies hiring undocumented and untrained workers for certain kinds of jobs.

“It's not so much that they're taking jobs away from anyone,” she explained.

“It's more that, in the fields where we do have trained craftspeople, that they bring in immigrants or lure immigrants and then pay them less,” Friend said. “And, of course, we see a lot of worker abuse.”

Hamer, however, said he sees the issue more as one of availability rather than lower wages.

“The motivator here is the ability to find people who are willing to do difficult work,” he said. “If it were just simply raising wages a reasonable level, all things being equal, businesses would rather just go with the domestic labor supply where you don't have to go through all these headaches.”

He cited a personal experience where, during the rainy season, his house developed a leak.

“We tried to get a roofer out to fix the problem before our house sailed away,” Hamer said. “The roofer, who is a Republican small businessman said, 'I can't get people.'”

Hamer conceded that part of the issue may be that some companies are “paying too little” to get the workers they need. But he said it's not that simple.

“The workforce that's going through our schools is not being trained to go on a roof or to pick lettuce in Yuma,” he said, creating those gaps that concern business.

“That's what's driving business” to support immigration reform, Hamer said, “not a campaign to suppress wages.”

Friend said she is not very worried about the agriculture component, saying there is far more demand for people to pick lettuce than legal residents willing to do that kind of work. But other components of the measure do concern her a bit.

For example, there is a boost in the number of H1B visas, available for skilled workers. Potentially more significant will be creation of a new W visa to allow brining up to 200,000 low-skilled workers a year into the country for jobs in construction, long-term case and the hospitality industry.

But Friend said the Senate bill has to be viewed as a compromise. And she believes there are sufficient safeguards to prevent displacing U.S. workers.

“A company has to show that it's exhausted sources here for those jobs,” Friend said. “There's oversight built into that bill.”

It isn't just a question of numbers of new wages. Friend also said the measure appears to be designed to prevent wage deflation.

One section of the provisions on the W visas says workers must be paid the higher of the minimum wage or the prevailing wage for that industry. That, said Friend, prevents immigrant labor from undercutting the wages of domestic workers — the kind of undercutting she said occurs now with the shadow economy of undocumented workers.

She specifically cites the construction industry.

“They bring the workers in and they pay them less and then they don't pay them any benefits,” Friend said. “And so our union — and even our non-union — contractors can't compete.”

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