AFL-CIO chief vows ‘full-fledged campaign’ for immigration overhaul

Organized labor is “entirely behind” comprehensive immigration reform and will mount a “full-fledged” campaign to help drive it through Congress, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka told Yahoo News on Tuesday.

Trumka, whose federation comprises 57 unions representing some 12 million people, called the planned overhaul “one of our top priorities right now.” He spoke by telephone from Las Vegas, Nev., where he was to attend President Barack Obama’s speech on immigration reform.

“We think everybody ought to have the right to work hard and to progress to citizenship,” Trumka said.

White House officials cite robust support from organized labor—which at times in recent history has opposed giving the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants on U.S. soil a path to citizenship—as a key factor in their optimism about getting a comprehensive bill through Congress. They also point to the expansion of support among Christians, notably evangelicals. And they joke that the difficulty of managing a broad coalition is the kind of problem they like having.

Unions “did have at one point some differences” on the issue, but “the entire labor movement is entirely behind this now,” Trumka said. “We’ll be at the table the whole time this thing is being developed to make sure it meets the needs of workers.” Once it’s drafted, he continued, “we’ll be pushing this thing [with a] full-fledged campaign” aimed at both public opinion and wary lawmakers.

“We’ll be targeting those in the House or the Senate that either are recalcitrant and don’t want to do anything or aren’t where they need to be," he said.

Labor wants to see a comprehensive overhaul—"It can’t just be hit and miss," Trumka added—that does a better job of managing legal immigration to meet labor market needs, ensures employers are not exploiting undocumented immigrants, gives those on U.S. soil illegally a path to citizenship and makes sure that families are not broken up, he said.

Trumka also noted that unions are “a little concerned” about a proposed provision in the bipartisan Senate framework requiring that undocumented immigrants seeking legal status provide “a proven history of employment.” That could be difficult—employers may not want to admit that they hired such workers—but it could “be defined in a very broad sense,” he said.

“The system is clearly broken right now, doesn’t work for anybody, doesn’t work for the country,” he added.

The AFL-CIO, the country's largest labor federation, isn't exactly a newcomer to the debate. It produced an outline of its own in August 2009. While organized labor's national clout has diminished along with shrinking membership, unions remain a core constituency for Democrats, and much of the party's backbone, providing cash and voter outreach.