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Navarrette: Unions afraid to compete with foreign workers

Farm workers harvest trees in Idaho. A Bush administration attempt to make it easier for farm workers to obtain H-2A visas was opposed by unions.

Farm workers harvest trees in Idaho. A Bush administration attempt to make it easier for farm workers to obtain H-2A visas was opposed by unions.

SAN DIEGO – Comprehensive immigration reform is a three-legged stool: enhanced border enforcement; earned legalization for the undocumented; and guest workers for U.S. employers to fill jobs that Americans won’t do.

The first two items stir up loads of controversy. But the third can be just as controversial, especially when labor unions that exist to protect their members decide that what members really need protection from are foreign workers.

Just look at what happened recently when the Bush administration – which tried to get comprehensive immigration reform through Congress but failed in part because of labor’s opposition to guest workers – tried to make it easier for one group of employers to use foreign workers. The bureaucratic change, the most significant in 20 years to the nation’s H-2A visa program, was met with incredible hostility from organized labor and its friends in the Democratic Party.

The H-2A program allows agribusiness to temporarily hire foreign workers for the dirty and difficult field jobs it can’t fill with U.S. workers. Farmers had typically bypassed the program because – with its bureaucratic delays, red tape and requirement that they pay foreign workers more than minimum wage – they considered the option to be more trouble than it is worth.

For instance, in California, the state-imposed minimum wage is $8 per hour. The wage for H-2A guest workers is almost $10 per hour. So it’s no wonder that while more than 500,000 agricultural workers toil in the fields of the Golden State during peak harvest times, only about 5,000 (or 1 percent) come by way of H-2A visas.

That’s the conundrum about guest worker programs: The more costs, requirements, and worker protections you build in, the less likely employers are to participate. So what is the point of having the programs if no one uses them?

To make the H-2A program more attractive to farmers, the Bush administration changed the way that wages are calculated to make them more competitive, lessened the pointless requirement that growers show they made a good-faith effort to recruit U.S. workers, and eliminated duplicate paperwork between state and federal agencies in processing applications.

None of this went over well with organized labor and its supporters, who hyperbolically accused the administration of pushing indentured servitude by depressing wages and setting up workers to be exploited.

The standard lingo from organized labor has always been that workers from India, China, El Salvador, Mexico or other countries are attractive to U.S. employers for only one reason: because they come from such desperate circumstances that they will often work for lower wages than Americans. But, employers insist, foreign workers also tend to work harder, give more of their time, complain less, and not act like they’re doing the boss a favor by taking a paycheck.

At the end of the day, what unions are really protecting their members from is something that many Americans, and no doubt many U.S. industries, would love to avoid: competition. This is especially true in tough economic times. Beleaguered U.S. automakers have no appetite for competing with Japanese companies that make cars on U.S. soil, employ U.S. workers and still rule the marketplace. Just as many U.S. manufacturers would probably breathe easier if they didn’t have to compete with imported goods from Asia or Latin America.

By attacking competition, labor unions – which have a tight grip on the Democratic Party and will squeeze when necessary – are trying to become the thing that businesses are prohibited from becoming: monopolies. Organized labor would love to tell employers: Either use union workers or you’re out of business.

That would be a disaster and would only increase our current economic troubles. Employers need the flexibility that the hiring of foreign workers provides. The administration thwarted a monopoly by preserving foreign competition, sidestepping partisan gridlock and fixing a program that was hopelessly broken.

Bush critics will never give the administration credit for the good in that or, for that matter, anything else it has done right in the last eight years. But, when it comes to guest workers, the facts speak for themselves. Let’s hope the U.S. agricultural industry and those who consume its products are listening.

Ruben Navarrette Jr., is a columnist and editorial board member of The San Diego Union Tribune. E-mail: ruben.navarrette@uniontrib.com.

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