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Business, labor still at odds on temporary workers

Published on NewsOK Modified: March 15, 2013 at 4:01 pm •  Published: March 15, 2013

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Chamber of Commerce's lead immigration negotiator said Friday he's hoping for a deal soon with the AFL-CIO on a new temporary worker program, but the sides are still apart on important details.

The issue has emerged as perhaps the toughest obstacle to completion of comprehensive immigration legislation taking shape on Capitol Hill. Senators working on the bill gave the Chamber and the AFL-CIO the job of helping negotiate an agreement on the temporary worker issue.

Randy Johnson, the chamber's senior vice president for labor, immigration and employee benefits, told reporters at a briefing that points of contention include wages and the overall number of visas in the new program. He said the chamber sought 400,000 new visas for temporary workers while the AFL-CIO's opening number was much lower, in the low five figures.

Johnson said the chamber and AFL-CIO are still talking, but much of the negotiating work has now been kicked up to Sens. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and others in the bipartisan Gang of Eight, which is trying to complete a bill in time to release it once Congress returns from a two-week recess in early April. In addition to the temporary worker issue, the bill would aim to secure the border, strengthen workplace enforcement and provide an eventual path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the U.S.

"Having been through this I wouldn't say it's taking longer than expected, but it's been difficult," Johnson said of talks with labor. "The next week-and-a-half will tell the tale."

Andrea Zuniga DiBitetto, legislative representative for the AFL-CIO, said the labor group remains "absolutely committed, we are committed to working on comprehensive immigration reform, committed to citizenship and committed to honoring our agreement to come to agreement with the chamber."

The question of temporary workers has traditionally produced a stark divide between business and labor, with business seeking a large, low-cost supply of workers, and labor opposed to any guest-worker program that could threaten American laborers and produce questionable working conditions.

The issue contributed to the failure of the last serious attempt at immigration reform in 2007, and Schumer and Graham sought to head off such an outcome this time around by asking chamber President Tom Donohue and AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka to work together.

The talks have progressed in fits and starts. Last month the two sides agreed on broad principles, which was more progress than in the past but no guarantee of a final deal. Johnson said he'd hoped to be able to announce a deal Friday, but the groups couldn't get there.

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