Proposed labor policy riddled with problems

Editorial

Labor Day began at the instigation of labor unions in the 1860s as a way to celebrate the “working man” and demonstrate the “esprit de corps of the trade and labor organizations.”

As membership in unions (except, interestingly, government employee unions) has waned, the day has increasingly become, unofficially, the Last Great Barbecue of Summer. Every so often someone will try to reshape the spirit of the day by reminding us that all work, whether physical, intellectual or entrepreneurial, is worthy of respect and appreciation.

This year, however, several labor and business organizations are using Labor Day to address a work-related issue that is current and relevant — confused plans for dealing with illegal immigrants.

Congress failed to pass either a comprehensive or an enforcement-focused immigration package this year. So President Bush has announced a plan to have the government notify employers about workers who are using Social Security number that differ from government records. If employers don’t act within 90 days, either to clarify the records or fire the workers, they would face fines and possible criminal prosecution.

Within a few months as many as 140,000 employers are expected to receive letters regarding more than 8 million workers. Presumably a large number of illegal workers will be summarily dismissed.

That might sound like a beginning to a solution to the problem of millions of immigrants being in this country illegally. However, as Terence O’Sullivan, president of the Laborers’ International Union and Stephen Sandherr, CEO of Associated General Contractors, put it in a jointly written op-ed this week:

“While these letters will force undocumented workers to leave jobs … they will not feel compelled to leave the country. Nor will national security be strengthened, as the undocumented will not come forward and be identified.

“Rather, many workers already in the shadows of our economy will begin a cycle of musical chairs, moving from employer to employer until the next no-match letter arrives.”

The construction industry, already shaky in the wake of the mortgage meltdown, is likely to be hit hard.

The Social Security Administration’s inspector general reported last year that the Social Security database used to identify suspicious numbers contains erroneous records on 17.8 million people, including 12.7 million native-born U.S. citizens. Thus millions of innocent people could find themselves in a bureaucratic maelstrom, facing the almost infinitely frustrating prospect of trying to get the government to correct a mistake.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO seldom agree in public, but both are concerned about this proposed policy.

They want the administration to postpone it for six months, think through the implications, and come up with something better.

That’s a good idea.