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Labor leaders slam Mikulski over visa program

More than a dozen national union leaders have sent a scathing letter to U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, chastising her for supporting an expanded guest worker program and accusing her of selling out American workers.

The leaders with North America's Building Trades unions delivered their message last week to protest the Maryland Democrat's advocacy on behalf of the state's seafood industry, which depends heavily on the program.

Mikulski, who is retiring this year after three decades in the Senate, succeeded in protecting the program as part of last month's $1.1 trillion omnibus budget bill. Her efforts won praise from the Eastern Shore's crab-picking industry, which she has long championed, but condemnation from labor.

"Put simply, your 'accomplishment' has undermined the fundamental principle, embedded in U.S. immigration law for more than one hundred years, that U.S. workers must be protected from unfair competition by foreign workers for both temporary and permanent jobs," the union leaders wrote.

It was signed by Sean McGarvey, president of the building trades council, and 13 union presidents. They included James B. Hoffa, general president of The International Brotherhood of Teamsters, and the heads of the unions representing plumbers, roofers, laborers, bricklayers and electricians.

Mikulski, the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, said she was "startled" by the criticism.

"I have been a persistent supporter of labor, including their right to organize, by voting for the Employee Free Choice Act and for [prevailing wage] legislation to ensure good wages in federal construction jobs," she said in a statement. "As for creating jobs in America and throughout Maryland, my record on the Appropriations speaks for itself:"

The dust-up involves what is known as the H-2B visa program, which is intended to help employers fill positions that American workers have typically been reluctant to take. Among the industries that depend on the program is Maryland's crab-picking industry.

While that industry is a small part of the H2B program, it depends heavily on seasonal guest workers from such countries as Mexico. According to federal data, many more of the visas go to landscapers, amusement park workers and housekeepers.

Organized labor has long opposed the program. In the letter to Mikulski, the union leaders said it leads to "diminished job opportunities for hard-working Americans."

Other critics of the program, including some immigrant rights groups, contend that it fosters exploitation of the foreign workers who receive the visas. The Southern Poverty Law Center has condemned the program as a "sellout to corporate interests."

The union letter echoed that charge, telling Mikulski she chose to "pursue a narrow focus on protecting the status quo of a niche industry that has been shown, over and over again, to be a culvert of abuse, exploitation and outright indentured servitude."

Bill Sieling, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Seafood Industries Association, said he didn't believe that was a reference to his industry and declined to comment on the unions' criticism of Mikulski.

McGarvey, interviewed Saturday, said the letter writers were referring to Maryland's crab-picking and other seafood-processing industries.

Mikulski has long been one of Maryland's most popular politicians among Democrats, Republicans and independents. Since she was first elected to the Senate in 1986, she has won every race by overwhelming margins.

She also has been repeatedly endorsed by unions. According to the AFL-CIO, as of 2014 she had a 95 percent lifetime score from the federation's political arm.

But McGarvey said Mikulski has been at odds with the building trades over the H-2B visa program for at least 10 years. He said the program has been used, especially in the South, to displace skilled and unskilled American workers in the construction trades. He said Mikulski was largely responsible for slipping the H2B visa expansion into the budget bill in the "dead of night."

"She tripled the number of H2B visas available, and she stripped any and all of the labor protections," he said.

Mikulski said her record "speaks for itself in promoting jobs in construction."

She pointed to her efforts to secure $150 million for renovation of the Social Security headquarters in Woodlawn and $390 million to bring a new FBI headquarters to Prince George's County. In addition, Mikulski said, she has brought $1 billion to Maryland over the past decade for military construction.

"I can retire knowing that I played a role in creating jobs around the state," she said.

mdresser@baltsun.com

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