TPM’s Benjy Sarlin has a good report on a development so gradual that its importance may have been missed: the emergence of the labor movement as a champion of comprehensive immigration reform:

SEIU is committing the full force of its 2.1 million members to pushing comprehensive reform in 2013, with plans for rallies around the country, education campaigns for members, and an inside game aimed at lobbying lawmakers in Washington towards a final vote. The AFL-CIO, the nation’s largest federation of unions, is on board as well; and the two sometimes rival groups are united around a common set of policy principles after splitting on President George W. Bush’s failed immigration effort. Both organizations identify passing a bill that includes a path to citizenship for the undocumented population as one of their absolute top priorities for the 113th Congress.

Yes, the AFL-CIO opposed the Bush bill because of its inclusion of “guest worker” provisions. But labor opposition to legislation liberalizing immigration laws used to be common:

As recently as the 1990s, the movement’s official position was, as [SEIU secretary treasurer Eliseo] Medina put it, “anti-immigrant or at least anti-undocumented immigrant.”

As Sarlin explains, the great pioneer of immigrant labor and political rights, United Farm Workers president Cesar Chavez, took a hard line against undocumented works from Mexico as “an endless source of scab labor.” But SEIU went in a different direction, and by 2000, the AFL-CIO had revised its policies, “calling for blanket amnesty for undocumented immigrants and condemning immigration raids against organizing workers.”

This evolution reflects a broader development in labor’s outlook:

[A]ccording to Ruth Milkman, a sociologist at CUNY who researches labor and immigration, the emphasis on passing a bill [on immigration] does point toward an emerging focus on low wage workers that’s increasingly defining the movement. It’s not just because immigrant-heavy jobs like janitors and nurses assistants are growing the fastest. By stressing their struggles working in typically low wage jobs, the SEIU and AFL-CIO may have a better shot at winning hearts and minds outside the movement than they would by highlighting workers in industries with more generous wages and benefits.

“In that sense, the moral high ground of the labor movement unionizing efforts is in the low wage workforce and that workforce is growing like crazy even as we have high unemployment,” Milkman said. “There are jobs doing home care for sick people, restaurant dishwashing, domestic work, all expanding. Their future is in that sector — even if that doesn’t mean getting immigration reform will suddenly let them organize people.”

So this is one famous “wedge issue” that conservatives can no longer use to divide the labor movement from other progressives.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.