American Unions And Their About-Face On Immigration


The lengthy testimony of Vernon M. Briggs Jr. of Cornell University to the Subcommittee on Immigration of the U.S. House of Representatives, delivered on May 24, 2007, makes for compelling reading. It is evident from the text that American unions have undergone a shocking and disgraceful transformation, and that the betrayal of their constituents is a strategic gambit common to labour organizations elsewhere.

In his deposition, Briggs demonstrated that for more than a century, from the civil war until the late 1980s, organized labour either directly initiated or strongly supported every legislative effort to restrict immigration or enforce its policy provisions. The National Labor Union, for example, successfully fought for the repeal of the Contract Labor Act of 1864, which allowed employees to recruit foreign laborers and pay them nothing until transportation and subsistence was repaid. The Act was seen as a method to stimulate immigration and suppress wages for Americans. The NLU also fought to repeal the Burlingame Treaty that allowed Chinese immigrants to enter the country, when it was apparent that they were being used as strike-breakers. The NLU was followed in this objective by the Knights of Labor who succeeded in getting the treaty amended to allow the United States to suspend the entry of unskilled Chinese immigrants, with the passage of the durable Chinese Exclusion Act (which lasted until 1943).

The American Federation of Labour (AFL) carried on this tradition of attending to the needs of resident American workers. Its leader, Samuel Gompers, declared in 1896, that immigration is doing a great injury to our people. The following year the Union passed a resolution calling for a literacy test that would reduce the entry of unskilled workers into the United States. It could be compared to the English language dictation test demanded by Australian law or to similar proposals made for Canada. A 1911 AFL report found that mass immigration was depressing wages, increasing unemployment and poverty, and hampering unions in their organizing drives. The immigration laws of 1917, 1921 and 1924 reflected many of the AFLs concerns.

Other prominent labour leaders were also supportive of the immigration legislation. A. Phillip Randolph, Briggs points out, argued that the appropriate immigration level should be zero, because mass immigration not only impeded union organizational capability but hurt African-American workers who were just finding economic opportunities in the north. Clearly the consensus in the American labour movement was that in Gompers words, immigration is fundamentally a labour issue and that a tight labour market is the American workers best friend.

But suddenly in 1993, the AFL-CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations) made a shocking break with history by passing a resolution praising the role that immigrants have played in building the nation and attacking critics of illegal immigration. In 1996, they joined a coalition of business, agri-business and Christian conservatives to kill provisions of a bill to limit refugee admissions and verify Social Security numbers of newly-hired workers to discourage illegal workers. And, in February 2000 the Executive Council of the AFL-CIO announced it was changing its historic position (and) would now support expanded immigration, lenient enforcement of immigration laws and the legislative agenda of immigrant advocacy groups. In other words, the union abruptly decided to abandon the representation of American workers to become the champion of immigrant, particularly illegal, immigrant workers. Why?

Realpolitik. It was a fact of life that employers alone, not unions, had the means to hire workers, and in the wake of the biggest migratory wave in history, they were hiring illegal workers for unskilled positions. Unions were either going to surrender the service industry to employers, and thereby increase the incentive to hire more illegal workers, or they would make a bid to organize them. To do that successfully, they would have to ingratiate themselves to immigrants by embracing immigrant causes, and sacrifice historical union attitudes to immigration.

In reading Briggs assessment, one is struck by the remarkable parallel between the cold calculations of the AFL-CIO post-1993 and that of the Sierra Club post-1996. Until 1996, the Sierra Club always acknowledged that population stability for the United States was a key component of a healthy environment, and that restrictive immigration was a critical part of population stability. But a $100 million ultimatum from David Gelbaum (that none of his money would find its way into Sierra Club coffers if they included immigration in Club policy) persuaded the ruling body that the Elephant in the Room, Americas immigration-induced population explosion, was no longer there.

The clinching argument, though, was that if the Sierra Club was to survive the demographic shift of the 21st century, it would be imperative to recruit Hispanics in droves. But to entice these potential members, it would be necessary to jettison an immigration plank that would seem to threaten to choke off Hispanic migration.

So just as the AFL-CIO chose the immigrant agenda over the economic well-being of the American work force, the Sierra Club chose an Hispanic agenda over the well-being of the environment, which is being killed by runaway population growth fuelled in large part by illegal Hispanic immigration.

Does this strategy of dropping the American bird in the hand to chase two Spanish songbirds in the bush make any sense? Briggs highlights a disturbing correlation: When the percentage of the foreign-born population in the United States rises, the percentage of union membership falls.

In the 1930s and World War II in the 1940s, immigration levels fell dramatically while union membership levels soared to unprecedented levels. In 1965 the foreign-born population was 4.4% of the U.S. total, but union membership was 30.1% of the non-agricultural sector. By 2006, the U.S. foreign born had multiplied by three and risen to 12.1% of the population. In the same time, union membership had been divided by almost three and fallen to only 12% of the non-agricultural sector.

The verdict is obvious. Mass immigration was lethal to organized labour.

Briggs concludes What is bad economics for working people can never be good politics for unions.

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