NLPC Special Report 3
Unions, by their nature, seek tomaximize membership. Yet by the sametoken, they seek the most favorableterms possible in contract negotia-tions. The two goals—membershipand bargaining power—may conflict,especially when the skill level of new-comers to the labor market is low. When the supply of labor is rapidly ris-ing, it is more difficult to maintain jobsecurity through collective bargaining,even with successful organizing.
Andnothing expands a workforce like massimmigration.
It may be difficult to fathom,but there actually was a time in ournation's history when unions recog-nized this, and accordingly, were at theforefront of persuading Congress torestrict immigration. Organized labor'smetamorphosis into mass-immigrationcheerleaders—seemingly at odds withits own best interests—is a story that isat once fascinating and disturbing.
SETTING THE STAGE:HISTORICAL OVERVIEW
Organized labor was a latecomer in itssupport of mass immigration. For wellover a century, unions had been averseto it. Their leaders believed that immi-grants—especially the desperate among them—were willing to accept wages,benefits and working conditions thatmost native-born Americans would not.In large enough numbers, they argued,immigrants could pose a threat to unionbargaining power, even as they poten-tially stood to enlarge membership. Evenin the labor movement's earliest years,predating the formation of the AmericanFederation of Labor in 1886, unionssuch as the Glass Bottle Blowers' Associa-tion, the Horse Nail Workers' Union,and the Retail Clerks Protective Asso-ciation petitioned Congress to restrictimmigration.
Such fears have been borne out by extensive research. "(E)very seriousstudy over the past 100 years," notesCornell University labor economist Ver-non Briggs, "has found that wages aredepressed by immigration, the adverseimpact being most severe for unskilled workers."
A sizeable volume of pub-lished research over the last dozen years,particularly by Harvard's George Borjas,likewise has concluded that the leasteducated and skilled among the native-born are the most susceptible to job dis-placement by unskilled immigrants.
Support for large-scale immigra-tion, then as now, consisted of an alli-ance of (wage-minimizing) employersand (vote-maximizing) ethnic politi-cians. But unlike today, labor leadersexplicitly had opposed this alliance. In1912, union officials supported leg-islation in Congress that would haverequired literacy tests for immigrants;the measure passed, but President Taftvetoed it. They supported similar leg-islation a couple years later, only tohave President Wilson likewise apply his veto pen.
American Federationof Labor founder Samuel Gomperscautioned that organizations opposing immigration restrictions for ostensibly "sentimental" or "idealistic" reasonsin fact had received financial supportfrom business organizations.
Soundfamiliar? In a letter to Congress datedMarch 19, 1924, Gompers wrote:
America must not be overwhelmed (by immi-grants) . . . Every effort to enact immigrationmust expect to meet a number of hostile forcesand, in particular, two hostile forces of consid-erable strength. One of these is composed of corporation employers who desire to employ physical strength . . . at the lowest wage and who prefer a rapidly revolving labor supply atlow wages to a regular supply of American wageearners at fair wages. The other is composed of racial groups in the United States who opposeall restrictive legislation because they want thedoors left open for an influx of their country-men regardless of the menace to the people of their adopted country.
Congress did pass restrictive legislationin that fateful year of 1924, strengthen-ing temporary national-origin quotasit had enacted three year earlier. If thenew law met with opposition from laborleaders, it was because it didn't go farenough. A. Philip Randolph, black civil-rights pioneer and future president of theBrotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, forexample, had sought zero immigration.
For four decades the restrictions ben-efited organized labor and the rest of America. As first-and second-generationimmigrants assimilated, many of them joined unions, and without having theirbargaining position weakened by subse-quent large-scale waves of newcomers.Briggs lays out a strong case that the twotrends—the rise of unionism and thedecline in immigration—were of a piece."The cessation of mass immigration overthese years, made it easier for the third- wave immigrants and their descendantsto become assimilated and for the processof social elevation to occur," he notes.
Unions served as a vehicle for assimila-tion by immigrants, affirming to themand their children that America repre-sented the future. Union membership,having sharply declined during 1920–24,rose again with strict immigration limitsnow on the books. With the enactmentof the National Labor Relations Act in1935 (upheld by the Supreme Court twoyears later),
membership exploded inthe years during and after World War II.By 1965, union membership in the non-
A P / W i d e W o r l d P h o t o s
Samuel Gompers, founder of the American Federationof Labor.