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Union-immigration Special Report 5-24-06

Union-immigration Special Report 5-24-06

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 NLPC Special Report 1
S
PECIAL REPORT
National Legal and Policy Center 
 Why Unions Promote MassImmigration:
Behind Organized Labor's Interest-Group Alliances 
Carl F. Horowitz
 
“promoting ethics in public life” 
107 Park Washington Court
Falls Church, Virginia 22046
703-237-1970
703-237-2090 fax
www.nlpc.org
INTRODUCTION
It was solidarity time inside the greathall along Chicago's Navy Pier last July. The AFL-CIO was holding its50th-anniversary convention. And theright of illegal immigrants to remain inthe U.S. was a top priority. At pointsthroughout the proceedings, federationleaders such as AFL-CIO President JohnSweeney, and marquee guest speakersincluding Rev. Jesse Jackson and Sen.Ted Kennedy, peppered their presenta-tions with appeals to Congress to legal-ize the immigration status of millionsof "undocumented" workers—in other words, to create an amnesty. Apparently disregarded was the factthat Congress nearly 20 years earlierhad created such a program, and thatthe result was more of the very condi-tions the law was intended to eliminate. Yet speaker after speaker, cheered onby hundreds of delegates, deliveredthe writ. The survival of the labormovement depends on legalizing, andorganizing, illegal migrant workers. We need them and they need us. Letus bring them out from the shadowsof the underground economy and intothe sunshine of full acceptance as fel-low Americans. Let us never forget thata cabal of exploitative employers andright-wing Republicans are conspiring to stand in the way of this happy out-come. So ran the script.Such sentiments were set against a backdrop of schism. A recently-formedrump faction, the Change to Win (CTW)coalition, dissatisfied over ostensibly insuf-
 G e  t  t   y I   m a   g e  s 
 
2 NLPC Special Report
ficient attention to organizing, boycottedthe event. Two key member unions, theService Employees International Union, orSEIU, with 1.8 million members, and theTeamsters, with 1.4 million members, inshort order announced they would leavethe AFL-CIO altogether. By the end of the week they were joined by the United Foodand Commercial Workers, with their 1.4million members. Two months later, in lateSeptember, CTW's now seven-union rostermet in St. Louis to announce its arrival as a full-fledged federation.Given the rancor surrounding the split,it might be easy to view the two federa-tions as bitterly divided, and organizedlabor on its last legs. But any death knell would be premature. The schism, first andforemost, is over strategy and rhetoric, notbeliefs. And this
especially 
is true on thematter of immigration.Change to Win's driving force, SEIUPresident Andrew Stern, for years hasargued, as has Stern's former mentor, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, that key ingredient of organizing is expanding immigration from current levels. They share the view that persons here illegally, whether by way of unauthorized entry oroverstay of a temporary visa, should havetheir status adjusted to legal residency."The struggle of immigrant workers is ourstruggle," Sweeney has remarked on morethan one occasion. For Stern, immigra-tion reform means "standing shoulder toshoulder with business" to enable as many immigrants as possible to work here, whiledefending their workplace rights throughaggressive organizing.The clash between the two federationsis over cause and effect in the serviceof a common goal. The AFL-CIO seeslobbying, research and education as nec-essary to ensure a favorable climate fororganizing. Change to Win, by contrast,views massive organizing as a prerequi-site for making lobbying, research andeducation effective. Yet each federationthinks alike in terms of desired out-comes. If anything, Change to Win hasmore reason to support high levels of immigration, as its Service Employees,United Food and Commercial Workers,and UNITE-HERE
1
unions representmainly unskilled workers in labor-intensive industries. It is the unionsin Change to Win, not the AFL-CIO, which are positioned to organize a size-able number of low-wage, foreign-bornemployees of Wal-Mart, Tyson Foods,Cintas, Roy Rogers and Taco Bell. Andit is the AFL-CIO, by contrast, whereone finds unions representing steel,auto and airline workers who now withdepressing regularity are bracing them-selves for announcements from theirrespective employers of pension plantermination—assuming they already haven't received the bad news yet.
   A   P   /   W   i    d  e   W  o  r    l    d   P    h  o  t  o  s
Service Employees President Andrew Stern speaks; Teamsters President James P. Hoffa looks on.
 
 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.
2
Andnothing expands a workforce like massimmigration.
3
 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.
4
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."
5
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.
6
 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.
7
American Federationof Labor founder Samuel Gomperscautioned that organizations opposing immigration restrictions for ostensibly "sentimental" or "idealistic" reasonsin fact had received financial supportfrom business organizations.
8
Soundfamiliar? In a letter to Congress datedMarch 19, 1924, Gompers wrote:
9
 
 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.
10
 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.
11
 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),
12
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.

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