Labor’s Shift on Immigration

Benjy Sarlin with a nice overview of how organized labor has shifted from a key anti-immigration force to one supporting immigration with great fervor. To be sure, there are a lot of individual unions, particularly in the building trades, that are not pro-immigration. But those unions are increasingly marginalized within the larger labor movement, particularly when you have unions like SEIU with large numbers of undocumented members. Labor’s problems with immigration go back a lot farther than Cesar Chavez. Organized labor’s first big political victory in this country was the Chinese Exclusion Act, Gompers’ AFL was largely anti-immigrant, etc. That organized labor is so strongly on the side of humane immigration legislation is a big deal and will help push for a quality bill this year.

36 comments on this post.
  1. Bruce Vail:

    I think we need to credit the despised AFL-CIO chief John Sweeney for moving the goal posts on this issue.

    Iit was just prior to Bush’s 2006 immigration proposal that he convinced the AFL-CIO executive board to change it long-held anti-immigrant position.

  2. Murc:

    That organized labor is so strongly on the side of humane immigration legislation is a big deal and will help push for a quality bill this year.

    Which will die horribly, of course, but getting everyone on-side and committing to a big push will count for something in the long run.

  3. Richard:

    I think the odds of comprehensive reform passing are getting better each day. Today, Rubio and Paul Ryan indicated they might support a bill. Ryan’s support in the GOP controlled House could be game changing.

  4. Murc:

    I don’t think anything passes the House that makes the situation appreciably better. Maybe enough support for something inconsequential can be cobbled together that Republicans who don’t actually want to do anything for immigrants can vote for to prove they don’t hate hispanics, but that’s gonna be it.

  5. DrDick:

    I think that the building trades’ opposition grows out of the tendency for the construction industry to higher undocumented workers to cut costs and raise profits. There were a lot of news stories about this after Katrina for instance.

  6. Richard:

    All the Dems need in the House is about 40 votes. And for it to be consequential, it would be a bill that leads to citizenship for some of the undocumented in the country now. If Ryan is on board, they may be able to get that. And it wouldn’t be something inconsequential. Rubio had previously said he wanted incremental bills but today said that he could support a comprehensive bill.

    It really doesn’t matter if the House Republicans are voting for it to prove they dont hate Hispanics. What matters is if they vote for a bill that has the support of the Hispanic Caucus. If that happens, its a great victory that is almost sure to pass the Senate.

  7. Bruce Vail:

    My recollection was way off. The AFL-CIO shift under Sweeney dates to 2000:

    http://www.sci.sdsu.edu/salton/AFL-CIOAmnestyForIllegals.html

    (oddly, the Los Angeles Times reporter who wrote this story is now the chief spokeswoman for the NLRB)

  8. joe from Lowell:

    The libertarians still think labor is anti-immigrant.

    It’s funny when one of them puffs himself up and goes on a tear about the racist unions and the hypocritical liberals, because then you can link to the AFL-CIO’s issues page and make them look like idiots.

  9. UserGoogol:

    You still need the support of Boehner to get it on the floor. That’s entirely possible, but it would require more Republican support than just “forty votes.” With things like the fiscal cliff bill, you had the advantage that the bill was addressing an issue with a relatively sharp deadline. Immigration reform is the sort of thing where holding out for something better is more feasible.

    But still, it seems possible. Rubio and Ryan aren’t exactly the marginal votes.

  10. Erik Loomis:

    I don’t know that Sweeney is despised. I certainly don’t despise him. I guess he was a bit disappointing in the end. But he was certainly better than Meany or Kirkland and at least tried to reenergize the movement in some ways.

  11. Richard:

    Its no done deal but I think chances are looking better and better. And certainly not the certainty of a “horrible death” as Murc seems to say is inevitable.

    Yeah, you need Boehner to allow it to get to the floor of the house but, as with the fiscal cliff, he seems to be taking the position that he wont necessarily require that a majority of the Republicans support it for that to happen.. If there are, for example, fifty votes for support which would give it a clear majority in the House, the Republicans are going to look really bad if they wont allow it to come up for a vote because of the Hastert rule.

  12. Bill Murray:

    and less dead than Hoffa, so quite low bars to get over

  13. Jameson Quinn:

    Evidence suggests that legal immigration at even high levels doesn’t depress wages or increase unemployment. Even just 6 months after the marielitos added 8% to Miami’s workforce, unemployment was at the same low level as before. New workers are at least as likely to be your customers or suppliers as your competitors. So labor has no good reason to be anti-immigration.

  14. DocAmazing:

    Partly true, to be sure, but (and it pains me to say this, as my brother is in the Carpenter’s Guild) the SF building trades unions are the most reactionary, quickest to sell out, least trustworthy, and slowest to show solidarity of all the unions in town. It’s probably significant that Hard Hat Riot wasn’t an Autoworkers Riot.

    Hate to generalize like that, but…

  15. Aidian:

    I’ve never seen any compelling evidence to support this assertion. Got a cite? I can match you anecdote for anecdote, but I’ve never seen any convincing evidence to challenge my belief that illegal immigration is a subsidy to business and the affluent at the expense of the working class.

    Perhaps a bigger problem is the situation with the ‘labor movement’ as a whole. I laughed when I saw the line about ‘the larger labor movement.’ We have what, 6% of private sector workers unionized? 8%? Nothing larger about that.

    I’m beginning to think that the last best hope for labor may be to embrace some of the thinking in this article from the Jacobian magazine.

  16. Manju:

    I’ve never seen any compelling evidence to support this assertion.

    Aiden…sounds like Jameson Quinn’s referencing David Card’s Mariel boat lift “natural experiment”.

  17. Manju:

    illegal immigration is a subsidy to business and the affluent at the expense of the working class.

    Yeah, this is Borjas/Katz and Krugman’s view. Or more accurately, low-income immigration drives down the wages of natives who compete with the immigrants (a lot), increases income inequality (a little) and benefits society at large (a little) due to lower prices.

    But i gather that about 1/2 the economists out there take the Card view (below…meant to reply to you earlier). And not all of them are libertarians.

    But i also see that krugman is pretty damn certain of his view. And he appears to be the head guy in charge of an internecine war in Econ. basically, he thinks about 1/2 the profession is insane. He mocks them as Very Serious People.

    Where exactly the immigration debate falls within this greater war, I’m not sure. Perhaps there is an Economist reading who can unravel this for me.

  18. bradP:

    Paul Ryan has long been on the comprehensive immigration reform bandwagon.

    Not well known, Gutierrez noted, is that he and Ryan share some history: In 2005, Ryan was a co-sponsor of bipartisan and bi-cameral comprehensive immigration reform legislation carried in the House by Gutierrez and Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.). “It wasn’t like it was a long line of Republicans supporting it. He’s always supported immigration reform,” Gutierrez said.

    http://blogs.suntimes.com/sweet/2012/12/rep_luis_gutierrez_met_with_se.html

  19. bradP:

    Krugman takes it farther than that.

    Here’s an older piece of his, where he says he is “instinctively, emotionally pro-immigration” and that he is “going to respond effectively to anti-immigrant demagogues” and then spends the remaining seven paragraphs explaining why we need to cut down on immigration.

    http://economistsview.typepad.com/economistsview/2006/03/paul_krugman_no.html

  20. Bruce Vail:

    It’s nice that you don’t despise Sweeney.

    Then why won’t you give him any credit for moving the AFL-CIO on immigration? It may be his only real achievement at AFL-CIO.

  21. Quincy:

    I think this issue really is a perfect storm for Boehner to dispense with the Hastert rule again. Individual republicans need to vote against it to avoid being primaried but party leaders know Republicans can’t be seen as blocking immigration reform if they want to compete nationally in 2016. Out of any item on the Democrats agenda for the next 2 years, this is the one with the best chance of something happening.

  22. MPAVictoria:

    Yay! Lower wages for all…

  23. joe from Lowell:

    JQ: Evidence suggests that legal immigration at even high levels doesn’t depress wages or increase unemployment.

    Aidan: I’ve never seen any convincing evidence to challenge my belief that illegal immigration is a subsidy to business and the affluent at the expense of the working class.

    These statements are in no way contradictory.

    Having the federal government put a boot on the neck of immigrant workers via immigration restrictions is, indeed, bad for the working class. Hence, labor’s support for legalizing immigration and immigrants.

  24. Jameson Quinn:

    Note that I said “legal” and you said “illegal”. A segment of the labor force outside the protection of the law does have bad effects on the rest. But mere amnesty would help that.

    I don’t support fully open borders but it’s not because of employment.

    As for cites: yes, I was talking about Card, though there’s more stuff in that line… I got it from a recent episode of the Development Drums podcast on migration and am not myself an expert.

  25. bradP:

    Including the immigrants?

  26. joe from Lowell:

    Right, just look at how American wages plummeted in the 1920s.

    Or the great boon that immigration restrictions have proven to be for American wages since the 1960s.

  27. joe from Lowell:

    Sure, but telling me what a Republican thought about immigration reform in 2005 doesn’t tell me a whole lot about what he thinks today. John McCain voted against his own bill.

  28. David Kaib:

    The number of immigrants is obviously not the only issue here. Certainly it matters whether immigrants (who will be a significant portion of the work force no matter what policies we have) have rights. Having a theory of labor economics that treats people as widgets is generally not very helpful.

    FWIW, if we are concerned about the number of immigrants, you can fight against policies the corporate ‘trade’ deals or the drug war that make it harder for people in other countries to choose to stay even if they prefer that. (I’m not concerned, but I do think we should do that because it’s the right thing to do.)

    More punitive immigration policies are very effective at reducing the rights of immigrants, documented and not, those who “look” like immigrants, and workers. They are not effective at reducing the number of undocumented people.

  29. Jameson Quinn:

    You beat me to it.

  30. DrDick:

    I do not disagree with this, but much of that was true of other unions in the past. I think one (but not the only) factor has been the ability (or more likely necessity) of other unions in incorporating and organizing minorities and immigrants and making them allies rather than competitors.

  31. Josh G.:

    Benjy Sarlin with a nice overview of how organized labor has shifted from a key anti-immigration force to one supporting immigration with great fervor.

    And how has that worked out for unions so far?

    Sorry, but I just don’t see how increasing the supply of labor is pro-worker. And American unions need to put American workers first. The whole idea of international solidarity was tried decades ago and proven not to work. The post-WWII middle class in America was made possible by unions, but union power and solidarity was enabled by the almost complete moratorium on immigration that lasted from 1924 to 1965.

    Like it or not, nationalism is a real thing. Historically, it’s the only way to bind workers together, and immigration is a tool of the plutocracy to break unions and lower wages.

  32. joe from Lowell:

    Immigrants don’t only increase the supply of labor. They increase demand as well. After all, each immigrant has one mouth and two hands.

    But with almost 12 million paperwork-deprived American-joiners in the country already, conflating “anti-immigrant policies” with “fewer immigrants” just doesn’t hold up. Putting the government’s boot on the neck of certain classes of immigrants doesn’t reduce the supply; it just makes those immigrants easier to exploit, less able to improve their condition, and a more effective “reserver army” with which to drive down wages.

  33. Manju:

    Including the immigrants?

    nice catch!

  34. David Kaib:

    It’s worked out really well. The unions with large immigrant populations have been among the only ones to make gains, and are certainly among the most vibrant elements of the union movement.

    Also what Joe said.

  35. Ed:

    Krugman:

    But a review of serious, nonpartisan research reveals some uncomfortable facts about the economics of modern immigration, and immigration from Mexico in particular. If people like me are going to respond effectively to anti-immigrant demagogues, we have to acknowledge those facts.

    That’s simply common sense.

  36. brosna:

    Don’t forget the I.W.W.

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