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Immigration and Unions

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Ruth Milkman has a great column rejecting the idea that immigration is what hurt the labor movement and especially rejecting the advice of Trump-lite writers such as John Judis with their claims that Democrats’ only hope is to appeal to white industrial workers in the Midwest.


Immigrant organizing stood out as a rare bright spot on the otherwise dismal U.S. labor scene in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. To the surprise of many observers, starting in the late 1980s low-wage foreign-born workers, including the undocumented, eagerly welcomed opportunities to unionize and infused the labor movement with new energy. Immigrants also helped to galvanize the “alt-labor” movement, flocking to worker centers across the nation that deployed new strategies to challenge wage theft and other employer abuses in sectors where obstacles to traditional unionism were especially formidable. Largely in response to these developments, union leaders abandoned their longstanding support for restrictive immigration policies; by the turn of the century organized labor instead had become a vociferous champion of immigrant rights.

Yet some unionists dissented from this stance, especially in the relatively conservative building trades, many of which are still overwhelmingly made up of U.S.-born white males. In 2010, the Pennsylvania building trades lobbied for a proposed state bill to penalize construction firms that hired undocumented workers. More recently, in upstate New York a carpenters’ union representative admitted that his union routinely reported undocumented workers on construction sites to immigration authorities. These unionists, like many ordinary Americans, were convinced that immigrants, and especially the undocumented, lowered wages and took jobs away from U.S. citizens.

On the surface, their view may seem plausible. Construction has suffered severe deunionization over recent decades, leading to lower pay and degraded working conditions, especially in the residential sector of the industry. Employers launched a vigorous anti-union assault as the residential industry recovered from the recession of the early 1980s, using a variety of tactics to expand the non-union segment of the industry. When that happened, U.S.-born building-trades union members abandoned the jobs affected, typically moving from the residential to the commercial sector of the building industry—the latter was booming in the 1980s and remained heavily unionized. Meanwhile, employers recruited immigrant workers, both authorized and unauthorized, to fill the newly degraded jobs in residential construction. Thus the employment of immigrants did not cause the labor degradation in the industry; on the contrary, it was the result of the employers’ anti-union campaigns. Similar processes unfolded in many other industries as well. But rank-and-file workers, as well as some unionists, unaware of this dynamic, often blamed immigrants instead for the degradation of jobs.



While most segments of the labor movement have continued to support immigrant rights, if less vocally than in earlier years, the liberal consensus on immigration policy has begun to weaken in the wake of Trump’s success (and that of right-wing populists in Europe) in winning working-class support by demonizing immigrants. For example, Hillary Clinton warned in an interview shortly after the midterm elections that “if we don’t deal with the migration issue it will continue to roil the body politic.” And in his 2018 book, The Nationalist Revival, John Judis confessed his sympathy for Trump’s nationalist agenda, arguing that low-wage immigration inevitably reduces the leverage of the U.S.-born working class. “Enormous numbers of unskilled immigrants have competed for jobs with Americans who also lack higher education and have led to the downgrading of occupations that were once middle class,” he declared. This type of left-wing nationalism is even more widespread in Europe.

Similarly, Angela Nagle’s provocative essay, “The Left Case against Open Borders,” published in the pro-Trump journal American Affairs, harkened back fondly to the days when organized labor embraced restrictive immigration policies, pointing out that the main supporters of open borders have been free-market ideologues like the Koch brothers, along with employers reliant on cheap labor. Historically, she added approvingly, trade unions took the opposite view:

They [unions] saw the deliberate importation of illegal, low-wage workers as weakening labor’s bargaining power and as a form of exploitation. There is no getting around the fact that the power of unions relies by definition on their ability to restrict and withdraw the supply of labor, which becomes impossible if an entire workforce can be easily and cheaply replaced. Open borders and mass immigration are a victory for the bosses.

The attack on the left for supporting “open borders” is a red herring; this stance remains on the margins of the progressive mainstream—but most progressives do oppose the restrictive policies favored by Trump and his acolytes. Moreover, the labor movement abandoned the perspective Nagle articulates two decades ago. Despite their painful awareness that many rank-and-file union members voted for Trump in 2016, the AFL-CIO leadership and that of the CTW federation, as well as the vast majority of their affiliates, have not wavered from the pro-immigrant rights stance they adopted at the end of the twentieth century.

The American labor movement has no future if it is not a movement that centers people of color and immigration. Basically every union leader knows this. It’s why the unions themselves are not buying Trump’s immigration rhetoric, even if too many rank and file white workers do. But let’s also discuss John Judis a bit. Talking Points Memo is a good site. But Josh Marshall allowing Judis to spew his Trump-lite columns all over the site is horrible. As an example, this is far from Judis’ worst column, but it still comes back to those themes. It really undermines the credibility of the site. Maybe Judis was a good mentor for Marshall, maybe this is some Beltway respectability thing, but there is no future in the Democratic Party for mimicking Trumpesque appeals to nationalism and whiteness and no respectable political site should be providing that viewpoint.

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