It was solidarity time inside the great hall along Chicago’s Navy Pier last July. The AFL-CIO was holding its 50th-anniversary convention. And support for mass immigration was a top priority. At various points in the proceedings, federation leaders such as President John Sweeney, and marquee guest speakers such as Jesse Jackson and Sen. Ted Kennedy (D.-Mass.), peppered their speeches with appeals to Congress to grant legal amnesty to millions of “undocumented workers.”
The speakers appeared to have forgotten that lawmakers did just that nearly 20 years earlier, in the process exacerbating the very conditions they intended to resolve. But the AFL-CIO leadership, not to mention the roughly 800 assembled delegates, was adamant. We need immigrants and they need us. Bring illegal immigrants out from the shadows of the underground economy and into the sunshine of full participation in American life. Fight the cabal of exploitative employers and “right-wing Republicans” and fulfill our highest ideals as a nation. So ran the script.
The AFL-CIO’s support for illegal immigration was overshadowed by the specter of schism. A rump faction, the Change to Win coalition, posed a major threat to the 13 million-member AFL-CIO. The two lead unions, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the Teamsters, boycotted the convention, announcing their formal departure only a day or two into the event. By the end of the week, the United Food and Commercial Workers joined the exit. These and other unions were dissatisfied, more than anything else, with the AFL-CIO’s ostensibly lax attention to organizing. By late September, Change to Win, now with seven member unions representing about six million workers, held its own convention in St. Louis to announce its arrival as a federation.
The rancorous split led many commentators to conclude that the federations are hopelessly divided over policy issues, including immigration. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. The driving force behind Change to Win is SEIU President Andrew Stern, who believes in labor and business “standing shoulder to shoulder” on immigration, fighting for more of it. AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, Stern’s former boss and mentor at SEIU, is also an immigration enthusiast, though he expresses his enthusiasm in language couched in classic leftism. “The struggle of immigrant workers is our struggle,” Sweeney has remarked more than once.
The clash is over strategy and rhetoric. The AFL-CIO argues that labor must lobby Congress for legislation to adjust the legal status of immigrants living here illegally as a prerequisite to effective organizing. Change to Win asserts that organizing massive numbers of immigrants is necessary for lobbying.
Indeed, if anything, Change to Win has more to gain through mass immigration. The federation’s two fastest-growing unions, SEIU (1.8 million members) and the United Food and Commercial Workers (1.4 million members), represent large numbers of unskilled immigrant workers in labor-intensive industries. All those Third World newcomers working at Wal-Mart, Cintas, McDonald’s and Wendy’s overwhelmingly work for companies that CTW-member unions see as targets in corporate campaigns.
Change of Mind
Organized labor actually was a latecomer to support for mass immigration. Indeed, for more than a century, unions were conspicuous by their resistance to it. Union leaders feared that desperate immigrants would accept wages, benefits and working conditions that native-born workers would find unacceptable. In large enough numbers, such immigrants could pose a threat to the unions’ hope of achieving bargaining power, even if over the long run they might indirectly spur union membership. Such fears, in retrospect, have proven justified. “[E]very serious study over the past 100 years,” notes Cornell University labor economist Vernon Briggs, “has found that wages are depressed by immigration, the adverse impact being most severe for unskilled workers.”
Large-scale immigration, then as now, had its advocates. There existed an explicit alliance of (cost-minimizing) employers and (vote-maximizing) politicians. Back then, however, labor leaders opposed the alliance.
In 1924, Congress passed the Immigration Act. The new law substantially tightened national-origin quotas created three years earlier. If labor leaders had strong feelings about the new quotas, it was because the quotas did not go far enough. A. Philip Randolph, black civil-rights leader and future president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, believed in zero immigration. But the thrust of the law—restriction—had the effect of benefiting organized labor. Many first-and second-generation immigrant workers joined unions as they assimilated into American society. Union leaders were able to demand higher wages and more benefits, not having to fear subsequent and indefinite waves of large-scale immigration undermining their bargaining position.
The 1965 amendments to the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 changed this. Congress repealed national-origin quotas and made family reunification the main basis for admission. Though supporters had not intended the law to raise overall admissions, it had the effect of doing just that. Annual legal immigration to the U.S. over the following decade increased on average from 300,000 to 400,000. Congress’ application of the Eastern Hemisphere-nation preference system to the Western Hemisphere (1976) and combination of hemispheric ceilings into a worldwide quota (1978) contributed to a further rise to around 500,000.
Illegal Immigration Increase
This gave rise to a separate and related problem: Illegal immigration was increasing in tandem with legal immigration. A 16-member congressional commission studied the issue and recommended a series of measures designed to strike a balance between ending illegal immigration and enabling U.S. employers, especially in the agricultural sector, to meet their demand for labor.
Congress put forth a bill that ostensibly would reflect the overriding concerns of the commission. Labor leaders at first opposed any compromise that included an amnesty. But in the end, as the bill repeatedly had stalled, resistance by the unions to the idea wore down. They settled on what had become a growing consensus. They would accept amnesty, so long as employers in the future would be subject to sanctions for hiring illegal immigrants. In the fall of 1986, the amnesty-for-sanctions tradeoff became law in the form of the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA).
The law did not live up to its name. More than three million illegal immigrants applied for a phased-in adjustment of legal status. About 2.7 million, three-fourths of them Mexican, were approved. Congress created six additional amnesties in the post-IRCA era of either a general or nation-specific variety. But employer sanctions, even in the early years only fitfully enforced, became laughable as time passed. In 1992 the federal government had levied 1,063 fines on employers for hiring illegal aliens. By 2002 that number had plummeted to 13—a 99% drop.
Illegal immigration, meanwhile, continued its climb. By the mid-1990s annual net growth had reached about 300,000. By the early part of the current decade the average yearly rise was in the 400,000-to-500,000 range. The Pew Hispanic Center estimated about 11.1 million “unauthorized” (i.e., illegal) immigrants lived here as of March 2005, up from four million in 1986. Fifty-six percent of these people came from Mexico—another 22% originated from elsewhere in Latin America.
Organized labor saw a golden opportunity for organizing. Here was a large and growing pool of unorganized migrant workers, many poorly paid and possessed of legitimate grievances against employers. Moreover, union leaders were aware of their declining membership of the total U.S. work force. From averaging slightly over 30% of the labor force during the ’50s and early ’60s, the unionized share had shrunk to about 15% by the mid ’90s. Many labor officials now believed it was time to put some new people in charge.
The Sweeney Era
The Bronx-born John Sweeney became head of New York City’s SEIU Local 32B in 1976. Four years later he had risen to become SEIU president. He sought to remake the SEIU into a model for union organizing and political activism and with whatever tactics necessary. In 1985, he and his top aides came up with “Justice for Janitors,” a brilliant street-agitprop campaign. SEIU would organize office-cleaning workers and then force office-building management to require its janitorial sub-contractors to recognize the union and agree to its demands. SEIU side-stepped the contractors and charged directly at major employers. The demonstrators, overwhelmingly Hispanic, would picket buildings, block sidewalks and street traffic, shout abuse, and shake metal-filled canisters at ear-splitting volumes.
The campaign began in Denver and spread to cities nationwide. The tactics infuriated pedestrians and motorists, but local unions won highly favorable settlements. SEIU’s membership, unlike that of other unions, rapidly increased. The success of Sweeney’s strategy sent a message: Tough tactics succeed, and future membership lies south of the border.
By 1995, Sweeney was a logical heir to the AFL-CIO presidency. Once in office, Sweeney quickly set about transforming the AFL-CIO into a vocal advocate for mass immigration. In 1996, the federation worked with ethnic and business activists to strip from pending immigration-reform legislation key provisions such as mandatory Social Security number verification and strict limits on refugee admissions. In February 2000, the AFL-CIO Executive Council announced its opposition to IRCA employer sanctions and support for amnesty for unauthorized workers.
Business and Ethnic Alliances
The alliance between labor and business was logical, though rooted in opposite motives. Though union leaders continue to rail against “the corporations” in their press releases and convention speeches, they are full partners on immigration. And why not? Few things are more potentially mutually advantageous than a massive guest-worker program—an amnesty all but in name—in which temporary immigrant workers pay into employer or union benefit funds but do not stay around long enough to collect.
By contrast, the alliance between unions and ethnic radicals owes more to political beliefs than economic interests. Each is an indispensable bloc within the Democratic Party. The ethnic advocacy groups—most of all, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF)—are aggressive in filing lawsuits to promote immigration, while pressuring employers to commit themselves to ever-greater ethnic “diversity.”
Labor organizations have come to see America in much the same terms as the allies in MALDEF, the National Council of La Raza and the League of United Latin American Citizens. They believe Hispanic and other Third World immigrants are America’s victims who can be organized into a coalition of “people of color.” In 2001 the AFL-CIO Executive Council, the General Amnesty Coalition and other groups co-sponsored a May Day March for Workers’ Rights and March for Immigrant Rights. The Organizing Committee for Workers Rights held a May Day rally and concert in New York City’s Union Square under the slogan, “Amnesty for all immigrants— present and future.” Later, in October 2003, Sweeney welcomed illegal aliens to a pro-amnesty “freedom ride,” a bus convoy that converged on Liberty State Park in New Jersey.
Support for amnesty is the culmination of the immigration-without-consequences mentality. It lacks even the pretense of distinguishing legality from illegality. Of course, “amnesty” is a very unpopular word. That’s precisely why President Bush adamantly denies that his guest-worker program constitutes an amnesty. But underneath the lofty rhetoric is the reality that the proposal lacks effective enforcement mechanisms to ensure that those who obtain renewable “temporary” three-year visas will return home. The Government Accountability Office recently admitted in a draft report that the agency overseeing the program, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, would not have a fraud-management system in place until 2011. It looks like amnesty under a new name.
Labor leaders fear a loss of revenues, bargaining power and visibility that would come with curtailment of immigration. For them, immigrants are crucial to institution-building. “We’re always looking for opportunities for people to join unions. That’s our number-one reason for working with immigrants,” noted AFL-CIO spokeswoman Kathy Roeder a few years ago.
Union officials are looking out for themselves, but not their members or the American public. In a 2001 nationwide Zogby poll taken not long before the 9/11 terrorist attacks, 60% of union households thought amnesty was either a “bad” or “very bad” idea. And a recent Time magazine poll showed that 63% of respondents from all walks of life considered illegal immigration a “very serious” or “extremely serious” problem.
Labor’s strategy to ratchet up immigration indefinitely is self-defeating. Unions may acquire additional members and dues collections, but they will get a bumper crop of workers who are less skilled, educated and English-fluent than the overall labor force. These workers are replaceable. And replaceable workers, in whatever industry, are in no position to press demands. The nation as a whole, moreover, will pay a heavy price in the form of more job displacement of the higher-priced native-born, further expansion of foreign-language enclaves and more stage-managed political balkanization. That’s not a legacy that anyone, least of all union officials, should covet.
This article is reproduced from the April 2006 edition of Labor Watch, a Capital Research Center publication.