Unions and Immigrants: No Longer Enemies

Article excerpt

For over a century the challenge of immigration has vexed organized labor. In the late nineteenth century, the American Federation of Labor (AFL), led by cigarmaker Samuel Gompers (himself an immigrant from Europe who, in his own words, "secured the honors and duties of citizenship" only in his twenties), entered national politics largely to press for immigration restriction. AFL leaders believed that an influx of immigrant workers could only weaken the bargaining position of American labor. Only over decades, and with great effort, had American workers taught themselves the skills, habits, and discipline necessary to create enduring labor organizations. The AFL worried that a sudden flood of desperate foreign workers from Poland, Italy, and China, with little trade-union background, could easily drown the infant movement. For much of its subsequent history organized labor viewed immigration with alarm.

Many in the chattering classes--whose jobs, at least until recently, were more secure than those of blue-collar workers--have been quick to assume that this fear was based on prejudice. Yet the alarm of American workers has not been without justification. The existence today of a shadow population of 10 or 12 million undocumented workers permanently barred from the rights and obligations of citizenship cannot but complicate workers' efforts to advance their interests. Any increase in the labor supply tends to reduce the bargaining power of workers.

According to a 2006 Pew Hispanic Center study, approximately 2 million undocumented workers are employed in construction. We in the Laborers Union see how these workers are treated every day. Unscrupulous contractors routinely evade payroll taxes by paying workers under the table--or dodge paying workers altogether by issuing paychecks that bounce. Contractors fire workers who get injured on the job or who complain about working conditions. Undocumented workers are unlikely to file a law suit, or approach the authorities for help, because they fear deportation. Meanwhile, honest contractors willing to pay union wages and benefits are placed in an increasingly untenable competitive position.

Too often those who express concern for the rule of law are dismissed as closet racists. This is unfair, for in a republic like ours--where laws are the outcome of a democratic process--a willing adherence to the law is the core virtue of the citizen. Labor leaders should understand this more than most, for we have seen what happens when the law is disregarded. In not a few cases the same meatpackers or custodial companies that have illegally terrorized workers for seeking union representation have employed undocumented workers. We cannot simply exonerate workers who enter the country illegally while excoriating firms that unlawfully deprive workers of their rights.

Relying on the labor of a population permanently barred from the "honors and duties of citizenship" imperils our laws and institutions. The experience of slavery and Jim Crow should leave Americans with no doubts on this score. For the good of U.S. democracy, the government must either accept undocumented immigrants into society or send them away. The second option would be difficult to conceive. A police operation that would identify and expel 10 or 12 million from our midst would be incompatible with cherished U.S. traditions of liberty. After all, "Are your papers in order?" is a profoundly un-American question. Americans are not prepared to live in a society of police checkpoints, national ID cards, and intrusive questioning about national heritage--nor should they be.

It is clear that the United States needs to find ways to integrate immigrants into society. Undocumented immigrants should be allowed to show their commitment to America and its values--by paying taxes, learning our history, legally contributing to our economy, and participating in community associations from political parties to PTAs. …