Immigration and American Unionism

Immigration and American Unionism

Immigration and American Unionism

Immigration and American Unionism

Synopsis

In the year 2000 the AFL-CIO announced a historic change in its position on immigration. Reversing a decades-old stance by labor, the federation declared that it would no longer press to reduce high immigration levels or call for rigorous enforcement of immigration laws. Instead, it now supports the repeal of sanctions imposed against employers who hire illegal immigrants as well as a general amnesty for most such workers. In this timely book, Vernon M. Briggs, Jr., challenges labor's recent about-face, charting the disastrous effects that immigration has had on union membership over the course of U. S. history. Briggs explores the close relationship between immigration and employment trends beginning in the 1780s. Combining the history of labor and of immigration in a new and innovative way, he establishes that over time unionism has thrived when the numbers of newcomers have decreased, and faltered when those figures have risen. Briggs argues convincingly that the labor movement cannot be revived unless the following steps are taken: immigration levels are reduced, admission categories changed, labor law reformed, and the enforcement of labor protection standards at the worksite enhanced. The survival of American unionism, he asserts, does not rest with the movement's becoming a partner of the pro-immigration lobby. For to do so, organized labor would have to abandon its legacy as the champion of the American worker.

Excerpt

Few issues have caused the American labor movement more agony than immigration. During periods of mass immigration, unions have struggled to find an appropriate response. It is ironic that this has been the case, for many if not most adult immigrants directly enter the labor force; so eventually do most of their family members. But because immigration can affect the scale, distribution, and composition of the labor force, it can affect labor market conditions; hence, organized labor can never ignore it. Immigration has in the past and continues to this day to affect the developmental course of American trade unionism, and labor’s responses, in turn, have influenced the policies that have shaped the nature and scope of immigrant entries.

The interrelationship of immigration and unionism began with the founding of the nation. Prior to the Revolutionary War, most of the colonial settlers who arrived from abroad were not immigrants as the term is understood today. The legal theory under which English colonization was initiated held that the land belonged to the Crown, which made grants of land either to commercial companies or to individual proprietors. When these companies or individuals received their royal charter to establish a colony, they acquired the right to own and govern the land. In turn, they could transfer land titles to the actual settlers. Thus, most of the white settlers were English citizens, still subject to the rule of the Crown. They were not seeking admission to a new nation or abandoning their original citizenship. In fact, they believed that they were entitled to exactly the same . . .

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