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5.1.08

Labor Supports Immigrants

I made a comment about this in response to Alon Levy in the candidate post, but I thought it deserved a post of its own because the results of my Googling were so pleasantly surprising. Levy expressed concern that the nativism that led the AFL to support the Chinese Exclusion Act back in 1882 is still rampant among U.S. unions.

I knew that there is a good argument to be made as to why labor should support a progressive immigration policy. So I went to see what the major unions actually did think about the issue. I checked out the AFL-CIO, SEIU, AFSCME, and Teamsters -- and came away impressed. Their official stances all took basically the strong pro-immigrant line that I would have wanted to hear. Indeed, they all opposed last year's immigration reform bill from the left -- because it was too harsh on immigrants and allowed employers to continue exploiting them.

The pro-labor pro-immigrant argument that the unions make goes basically like this: the problems faced by American labor and immigrants to America share two basic causes:

1) Poorly designed "free trade" policies like NAFTA wreck the economic prospects of the lower classes in other countries (thus pushing them to migrate), as well as making the position of workers in the US more precarious. So both groups would be well-served by revoking or re-writing these trade policies.

2) The precariousness of immigrants' ability to stay in the U.S. enables others -- most notably for our purposes, employers -- to exploit them. This is bad for immigrant workers because it virtually eliminates their power to demand decent wages and working conditions. And it's bad for American workers because those exploited immigrant workers end up in competition with American workers, pushing down wages. The solution is to give more immigrants status, thereby leveling the playing field and allowing immigrant and citizen workers to play complementary roles in the economy. The unions recognize that "guest worker" programs do not address this issue, as they serve to regularize, rather than eliminate, the exploitative relationship between employers and immigrant workers.

In sum, immigrants are here to work, so unions should support them just like they support citizens who are here to work.

The official stances of the unions' national organizations do not, of course, necessarily tell you what the rank-and-file (much less all blue-collar workers) think. But they do show that the progressive argument on immigration can be persuasive to them, and so conflict between American labor and immigrants is not inevitable.

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