Mass Immigration and the Dilemma of American Unions

seiu unionOver its long and often turbulent evolution, the American labor movement has confronted few issues as persistently and as difficult has those related to the subject of immigration.  By definition, immigration affects the size of the labor force at any given time as well as its geographical distribution and skill composition.  These vital influences, in turn, affect national, regional and local labor market conditions.  Most immigrants directly join the labor force upon entering the country, as do eventually most of their family members.  Hence, organized labor never has ignored immigration trends.  As Samuel Gompers, one of the founders of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and its long-time president, wrote in his autobiography:  “Immigration is, in its most fundamental aspects, a labor problem.”

Immigration, therefore, has affected the developmental course of American unionism while, at the same time, the labor movement has sought to shape the size and character of ensuing immigrant entries through its influences on prevailing immigration policies at any given time.

The dilemma for organized labor has always been that over the long run immigration flows tend to increase the size of  the working class a positive political consideration; but in the short run immigration affects the labor supply which can modulate wage conditions and alter employment opportunities for the same working class (a negative economic consideration).

In its early years, would-be labor organizations initially sought to attract workers to join their ranks based on appeals made along political, utopian, and even radical lines.  None of these proved successful.  Learning from these adverse experiences, American labor leaders—such as Gompers—ultimately elected to pursue an organizing appeal centered on attaining short-run economic objectives—higher wages, shorter hours, and better working conditions at the work site.  It manifests an economic preference for “bread and butter in the here and now” while rejecting the political route of “pie in the sky in the sweet bye and bye.”  This “job conscious” focus has traditionally distinguished the American union movement from similar movements in most of the rest of the free world and partially explains why there is no formal “labor party” in the United States as there is in other Western nations.

Thus, it is not surprising that at every juncture and with no exception prior to the 1990s, the American labor movement either directly instigated or strongly endorsed every legislative initiative by the U.S. Congress to regulate and to restrict immigration.  It also supported all related efforts to strengthen enforcement of these policies.  Labor leaders intuitively sensed that fluctuations in union membership were inversely related to prevailing immigration trends.  When immigration levels tend to decline, union membership tends to increase (as they both did from the early 1930s through to the mid-1960s).  When immigration levels tend to rise, union membership levels tend to fall (as they both have done since the mid-1960s up to the present).  Subsequent empirical research has validated their supposition.

Published by the LA Progressive on March 9, 2011
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