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.


  1. Milan Moravec says

    Loyalty to unions and to management does not bring sustained employability. As businesses, universities, states, counties, cities worldwide stumble through the recession some find themselves in a phase of creative disassembly. Hundreds of thousands of jobs are shed. World class University of California Berkeley Chancellor Birgeneau ($500,000 salary) and his $3 million outside consultants is firing employees via his “Operational Excellence (OE)”: 2,000 axed by end 2011. Yet many cling to an old assumption: the implied, unwritten management-employee contract.

    Management promised work, upward progress for employees fitting in, employees accepted lower wages, performing in prescribed ways, sticking around. Longevity was good employer-employee relations; turnover a dysfunction. None of these assumptions apply in the 21 century economy. Businesses, universities, public institutions can no longer guarantee careers, even if they want to. Managements paralyzed themselves with a strategy of “success brings successes” rather than “successes brings failure’ and are now forced to break implied contract with employees – a contract nurtured by management that future can be controlled.

    Jettisoned employees are discovering that hard won knowledge earned while loyal is no longer desired in employment markets. What contract can employers, employees make with each other?

    The central idea is simple, powerful: job is a shared partnership.
    • Employers, employees face financial conditions together; longevity of partnership depends on how well customers, constituencies needs are met.
    • Neither management nor employee has future obligation to the other.
    • Organizations train people.
    • Employees create security they really need – skills, knowledge that creates employability in 21st century economies
    • The management-employee loyalty partnership can be dissolved without either party considering the other a traitor.

    Sustained employability in the 21st century economy for management, employees and the workforce.

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