Mass Immigration and the Dilemma of American Unions

But in the early1990s, with immigration levels soaring and union membership floundering, the labor movement at the leadership level began to waffle on its historic position of putting the economic interests of American workers ahead of those of would-be immigrants.  By mid-decade, organized labor [as represented by the actions of the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO)] actively opposed the thrust of major reforms offered at the time by the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform (chaired by Barbara Jordan) seeking to render the nation’s immigration system accountable for its economic consequences and to address in more effective ways the on-going massive abuse of existing policies by undocumented workers. There was no mention of any desire to enact another amnesty for those undocumented workers in the country.

Among its important findings, the Jordan Commission found that the level of legal immigration was too high and recommended that it be reduced by about 35 percent.  In order to reduce the heavy emphasis placed on family reunification as the principle criterion for immigrant admissions, it recommended limiting family eligibility to the nuclear family as opposed to the open-ended current system giving preference to extended family considerations.  Also, the Commission recommended ending all admission of unskilled foreign workers in the employment-based admission categories.

Startlingly, the AFL-CIO joined forces with business interests, agricultural employers and the immigrant rights community to oppose all of these changes when Congress unsuccessfully sought to enact these reforms in 1996.

Not long afterward, the metamorphous was complete.  The AFL-CIO Executive Committee in 2000 proclaimed that it is now “on the side of immigrant workers.”  It announced that it favored repeal of the sanctions on employers who hire undocumented workers as well as another generous amnesty for undocumenteds currently in the country.

The historic reversal in its stance on immigration was due to the fact that organized labor was keenly aware that its membership rolls were falling.  In response, major changes were made in the leadership of the AFL-CIO as well as in that of many national unions in the 1990s. These new leaders pledged to reverse this trend.  With undocumented workers flooding into the country and, largely for political reasons, the federal government unwilling to take any meaningful steps to combat the phenomenon, labor could either stick to its traditional position; or they could switch sides. They chose to become part of the “pro-immigrant” political coalition and hope that these new immigrant workers (and their supporters) will reward these efforts by fighting to become union members for pro-labor causes.  Unions, after all, do not hire workers; employers do. If employers are going to hire available undocumented workers (who they often prefer over citizen workers) and the federal government refuses to keep them out of both the work force and the country, they concluded that they had to become immigrant friendly.

But by abandoning the insightful recommendations of the Jordan Commission and joining the “pro-immigrant” political lobby, there are real risks for organized labor.  First, it endangers the prospects that they will be able translate their imagined gains in new members into any real ability to win tangible wage and employment benefits for their rank and file members (since undocumented workers and the flow of unskilled legal immigrants will continue and another mass amnesty will only legitimize the presence of millions of undocumented workers already here).

Vernon M. Briggs, Jr.Secondly, the policy shift runs the risk of alienating the millions of low-skilled American workers (both native-born and foreign-born) who are not union members but who must continue to compete with this ongoing wave of immigrant job seekers.  And thirdly, since the labor movement would be seen as being just another special interest group that is quite willing to trade the national interest for its own self-interest agenda, it raises the real prospect that the broader populace will cease believing in the moral credibility of the labor movement.

Vernon M. Briggs, Jr.

Vernon M. Briggs, Jr. is Emeritus Professor of Labor and Industrial Relations at the New York State School of Labor and Industrial Relations at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

Republished with permission from The History News Network.


  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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