Workers are losers in labor's turnaround on immigration

March 03, 2000|By Dan Stein

WASHINGTON -- For much of the past two decades, the American labor movement has failed its members. All across the country, unions have been busted, forcing many blue-collar workers to accept lower wages and more adverse working conditions, or driving them out of their jobs all together.

In meatpacking plants, textile mills, hotels and restaurants, use of foreign labor -- often illegal -- has been an important tool for management to dictate wages and working conditions.

Even in an exceptionally strong economy, wage gains for blue-collar workers have been marginal, at best, and many formerly unionized workers have actually lost ground.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the AFL-CIO failed to respond to this threat to its members. Organized labor has been lukewarm to employer sanctions -- the law that was supposed to penalize employers who knowingly hire illegal aliens.

More than 13 years after its passage, and countless lost jobs later, no vigorous effort is made to enforce this law. When legislation was brought before Congress in 1990 -- and again in 1996 -- that would have reduced immigration levels, the AFL-CIO either sat on its hands or opposed it.

Having allowed these conditions to develop, the AFL-CIO's leadership is suddenly concerned about the exploitation of immigrant labor.

Exploitation of workers, immigrant or native, should be unacceptable to everyone in a civilized society and organized labor's belated concern is certainly a welcome development.

Rather than make a forceful effort to end the conditions that have resulted in the near-complete displacement of some American workers, and which have led to deplorable conditions for many immigrant workers, the AFL-CIO has attempted to further weaken immigration laws.

In fact, the executive committee of the AFL-CIO has now voted unanimously to repeal employer sanctions and grant another massive amnesty for illegal aliens.

In a misguided effort to revitalize itself, organized labor seems to believe that its future lies with the very workers who displaced its previous membership. The thinking appears to be that if illegal aliens can be hired openly, and those who are already here are granted legal status, employers will be less able to exploit them.

History belies this belief.

Easy access to immigrant labor has led to displacement and wage stagnation in many formerly unionized industries, and amnesty has only encouraged more illegal immigration.

One of the most vigorous campaigns by the labor movement to organize illegal alien workers demonstrates the futility of such efforts.

The "Justice for Janitors" effort in Los Angeles has not resulted in any appreciable gains for workers, despite highly visible protests and threats of job actions. The janitorial services industry in Southern California, which 20 years ago was highly unionized and paid middle-class wages, is today dominated by immigrants, many of whom are in the country illegally.

Commercial real estate managers have largely ignored the protests, though, knowing chances are slight that they will be cited for violating the law and that more illegal aliens are always available to work.

It is not a coincidence that blue-collar workers became the core of the American middle class, and the power of unions peaked, during the 1950s and 1960s, when immigration was relatively low.

It is also no coincidence -- although certainly not the only reason -- that wage stagnation emerged, and union influence ebbed, with the onset of mass legal and illegal immigration.

Organized labor will not revive itself by facilitating the factors contributing to its decline.

In a global economy it will never enjoy the same leverage it had in some industries 40 or 50 years ago.

And, as long as it does not become part of the effort to limit access to those jobs, which must remain in this country, it will continue to drift into irrelevancy.

Dan Stein is president of Federation for American Immigration Reform.

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