Immigration policies of American labor unions
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From their early beginnings in the United States, labor unions have held various viewpoints regarding immigration, both concurrent and disparate at times from the nation's prevailing opinions and policies.
- 1 20th century
- 1.1 Early 20th century
- 1.2 Late 20th century
- 2 Recent history
- 3 Notes
Early 20th century
In the first half of the 20th century, the majority of labor unions within the American Federation of Labor (AFL) were strongly anti-immigration, looking to curtail immigration, causing the AFL itself to adopt restrictive policies and resolutions. The predominant viewpoint in the AFL from the early 20th century saw The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 as a model piece of legislation for restricting Asian immigration, and favored its expansion to include Japanese and Korean immigrants. The AFL also favored the passage of a literacy test as a requirement for an immigrant's entry to the United States, in order to reduce the number of unskilled (and presumably uneducated)immigrants admitted to the country. After unemployment rose following the conclusion of World War I, the AFL made a renewed push for “a total suspension of immigration for a period of five years or longer.” Although its reduction on immigration was not so severe, the AFL supported the Immigration Act of 1924. While there were several notable exceptions, the majority of labor unions within the AFL were allied with the position of the organization as a whole.
In the early part of the 20th century, restrictive policies towards immigration aligned the AFL with culturally conservative, nativist groups, such as the American Defense Society. These were functionally one sided coalitions since these groups by and large ideologically opposed labor unions and workers’ rights to collective bargaining.
AFL arguments opposing immigration
The AFL in the first half of the 20th century pursued three main arguments to promote restricting immigration: racist, economic, and political. Racist arguments often posited that immigrants were degrading the quality of life in the United States, unable to adapt to American society. Many of their arguments mirrored those of the eugenics movement of the time, positing that certain races were genetically inferior to others, and therefore incapable of assimilating into the societies of the 'higher' races. Generally, various unions within the AFL deemed three immigrant ‘races’ inferior: Southern and Eastern European, Asian, and Latino (often specifically Mexican). However, as Latino immigrants did not make up a significant portion of the population at the time, the AFL focused most vocally on limiting the immigration of the former two groups.
Economic arguments aimed at restrictive immigration policies posited that an increase in the supply of labor tilted the balance toward employers, who could use cheaper immigrant labor as strikebreakers, limiting the effectiveness of labor unions to bargain, thereby reducing the wages and working conditions of American workers. Additionally, firms would prefer hiring less expensive foreign workers over American workers, leading to greater unemployment for American workers. Proponents of this argument also advocated against organizing immigrants into American labor unions, as doing so would raise their wages, encouraging even more immigration into the country.
With the rise of communism in Europe following the Russian Revolution (1917), and a growing anxiety of similar attempts occurring in the United States, the AFL sought to gain legitimacy by purging itself of any ties to communism. The actions and statements of the Industrial Workers of the World, a leftist labor federation,led to an association between labor and communism, something the AFL fervently sought to avoid. Immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe were viewed especially suspiciously as potential communist “agitators,” presenting additional political arguments used by the AFL to oppose immigration from those regions, and to oppose the organization of immigrant workers from those areas.
Contingencies of AFL position
One central dichotomy which dictated to a large extent the position of labor unions towards immigration during the early 20th century was whether their focus was largely inward or outward. Unions with an outward focus, dedicated to organizing workers, tended to be pro-immigrant, as immigrants constituted the principal populations whom they were attempting to organize. Unions which attempted to raise wages and working conditions for currently unionized workers instead of organizing new workers tended to see immigrant labor as competition with native workers, and therefore favor restrictive measures. As the vast majority of the unions within the AFL fell in the latter camp in the first half of the 20th century, the AFL as a whole unsurprisingly adopted the latter position.
This created a cycle geared towards greater restriction, as it appeared hypocritical if unions within the AFL organized immigrant workers while the organization as a whole was promoting policies aimed at restricting immigration. Therefore, the AFL, led by then president Samuel Gompers, advocated against individual unions organizing immigrant labor.
Individual AFL unions which defied central directives and organizing immigrant labor were much more likely to oppose restrictive immigration policies, forming a minority within the AFL. One example of such a union was the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU), consisting primarily of female immigrant workers from Eastern and Southern Europe, which argued that reducing immigration was the wrong tactic to reduce unemployment and increase bargaining power.
CIO position on immigration
Unlike the AFL, the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) did not promote policies which would restrict the flow of immigration into the United States. CIO members were industrial unions, a more inclusive organizing philosophy which organizes both skilled and unskilled workers by industry regardless of “race, color, creed, or nationality.” The AFL, on the other hand, was composed largely of skilled craft workers, with unions divided by their craft. Following this model, the CIO was more supportive towards immigration and more receptive towards welcoming immigrants into their ranks, while the AFL pursued steps to curtail immigration.
Late 20th century
During the second half of the 20th century, the predominant view among organized labor changed dramatically, favoring both liberal, inclusive immigration policies and the aggressive organization of immigrant workers.
Increase in illegal immigration
The passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 created a quota of 120,000 visas per year granted to Western Hemisphere immigrants, restricting Western Hemisphere immigration for the first time. This led to long backlogs of people trying to emigrate from Western Hemisphere countries into the United States. Many residents of these countries decided to instead attempt to enter the United States illegally, or to enter legally using temporary work visas, then illegally remain in the country after their expiration. As illegal immigrants began to constitute a growing segment of the American labor force, labor unions and federations were forced to differentiate their immigration policies towards legal and illegal immigrants.
AFL-CIO opposition to illegal immigration
The merger of the AFL and the CIO in 1955 caused the AFL contingent to liberalize its position towards legal migration, following which the AFL-CIO no longer advocated restrictive immigration policies for legal immigrants. Various unions within the AFL-CIO differed in their viewpoints towards illegal migration, however.
As a whole, during the 1970s the AFL-CIO’s policies towards illegal immigrants mirrored the economic arguments made towards legal immigrants during the first half of the century. During this time the AFL-CIO believed that illegal immigrants were willing to work for less money under worse conditions than legal workers, and thus would drag down the wages of native workers and increase unemployment. They therefore pushed for policies aimed at reducing the flow of illegal immigration, such as increased enforcement and employer sanctions.
Change in attitude of the AFL-CIO
However, by the early 1980s the AFL-CIO, under president Lane Kirkland, began to believe that the United States is unable to effectively reduce the flow of illegal immigration, so laws to restrict immigration are inherently ineffective. They argued that one central reason for this is that the disparities between the quality of life in the United States and in the principal sending countries of illegal immigrants are so great that many people will attempt to enter the United States no matter what the potential risks are.
Two of the most vocal opponents of restrictionist immigration policy towards illegal immigrants were the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), and the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE). The Service Employees International Union, representing principally building trades, state and health care workers, grew from 650,000 members in 1980 to over 2 million members in 2009, in large part by organizing immigrant labor, many of whom worked illegally. Justice for Janitors, perhaps the union’s most seminal and successful campaign, highlights the union’s organization of immigrant labor. UNITE was born of a merger between the ILGWU and the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union (ACTWU), both of which have strong histories of opposition to restrictive immigration policies.
The AFL-CIO increasingly believed illegal immigrants to be much harder to organize than legal immigrants, as their fear of deportation and lack of legal recourse make them much easier to exploit by employers in order to prevent the unionization of their work force. Therefore, believing restricting the flow of illegal immigrants to be impossible, the AFL-CIO began to support policies favoring the legalization of illegal immigrants. One such policy was the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, which granted amnesty to an estimated 3 million illegal aliens.
The AFL-CIO also came to see restrictions in legal immigration as ineffective starting in the early 1980s, believing that restricting legal immigration does not actually reduce the number of immigrants entering the country; instead, it simply creates greater illegal immigration. They therefore favored, and continue to favor reforming United States immigration policy to allow for the entry of greater numbers of legal immigrants, while providing amnesty to illegal immigrants.
Fracture of AFL-CIO
In 2005, several unions within the AFL-CIO, among which included UNITE and SEIU, disaffiliated from the AFL-CIO to form the Change to Win Federation, a competing labor federation  which now includes seven constituent member unions. One principal disagreement these unions had with the AFL-CIO which helped spur their disaffiliation was their belief that the AFL-CIO was not investing significant resources into organizing new workers. While not directly related to immigration issues, this split is reminiscent of earlier disagreements concerning immigration policy, where AFL (later AFL-CIO) unions which prioritized organization were more likely to oppose restrictionist immigration legislation.
In 2007, the Change to Win Coalition and the AFL-CIO on immigration reform proposals, and no legislative changed happened that year. However, on April 14, 2009, the two federations released a statement saying that they had agreed on a single reform proposal in response to President Barack Obama’s statement that he would press for immigration reform by the end of the year. Their proposal, however, did not include a guestworker program, while the business community has suggested that such a program needs to be a central component of any reform package. Nevertheless, labor’s unity on this issue is expected to give Obama additional leverage on this issue.
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