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September 2002, Volume 9, Number 9

Unions and Immigration

Briggs' seven-chapter book, Immigration and American Unionism, is an economic history of the US from an immigration and labor point of view. Chapters proceed chronologically, generally beginning with the demographic, economic and political issues that shaped the era being discussed, then move to immigration, and finally turn to the status of unions.

Briggs is especially good at describing the factors that shaped each era, such as baby-boom entrants, women, and immigrants swelling the labor force in the 1970s and 1980s. The central message highlighted in Figure 7.1 is clear--union membership increased as the percentage of the foreign-born decreased from the 1930s to the 1970s, and began to fall as the foreign-born share of the population rose after 1970.

Briggs alludes to the unions' dilemma in the book's title: unions have traditionally been restrictionist because they understood that a tight labor market is a worker's best friend. Thus, union opposition to large-scale immigration protected all workers in the US, native-born and foreign-born, by giving them more bargaining power.

However, if unions oppose immigration, but fail to get government to limit it, and immigrants enter, they are likely to be anti-union and it will be-hard for unions that opposed immigration to turn around and organize immigrant workers. In the late 1990s, several of the 68 national unions in the AFL-CIO, including the United Farm Workers and the SEIU, called on the AFL-CIO to reverse its support for employer sanctions aimed at deterring employers from hiring illegal aliens, and thus discouraging their entry.

The AFL-CIO did reverse its stance, making front-page news in February 2000 when the executive council unanimously called for: (1) the repeal of employer sanctions; (2) legalization for many of the six million unauthorized foreigners in the US; and (3) new criminal penalties on employers who use labor and immigration laws to exploit vulnerable workers. The AFL-CIO included a statement maintaining its opposition to guest-worker programs and calling for stepped up labor law enforcement.

Briggs quotes Samuel Gompers, founder and president of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) in letter to Congress March 19,1924: "Every effort to enact immigration legislation must expect to meet a number of hostile forces and, in particular, two hostile forces of considerable strength. One of these is composed of corporation employers who desire to employ physical strength (broad backs) at the lowest possible wage and who prefer a rapidly revolving labor supply at low wages to a regular supply of American wage earners at fair wages."

Julie Watts' seven-chapter book, Immigration Policy and the Challenge Of Globalization, asserts that labor union leaders have come to regard immigration as an inevitable consequence of globalization, and that restrictive immigration policies, which they once supported to protect their member workers, only encourage illegal immigration. Watts contends that most labor leaders today support more open policies that promote legal immigration, creating an unconventional, unspoken partnership with employers in France, Italy, Spain, and the United States.

Chapter 1 explores globalization, and concludes that more open economies have pushed labor and management to cooperate; Chapter 2 explores immigration policies in France, Italy, Spain; Chapter 3 provides Watt's perspective on why union leaders prefer more open immigration policies; Chapter 4 looks at employer perspectives on immigration; Chapters 5 and 6 look at immigration policy in evolution; and Chapter 7 reflects on the US case.

Watts, Julie R. 2002. Immigration Policy and the Challenge Of Globalization. Unions And Employers In Unlikely Alliance. Cornell University Press. Briggs, Vernon M. 2001. Immigration and American Unionism. Cornell University Press. Milkman, Ruth. Ed. 2000. Organizing Immigrants: The Challenge for Unions in Contemporary California. Cornell University Press.