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Immigration and American Unionism

Author(s):Briggs Jr., Vernon M.
Reviewer(s):Reid Jr., Joseph D.

Published by EH.NET (December 2001)

Vernon M. Briggs, Jr., Immigration and American Unionism. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2001. ix + 215 pp. $37.50 (hardback), ISBN: 0-8014-3870-5; $16.95 (paperback), ISBN: 0-8014-8710-2.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Joseph D. Reid, Jr., Department of Economics, George Mason University.

This book tells two stories. The first is the long story of how worker collectivism evolved laboriously and down many false trails to reach its proper and destined position (in the eyes of the author) of bargainer for one-third and advocate for all of the industrial workforce, the position it reached as the sometimes one and sometimes two AFL & CIO under the New Deal and sustained through the 1960s. A constant of this story is the opposition of American labor collectivists to immigration, which they perceived as reducing the ability of native workers to raise wages. As unions saw it (and as the author sees it), the unions’ duty was to raise native-born Americans’ wages first. The second story is the recent abandonment by the AFL-CIO of its opposition to immigration that threatens wages of the neediest native workers, and the author’s displeasure, indeed, sense of betrayal, at that abandonment. The concluding chapter calls out for the AFL-CIO not to abandon its historic charge, but to recant and return to its historic battle to uplift the neediest American workers.

Briggs’ call is understandable to unions’ traditional friends. However, it won’t sway today’s unionists. Perhaps Briggs will be heartened by my prediction, however, that organized labor’s embrace of immigrants won’t save it. Before I explain why, first a brief summary of the book.

To explain his opposition to immigration, Briggs retells the chronological history of unionism and immigration in America. One early union form joined together workers at many establishments making a similar product to resist local wage cuts prompted by importation of cheaper substitute products from elsewhere (as in the Philadelphia shoemakers’ strike of 1806). Another formed an association across skills in hope of achieving sufficient political push to win by law what had not been won by individual bargaining or strikes (as when the Philadelphia Mechanics’ Union of Trade Associations founded the Working Men’s Party to attempt to legislate a ten-hour work day). Scant mention is made of the “city central” unions that these failed party unions typically evolved into in the big Northeastern cities. They got out the vote for some particular candidate who had other sources of support, rather than fielding their own candidate, and in return were favored for city contracts (a forerunner of patronage practices common in big industrial cities after the Civil War). The incompatibility of slave with free labor is advanced to explain the lag of unionism in the South. The nigh uniquely successful founding of the typographers union in 1852 is noted, but no reason for its success is advanced, even though copycat but unsuccessful unions of locomotive engineers, hat finishers, machinists and so on were founded soon after. The meteoric rise and fall of the Knights of Labor is noted to show its opposition to immigration and the conflict of its organizing practices (across trades) with natural unionism (AFL — one trade or industry).

If the book’s history of unionism seems rushed and incomplete, it is because the aim of this history is not to understand unionism, but to know that unionism in all its manifestations was always against immigrants who took jobs from native workers, and to note that immigration waxed when unionism waned and vice-versa. In short, anti-immigrant labor policy is traditional among all who sought to help American workers, and is justified by the historical negative impact of immigration on unionism.

Nonetheless, the AFL-CIO reversed policy and began to support immigration in the 1990s for several reasons, Briggs declares, but the principal one is self-interest on the part of union leaders. Union leaders want someone to represent, and fear that there will be none to represent at the low end of the wage scale if immigrants are refused representation. To the author, this is an appalling sell-out of the neediest American workers.

Now let me explain why Briggs’ reaction is understandable, why it won’t sway unionists, and why unionists’ embrace of immigrants won’t save them. Briggs reaction is understandable, because traditional union sympathizers recognize that unions raise members’ wages by somehow restricting employers’ access to substitute labor. In the traditionalists’ view, the benighted public enacts too low minimum wages and inadequate safety requirements and redistributes too little to the poor. So winning higher wages and easier, safer work through unionism on the job is the only way to accomplish the right things for the unionized poor. The benighted public, in short, forced unions to substitute workplace reform for some for social reform for all. The losers were those who already faced discrimination by employers or politicians, such as African-Americans and immigrants. To the unions’ credit, traditional unionism shares its monopoly reward (through support of legal standards and legislation) with those excluded from unions (the really poor). But the “really poor” cannot be defined to include immigrants, because there are so many of them that no improvement, however great in sum, will be appreciable per person. So, the only result for workers of embracing immigrants will be to lower the wages and working conditions of the poorest American workers.

Not to worry. Briggs concern won’t sway unionists, because at the margin union leaders are in it for their buck, not their members’ buck. That is, although many union leaders were and are visionaries and martyrs, the union leader at the margin strives to do what will enrich him. In our rapidly globalizing world, union leaders perceive that blocking trade (the embodiment of substitute labor) increasingly will be impossible and that blocking current immigration is impossible. Immigrant labor fits the classic role of who to unionize: those who have the law on their side and perceive treatment by their employer as unfair. The law is on their side, because legal or illegal workers are subject to the same minimum wage and safety requirements. Illegal immigrants perceive treatment by their employer as unfair, because they are worked harder and paid less than citizens, and troublemakers are threatened constantly with deportation. So, say union leader-job seekers, if illegals were legalized, they would want to hire a union leader, me.

But unionists’ embrace of immigrants won’t save them. The same globalization that makes it impossible for union tactics to win higher wages for native workers makes it impossible to win higher wages for immigrant workers. With unrestricted immigration, a union of immigrants that strikes for higher wages will next day be replaced with a workforce of fresher immigrants or imported products. Immigrants know this, and so won’t buy what union leaders traditionally offer. That is not to say that immigrants wouldn’t buy something. As I have explained elsewhere (“Future Unions,” Industrial Relations 31 [February 1992]: 122-36), immigrants would like assistance at integrating into America — off the job representation, so to speak. But traditional union leaders have no skill at providing that help; their expertise is in confrontation, not integration. Confrontation will help the working immigrant no more than it will help the working American in the globalized world. The recent move of traditional unionism to embrace immigrants is understandable, but is doomed to fail. Since for other reasons traditional unionism will not succeed in the public sector (op. cit.), traditional unionism is dead.

Briggs’ lament is understandable, but is to no avail.

Joseph Reid has authored a series of articles dealing with unions in America, most recently “The Evolution of Government Employment,” Journal of Labor Research, 21 (Spring 2000). Currently he is tying these together into a book.

Subject(s):Labor and Employment History
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII