If there’s any group of people in the United States who could benefit from the power of union muscle, it’s undocumented workers. Abysmal wages, dreadful working conditions and rampant abuse by exploitative employers are the reality of daily life for the millions of people living in this country without the protection that comes with legal recognition. Consequently, we should recognize immigration as an issue related to labor and encourage unions to take an active role in the fight for the rights of immigrants.
It’s difficult to define where organized labor as a whole stands. Richard Trumka, president of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, the largest union federation in the country, has come out in favor of amnesty. Teamsters president James P. Hoffa applauded California governor Jerry Brown for signing a bill that will protect temporary workers from abuse by their employers. While these progressive positions are quickly being adopted by national leaders, the issue remains hot within union rank and file as low-level leaders and members in many places remain unwilling to extend aid to undocumented workers.
This should come as no surprise since labor has, historically, been one of the most staunchly anti-immigrant interests in the United States. Unions supported laws like the Chinese Exclusion Act and the Immigration Act of 1924 because they were determined to keep American jobs in American hands. Today the unions should know better than anyone else this archaic gauntlet of restrictions and quotas is ineffective when so many people just bypass the system altogether and enter the workforce illegally. A solution that embraces immigrants is obviously preferable for this reason alone, but there’s more to suggest labor would actually grow stronger from this advocacy.
If organized labor were to succeed in achieving a path to citizenship, the vast wave of workers openly seeking union representation would counteract the rapidly declining membership unions have seen for decades. Private sector employers are more willing to hire undocumented workers since they come under far less scrutiny. Incidentally, the Washington Post reported on February 17 that public sector workers are more than five times as likely to be unionized as those in the private sector. The obvious need for union representation in private industries can be addressed through comprehensive immigration reform. Furthermore, the admittance of more dues-paying workers would provide critical resources and manpower to the severely weakened labor movement, thereby benefiting Americans who would have otherwise seen their bargaining power continue to dwindle.
Additionally, we shouldn’t forget union membership suffers from an embarrassing lack of diversity. On Jan. 24, the Bureau of Labor Statistics filed a news release on union membership rates in 2013 that showed that 13.6 percent of black workers and 11 percent of white workers belonged to unions, while only 9.4 percent of Asian and Hispanic workers were affiliated with such organizations. Now compare this with the Department of Homeland Security’s “Estimates of the Unauthorized Immigrant Population Residing in the United States: January 2012,” which revealed that all of the top ten countries of birth for unauthorized immigrants are in Asia and Latin America. Clearing navigable paths to citizenship for immigrants from these countries would bring labor a step closer to fixing its homogeny.
Lastly, by adopting these progressive goals, organized labor will reconcile itself with the Democratic Party, which has become increasingly centrist over the years as its union base continues to weaken.
Labor unions are expected to stand in solidarity with all workers, regardless of their nationality or status within the eyes of the law. With such a massive portion of our working population suffering from injustices at the hands of abusive employers — injustices that labor had long ago driven out of the workplace for the vast majority of people — the responsibility of unions is to turn their attention to addressing the core problem lending to this trend: the catastrophe that is our immigration policy.