Wednesday, January 2, 2008


The lengthy testimony of Vernon M. Briggs Jr. of Cornell University to the Subcommittee on Immigration of the U.S. House of Representatives, delivered on May 24, 2007, makes for compelling reading. It is evident from the text that American unions have undergone a shocking and disgraceful transformation, and that the betrayal of their constituents is a strategic gambit common to labour organizations elsewhere.

In his deposition, Briggs demonstrated that for more than a century, from the civil war until the late 1980s, organized labour either directly initiated or strongly supported every legislative effort to restrict immigration or “enforce its policy provisions.”

The National Labor Union, for example, successfully fought for the repeal of the Contract Labor Act of 1864, which allowed employees to recruit foreign laborers and pay them nothing until transportation and subsistence was repaid. The Act was seen as a method to stimulate immigration and suppress wages for Americans. The NLU also fought to repeal the Burlingame Treaty that allowed Chinese immigrants to enter the country, when it was apparent that they were being used as strike-breakers. The NLU was followed in this objective by the Knights of Labor who succeeded in getting the treaty amended to allow the United States to suspend the entry of unskilled Chinese immigrants, with the passage of the durable Chinese Exclusion Act (which lasted until 1943).

The AFL carried on this tradition of attending to the needs of resident American workers. Samuel Gompers declared in 1896, that “immigration is doing a great injury to our people.” The following year the Union passed a resolution calling for a literacy test that would reduce the entry of unskilled workers into the United States. It could be could be compared to the European language dictation test demand by Australian law or to similar proposals made for Canada. A 1911 AFL report found that mass immigration was depressing wages, increasing unemployment and poverty, and hampering unions in their organizing drives. The immigration laws of 1917, 1921 and 1924 reflected many of the AFL’s concerns.

Other prominent labour leaders were also supportive of the immigration legislation. A. Phillip Randolph, Briggs points out, argued that the appropriate immigration level should be “zero”, because mass immigration not only impeded union organizational capability but hurt African-American workers who were just finding economic opportunities in the north. Clearly the consensus in the American labour movement was that in Gompers’ words, “immigration is fundamentally a labour issue” and that a tight labour market is the American worker’s best friend.

But suddenly in 1993 the ALF-CIO made a shocking break with history by passing a resolution praising the role that immigrants have played in building the nation and attacking critics of illegal immigration. In 1996 they joined a coalition of business, agri-business and Christian conservatives to kill provisions of a bill to limit refugee admissions and verify Social Security numbers of newly-hired workers to discourage illegal workers. And, “in February 2000 the Executive Council of the AFL-CIO announced it was changing its historic position (and) would now support expanded immigration, lenient enforcement of immigration laws and the legislative agenda of immigrant advocacy groups.” In other words, the union abruptly decided to abandon the representation of American workers to become the champion of immigrant, particularly illegal, immigrant workers. Why?

Realpolitik. It was a fact of life that employers alone, not unions, had the means to hire workers, and in the wake of the biggest migratory wave in history, they were hiring illegal workers for unskilled positions. Unions were either going to surrender the service industry to employers, and thereby increase the incentive to hire more illegal workers, or they would make a bid to organize them. To do that successfully, they would have to ingratiate themselves to immigrants by embracing immigrant causes, and sacrifice historical union attitudes to immigration.

In reading Brigg’s assessment one is struck by the remarkable parallel between the cold calculations of the AFL-CIO post-1993 and that of the Sierra Club post-1996. Until 1996, the Sierra Club always acknowledged that population stability for the United States was a key component of a healthy environment, and that restrictive immigration was a critical part of population stability. But a $100 million ultimatum from David Gelbaum that none of his money would find its way into Sierra Club coffers if they included immigration in Club policy persuaded the ruling body that the Elephant in the Room, America’s immigration-induced population explosion, was no longer there.

The clinching argument, though, was that if the Sierra Club was to survive the demographic shift of the 21st century, it would be imperative to recruit Hispanics in droves. But to entice these potential members, it would be necessary to jettison an immigration plank that would seem to threaten to choke off Hispanic migration.

So just as the AFL-CIO chose the immigrant agenda over the economic well-being of the American work force, the Sierra Club chose an Hispanic agenda over the well-being of the environment, which is being killed by runaway population growth fuelled in large part by illegal Hispanic immigration.

Does this strategy of dropping the American bird in your hand to chase two Spanish songbirds in the bush make any sense? Briggs highlights a disturbing correlation: The percentage of the foreign-born population in the United States is inversely proportional to the percentage of union membership.

“In the 1930s and World War II in the 1940s, immigration levels fell dramatically while union membership levels soared to unprecedented levels.” In 1965 the foreign-born population was 4.4% of the U.S. total, but union membership was 30.1% of the non-agricultural sector. By 2006, 12.1% of the population was foreign-born while union membership was only 12% of the non-agricultural sector.

The verdict is obvious. Mass immigration was lethal to organized labour.

Briggs concludes “What is bad economics for working people can never be good politics for unions.”

It can only be hoped that if the AFL-CIO doesn’t heed this sage advice, the Canadian Labour Congress will. But in the face of evidence that mimics Dr. George Borgias’ findings on the negative impact of immigration on resident wage levels and a Statistics Canada study released in May of 2007 which showed that immigration was implicated in a 7% drop in the real wages of educated workers between 1980-2000, the CLC was unimpressed. Rather than suggest a tightening of immigration, which by growing the workforce by 13% had weakened workers’ bargaining power over that period, they merely demanded that immigrants be informed of their workplace rights.

CLC economist Erin Weir admitted that the increasing trend to bring in temporary foreign workers was have a serious downward impact on Canadian workers, but at the same time the CLC calls for a moratorium on all deportation and detention of “undocumented” workers “whose skills are in need and who have been contributing to the economy.” This attitude was better articulated by the AFL-CIO in their website statement that “undocumented workers and their families make enormous contributions to their communities and workplaces and should be provided permanent legal status through a new legalization program.” The British Trade Union Congress has taken an identical tact, maintaining that “regularization” will even reap 800 million pounds for the Treasury in tax revenues, a claim contested by Migration Watch UK which shows that it will be 1.8 billion in net costs to the taxpayer.

The Briggs testimony has only served to highlight one facet of a sea change in the last four decades in our collective attitude toward the issue of population stability and immigration as they affect the environment, the labour market and our culture. Throughout Anglo-America, in America, Canada and the U.K., the union establishment has chosen to “include” migrant labour at the cost of excluding resident workers from primary consideration.

Tim Murray

Quadra Island, BC

September 30/07

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