you can’t support the labor movement and illegal immigration
Erik’s post on protectionism has me thinking about another kind of protectionism, the one about illegal immigration and its consequences for our labor force.
I still run around with a pretty radical crew, often enough, and I dig them. One place where I fear many of them aren’t necessarily thinking things through is both support for the worker’s movement and unquestioning sympathy for illegal immigrants. Like many I find those flatly incompatible– but not in a way that implies too much condemnation of either.
The American labor movement, as vilified as it has come to be, is still something to be proud of. And many of the protections and regulations that this movement is responsible for remain popular, even with those who are not generally disposed to appreciate unions– some sort of minimum wage, occupational safety and health regulations, limits on the amount of hours that people can be compelled to work, access to sanitary bathrooms, minimum ages for working, etc. Each of these is challenged by illegal immigration. People tend to focus on the fact that illegal immigrant labor drives down the wages of unskilled workers, and for good reason. But it’s not just there that illegal immigrant workers damage the benefits of a robust system of worker protections. Not only do illegal immigrant workers damage the minimum wage, as they are undocumented– secret– they often work without the necessary safety precautions that we expect for any worker; without the necessary minimum of healthy and sanitary work conditions that we expect for any worker; often work when they are too young, legally, to be working full time; often work much longer hours than we considered healthy and appropriate for a worker to work; and work without drawing the benefits of Social Security and Medicare for which their wages are often taxed. In other words, illegal immigration undercuts almost all of the major victories of the American labor movement.
The difference between myself and many illegal immigration restrictionists is that I believe the best way to change this is to make the barriers to entry into this country significantly lower, and for the labor movement to make a massive effort to invite these new unskilled immigrants into the labor movement. To me, this makes a great deal of sense for both unskilled immigrant laborers and the labor movement. (Sadly, I know that the odds of any of this happening are strikingly low.) For the labor movement, you could reverse the trend in collapsing unionism rates. You could gain a large influx of workers eager to improve their lives and ready to work hard to do so– and you wouldn’t just be gaining them as a workers, but as voters as well. For those new immigrants, they would gain the usual union advantage: despite the right wing’s insistence that it isn’t true, people join unions for a reason, as union member enjoy higher wages and better benefits, generally, than those who don’t join unions. And perhaps this new alliance between recent unskilled immigrants and labor unions would have the happy coincidence of coming together at a time when this country desperately needs to return to an economy that actually produces things, that generates goods that people want to purchase, rather than relying on the artful transfer of dollars into ever-more esoteric forms of financing in order to produce wealth. And maybe this alliance could actually happen in the context of a country that has passed card check, allowing labor unions access to far more industries, where they could increase their influence as they demonstrate the simple benefits of workers organizing. I don’t think this is going to happen. But I wish it would.
But, look, whether they join unions or not, when immigrant workers come here, they have to play by our rules and follow our laws. It is incredible to me that asserting even that has become part and parcel with bigotry in certain circles. Laws and social rules work, really work, only when the large majority of people follow them. This is particularly true of laws regulating economic behavior, where those actors who don’t have to follow the rules that every other factory or business or corporation does have an immediate and unfair advantage over those who do follow the rules. I want Mexican workers to come to the United States and pursue American abundance, because we have the space, we need the workers and they’re coming anyway. But you follow the rules when you get here. You need to have a Social Security number. You need to have taxes withheld. You need to make a minimum wage and you need to work in a work environment that adheres to legal minimums of safety, health and cleanliness. That’s not discrimination, it’s not bigotry, it’s asking people to adhere to the social contract. One of the perverse parts of this discussion is that people who say they support illegal immigrants end up endorsing a situation where many illegal immigrants make dollars a day in terrible conditions and with no recourse against exploitation. That is no victory for these immigrants, and it’s a disaster for those of us who think that workers should be subject to legally enforced protections and regulation. Come here, work here, but do so in a way that preserves the benefits of what so many fought so hard for.
And, yes, some of this has to be made possible by actual border enforcement. Many people see support for border enforcement as being ipso facto an endorsement of harsh treatment towards illegal immigrants or just of anti-immigrant sentiment in general. There’s a part of me that wishes that there were no such thing as borders. But as long as we have separate laws and regulations from other countries, and as long as we value those laws and regulations, borders are necessary. And if they are to mean anything at all, they have to be policed, although the investment in this policing is certainly a matter open to debate. Like I said, I think the best way to stop the problem of illegal immigration is to drastically lower the barriers to entry and to demonstrate the clear benefits of entering the system legally. But if there are people who continue to come in illegally, we’ve got to have a meaningful system of enforcement that preserves our rules.
That, ultimately, is a better deal for almost everyone: better pay and working conditions for recent immigrants; more unionized members, more power and influence for unions; and a new dedication to creating useful commodities that people want to buy, for the benefit of our economy. This won’t come without cost. Goods and services, if produced here and for living wages, will certainly be more expensive. It will continue to be a struggle for these companies to compete with the dirt cheap labor available in foreign countries. These price increases, meanwhile, will certainly be passed on to consumers. But we have to ask if that is a worthy bargain. I certainly question whether the ability to buy clock radios for $9 or four and a half ounces of California blueberries for a dollar is really worth the shelled out economy we’ve created, where wealth has to be generated by shuffling paper rather than through the classic, tried and true system of people paying for goods and services that improve their lives. Would the American consumer be willing to pay more than they are used to for the things they need? I don’t know. I do know that the system of dirt cheap commodities, constant consumption and a almost nonexistent manufacturing base has left us with a financial crisis the likes of which we never thought we’d have to endure. At this point, I think any option is on the table.