Unions & Immigrants

NO LONGER ENEMIES

For over a century the challenge of immigration has vexed organized labor. In the late nineteenth century, the American Federation of Labor (AFL), led by cigarmaker Samuel Gompers (himself an immigrant from Europe who, in his own words, “secured the honors and duties of citizenship” only in his twenties), entered national politics largely to press for immigration restriction. AFL leaders believed that an influx of immigrant workers could only weaken the bargaining position of American labor. Only over decades, and with great effort, had American workers taught themselves the skills, habits, and discipline necessary to create enduring labor organizations. The AFL worried that a sudden flood of desperate foreign workers from Poland, Italy, and China, with little trade-union background, could easily drown the infant movement. For much of its subsequent history organized labor viewed immigration with alarm.

Many in the chattering classes-whose jobs, at least until recently, were more secure than those of blue-collar workers-have been quick to assume that this fear was based on prejudice. Yet the alarm of American workers has not been without justification. The existence today of a shadow population of 10 or 12 million undocumented workers permanently barred from the rights and obligations of citizenship cannot but complicate workers’ efforts to advance their interests. Any increase in the labor supply tends to...

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About the Author

Clayton Sinyai is the political director of Laborers Local 11 in Alexandria, Virginia, and the author of Schools of Democracy (Cornell). He can be reached at csinyai@malaborers.org.