Labor Rising: The Past and Future of Working People in America

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Meanwhile, the Immigration Act of also authorized the creation of another commission to study the impact of the new legislation and the effectiveness of existing immigration laws. The Commission on Immigration Reform CIR was chaired by Barbara Jordan a former member of Congress, but a professor of public policy at the University of Texas at the time for most of its six-year life. CIR issued a series of interim reports and culminated its work with a final report in In , it repeated its charge that immigration reformers were making immigrants "scapegoats" and that proposals for comprehensive immigration reforms were being used "to unfairly exploit public concern over illegal immigrants.

Aware of the principal findings of CIR by this time, Congress took up the issue of immigration reform in the spring of , even though CIR's final report had yet to be issued. Together, they succeeded in having Congress separate all the legal-immigration reform measures from the pending bill and then kill them, stripping from the remaining bill the key proposals for verification of the authenticity of Social Security numbers as a way to reduce illegal immigration, and dropping efforts to limit refugee admissions. By joining with a coalition of some of the most anti-union organizations in the country, labor leaders succeeded in blocking immigration reform designed primarily to protect the economic well-being of low skilled workers in the nation.

The rationale offered by labor officials was that their new organizing targets had increased some unions' contact with large urban concentrations of immigrants. Hence, the labor movement needed to undertake a more accommodative stance. The AFL-CIO believes that all workers who are in the United States ought to receive the full protection of existing labor laws regardless of their legal status.

This is seen as a social justice issue at the work site, which is a traditional union concern. But it is also the case that there are self-defense motivations involved. Some employers use the threat or the actual practice of turning illegal immigrants in to the Immigration and Naturalization Service INS if they seek to vote or do vote in union certification elections. This means that illegal immigrants have little reason to fear INS raids unless employers report them.

If the INS is not going to police work sites, unions must seek to enlist the illegal immigrants as members or abandon their organizing efforts with the enterprise in question. Should unions give up such organizing, employers will have an even greater incentive to hire more illegal immigrants than they already do. Thus, organizing and protecting illegal immigrants is not a matter of principle, it is a matter of necessity. Gaining support from unions rep-resenting janitors, garment workers, restaurant workers, and hotel house-keepers, they argued that unions needed to overtly embrace immigrants if the movement was to survive.

In particular, these advocates sought to end the employer sanctions provision created by IRCA in which organized labor had strongly supported and to enact yet another general amnesty for those illegal immigrants now in the country.

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Support for this effort was far from unanimous and a floor fight seemed probable. To avoid a public confrontation, AFL-CIO officials agreed that the motion would be briefly debated and then referred to a committee for study. It was done. It was announced that the AFL-CIO would seek to have the employer sanctions provisions of IRCA repealed and that it favored a new amnesty to cover most of the six million illegal immigrants believed to be in the United States.

Research on mass immigration's impact on the economic well-being of workers has consistently found that organized labor's support for restrictive measures was amply justified. Economists Timothy Hatton and Jeffrey Williamson found that in the post Civil-War era, when the fledgling labor movement initially began to press for immigration reforms, urban real wages would have been 14 percent higher in had it not been for the high immigration levels of the preceding 20 years. Likewise, studies of the massive immigration that occurred between and were even more supportive of the AFL's strenuous efforts to reduce immigration levels during this era.

Hatton and Williamson found that, in the absence of the large-scale immigration that occurred after , the urban real wage would have been 34 percent higher in Parenthetically, they observed that "with an impact that big, no wonder the Immigration Commission produced a massive report in that supported quotas! Following the passages of the restrictive Immigration Act of and the Immigration Act of , which enacted the first ceilings on immigration in U.

Indeed, labor historian Joseph Rayback called the Immigration Acts of and "the most significant pieces of 'labor' legislation enacted during" the post-World War I era. In , a special panel created by the National Research Council NRC issued a report on the economic effects of the contemporary immigration experience of the United States. The NRC report catalogued the fact that the educational attainment levels of post— immigrants have steadily declined. Consequently, foreign-born workers, on average, earn less than native-born workers and the earnings gap has widened over the years.

Those from Latin America including Mexico presently account for over half of the entire foreign-born population of the nation, and they earn the lowest wages. The NRC found no evidence of discriminatory wages being paid to immigrants; rather, it found that immigrant workers are paid less than native-born workers because, in fact, they are less skilled and less educated. The relative declines in both skills and wages of the foreign-born population was attributed to the fact that most immigrants are coming from the poorer nations of the world, where the average wages, educational attainment, and skill levels are far below those in the United States.

As a direct consequence, post immigrants are disproportionately increasing the segment of the nation's labor supply that has the lowest human capital endowments.

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The rise and fall of US labor unions, and why they still matter

In the process, they are suppressing the wages of all workers in the lowest skill sector of the labor market. More specifically, the study documented the fact that almost half of the decline in real wages for native-born high school dropouts i. It was for this very reason that Barbara Jordan summarized CIR's proposed recommendations on legal immigration reform by stating:.

What the Commission is concerned about are the unskilled workers in our society. In an age in which unskilled workers have far too few opportunities opened to them, and in which welfare reform will require thousands more to find jobs, the Commission sees no justification to the continued entry of unskilled foreign workers.

It was in the same macro context that the Council of Economic Advisers CEA to the President identified post — mass immigration as being one of the contributing factors to the worsening income disparity that the nation experienced has since In , the CEA explained that "immigration has increased the relative supply of less-educated labor and appears to have contributed to the increasing inequality of income. In addition, there have been a host of studies at the micro level that have documented the adverse impact immigration has had one the ability of unions to organize workers, retain representation rights, and achieve economic gains for those who are organized.

Department of Justice and the U. Department of Labor in , concluded that "unions have been weakened directly by the use of recent immigrants.

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  • With only two exceptions, membership in American unions has, over time, moved inversely with trends in the size of immigration inflows see Figure 1. One exception was from to , when both union membership and immigration increased. But it was a period when the nation was recovering from a major depression and the economy was rapidly industrializing. The other was from to when, conversely, both union membership and immigration declined. But this was an era of all-out assault on unionism by business, government, and the courts.


    It has been manifestly the case since Since , when policymakers inadvertently renewed mass immigration, the foreign-born population of the United States has increased by percent from 8. Since the year the Immigration Act of took full effect , the distribution of income within the nation has steadily become more unequal. The decline in union membership and the impact of mass immigration both have been identified by the CEA as contributing explanations for the worsening income inequality in the nation.

    In this environment, mass immigration has once more done what it did in the past: it has lessened the effectiveness of unions and, accordingly, diminished their attractiveness to workers.

    A World Without Work

    To be sure, there are other factors involved in the decline of union membership. They, too, need to be reformed. Likewise, globalization and technological change have radically altered the nation's industrial and occupational structures to the disadvantage of organized labor's historic membership strengths. But the drastic weakening of the economic status of many working people in this new era argues for increased union representation now more than ever.

    Mass immigration — especially of unskilled and poorly educated persons — has significantly contributed to all of the income disparity pressures besetting the work force be they native- born or foreign-born.

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    • The nation's immigration laws need to be strengthened, not weakened or repealed. Employer sanctions set the moral tone for immigration policy at the workplace. The identification loopholes need to be plugged and worksite enforcement given priority, not neglect. There should not be more mass amnesties for persons who have brazenly violated the laws that, since , clearly state that illegal immigrants should not be in the workplace in the first place.

      Such amnesties only encourage others to enter illegally and hope for another amnesty.

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      Moreover, the mass amnesty of persons who are overwhelmingly unskilled and poorly educated only adds to the competition for low wage jobs with the citizens and permanent resident aliens. Rather than pursue its past role as a careful monitor of the impact of the nation's immigration policies on the economic well-being of working people, the AFL-CIO is poised to become an advocate for the pro-immigrant political agenda.

      But this strategy comes with a heavy cost. First, it means that success in the organization of immigrants will not translate into any real ability to increase significantly the wages or benefits of many such organized workers. As long as the labor market continues to be flooded with low-skilled immigrant job seekers, unions will not be able to defy the market forces that will suppress upward wage pressures. Secondly, the focus on the advancement of the interests of low-skilled immigrants can only cause the alienation of low-skilled native-born workers who must compete for these same jobs because they lack the human capital to qualify for better ones.

      How long can it be until these other workers recognize that their ambitions for higher wages and better living standards cannot be achieved as long as mass immigration is allowed to flood low wage labor markets? The fundamental issue for labor has never been a question of whether unions should organize immigrants. Of course they must, as they have always done. Rather, it is should labor seek to organize workers specifically because they are immigrants, and in the process become a proactive advocate for immigrant causes?

      Or should unions do as they have in the past: seek to organize all workers purely on the grounds of the pursuit of their economic well-being? If labor seeks to organize immigrants on the same basis it does native-born workers i. Indeed, the hard lesson of labor history is that the more generous the immigration policy, the worse it is for all workers in their efforts to raise wages, to improve working conditions, and to secure employment opportunities.

      The wisdom of Melvin Reder, a pioneer in the analysis of the labor market impact of immigration, should always be kept in mind:. Our immigration policy inevitably reflects a kind of national selfishness of which the major beneficiaries are the least fortunate among us.

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      We could not completely abandon the policy, even if we so desired. The distinguishing feature of the American labor movement has always been its pragmatic focus on the achievement of economic gains for its members rather than the abstract pursuit of political objectives.