There’s very little agreement on the immigration issue, and unlike so many issues, it is not a purely partisan issue. One area where everyone seems to agree is that illegal immigrant labor drives down wages in at least some industries.
I should point out that the evidence of economy-wide effects of immigrants seems to be neutral. We all benefit from cheaper food, so the effects on wages among fruitpickers balances out when you consider the whole economy.
People who argue that immigrants are just taking jobs that Americans won’t accept are, after all, basically claiming that Americans don’t want those jobs at the rates industry is offering. If they paid higher wages, they’d attract American workers, and charge higher prices. Whether that’s an exchange that’s acceptable is worth discussing, though the debate is rarely put in those terms.
Illegal immigrants rarely complain about minimum wage, worker safety, or maximum hours per week violations, which means that illegal immigration creates industries in which human rights violations become commonplace. Some object on human rights grounds, others object to the effect on wages for legal workers.
Either way, there’s a simple solution to the problem, one which would surely block one major incentive for illegal immigration.
Repeal the Taft-Hartley Act.
Taft-Hartley, for those of you who don’t remember your American labor history, was a union-busting bill passed by a Republican Congress in 1947. Among other things, it banned many effective tools that unions can use to support striking workers in brother unions, it gave the President the power to order striking workers back on the job, excluded “supervisors” from union membership, and it allowed states to pass laws blocking union contracts forbidding non-union workers.
Truman vetoed the bill, calling it a “slave labor act,” but the Republicans overrode his veto. Since then, much of the South, Midwest and Mountain West have been so-called “right to work” states. In such states, union membership carries no great incentive, and unions are substantially weakened. In the absence of worker solidarity, wages and worker protections continue to drop, until you get the situation we have now. Meatpacking, traditionally a union job in towns like Chicago or Kansas City, now attracts illegal immigrant labor in states like Kansas with weak union protections. Mother Jones locates that shift from unionized urban meatpacking to rural nonunion meatpacking in the 1970s, and reported:
Wages in the meatpacking industry soon fell by as much as 50 percent. Today meatpacking is one of the nation’s lowest-paid industrial jobs, with one of the highest turnover rates. The typical plant now hires an entirely new workforce every year or so. There are no waiting lists at these slaughterhouses today. Staff shortages have become an industrywide problem, making the work even more dangerous. … Given the industry’s high turnover rates, it is a challenge for a union simply to remain in a meatpacking plant, since every year it must gain the allegiance of a whole new set of workers.
Of course, if Taft-Hartley were repealed, a union formed in one year would not need to regain support from a brand new staff the next year. Unions would undoubtedly be prepared to help verify the legal status of new hires, and would ensure that wages and safety standards were high enough to attract American workers.
Repealing restrictions on union membership, permitting unionization throughout the workforce, would extend those benefits far enough that illegal immigrants would have nowhere to turn. American workers would take those jobs, and the economy would grow.
This solution improves over existing solutions because it creates and enforces community norms. Building a fence or hiring more guards places an enormous cost on society, but increasing the cost of illegally entering the country above the difference in wages between Mexico and the US would cost even more. “Enforcement-only” is a pipedream. Creating temporary workers gives the stamp of approval to the wage eroding aspect of existing illegal immigration. Institutionalizing wage slavery doesn’t solve the human rights problem. At best it addresses the fact that our policy and our practice diverge, and it does so by conforming policy to the worst consequences of current practices.
Liberal solutions to illegal immigration tend to be rightly focused on the workplace. Increasing enforcement and fines for employers who hire illegal immigrants, who create unsafe working conditions or who violate other labor laws would probably have some of the same effects as increasing unionization, but at greater cost. The employer has an incentive to hire cheap nonunion workers, and to ignore or fudge legal status so long as illegal immigrants will work for less than legal workers. Placing a mandate on employers to check easily forged documents is will require extensive verification by the government, and when funding is cut for enforcement, the situation will return to its current state.
Unionization creates a community of workers, and that community has an incentive to exclude someone who would undermine that community by undercutting wages or giving in to management pressure on overtime or safety. A community of permanent employees has an incentive to consider who is being added to that community, and that could well make visa and citizenship checks self-enforcing in union membership. Self-enforcing norms are better than externally enforced mandates because they actually work.
This simple solution suggests a broader approach to addressing the underlying cause of illegal immigration – economic inequality across the US-Mexican border. Unionization in Mexico would have the same benefits for wages, worker safety and over-all standard of living that it had in the United States. Unionization was a major factor in creating a vibrant middle class in the post-war US. Promoting unions in Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America would raise wages, reducing the incentive to flee to greener pastures in the United States. It’s notoriously hard to form new unions in Mexico, and DR-CAFTA actually weakened labor standards in pre-existing trade deals, so pushing these changes overseas may be tricky. They would, however, have the added benefit of reducing outsourcing by leveling the playing field in terms of labor rights and wages among trading partners.