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Trans Africa
Published: 04 July 2007

Unionization Would Solve the Immigration Debate


Let's cut to the chase. Central to the current immigration debate is the matter of job competition. 

As I have said in earlier commentaries, there is a fact about the economy that mainstream commentators do not really wish to discuss: capitalism promotes job competition among workers. That is the way that this system of wealth and income inequality works. It is like the game of musical chairs, there is always one less chair than the number of participants. 

For capitalism, this is critical because it ensures that workers are in a constant state of insecurity. If there are a lot of workers out of work, for instance, then each worker who does have a job has the sense -- true or not -- that standing behind them are a host of other workers ready to grab their job. This insecurity makes workers less willing to fight for their rights.

Immigration, from the standpoint of business, promotes further competition among workers, but it does not create competition. Businesses tend to encourage immigration, particularly of so-called vulnerable workers, in order to have all workers fighting among themselves, each blaming the other for their own sorry state. This has been the pattern since the 1800s.

So, why not simply shut off immigration? Will things then improve for Black America? Good question, but the answer is not so simple. First, irrespective of laws, border patrol, etc., people will come to the United States if their homelands are a mess, particularly a mess created by the United States. They will make incredible sacrifices with the hope that they can secure a job and send funds home to their families. 

Second, they will come here because businesses want them. Businesses want a low-wage workforce and they will seek out the workforce that will take the lowest pay possible.

But organizing workers always throws a monkey wrench into the system. If workers are unionized and their wage rates are respectable, the employer has great difficulty playing one group against another. This is a historical fact. A workforce that is perceived to be vulnerable, in other words, becomes the opposite when it is organized. They can no longer be used against non-immigrant or less vulnerable workers.

What does this mean for Black America? Here are a few thoughts:

• Keep in mind a very basic moral and historical truth: no worker is illegal. When Africans were running away from plantations and either going North or going to Mexico, we were declared illegal by White society. We were, in reality, seeking to reaffirm our humanity.

• We must support the unionization of all workers. So many of the jobs currently occupied by low-wage immigrant workers were at one time higher wage, unionized positions. When employers destroyed the unions in those industries -- i.e. meatpacking -- and drove out the existing workforces, they sought to replace them with non-union immigrants (many times undocumented immigrants) at a lower wage rate. In other words, it is not that African Americans or anyone else ceased to be interested in such jobs; but that the employers essentially destroyed the jobs and the living standard that they once produced. If we build and strengthen unions, it becomes that much more difficult to displace workers. Thus, unions need to organize on a massive scale and Black America needs to continue to throw its support toward unionization.

• We must demand decent jobs. This may sound overly basic, but what has struck me over the last number of years is the lack of organization within Black America in order to demand and fight for jobs. We ask for jobs, for sure, but we are not in the streets fighting for them. When hotels are constructed, are we involved -- as the New York-based Harlem Fightback organization has been for more than 40 years -- in demanding construction jobs? Are we involved in pressuring for jobs within the hotels (such as supporting the efforts of unions such as UNITE/HERE which have demanded that hotels hire Black workers)? Are we demanding that elected leaders ensure that new jobs must be fairly distributed?

Let me close by emphasizing one major point. When Frederick Douglas suggested that power concedes nothing without a demand, many people have taken that to be the realm of fine rhetoric. It was not. It was a basic truism of life. If we in Black America are not organized to fight for jobs, then the sad reality is that we will not get them. Black Americans, along with Native Americans, remain the "Other" in this society and we will continue to be ignored, if not 'cleansed' from the economy, if we are not organized. 


Bill Fletcher, Jr. is a labor and international writer and activist. He is the immediate past president of TransAfrica Forum.

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