Immigration is contributing to the ongoing collapse of America’s labor unions, according to a recent study from the libertarian CATO Institute. The share of employed Americans who were members of a union went from 30 percent to 11 percent between 1980 and 2020, and per CATO Institute, immigrants were responsible for nearly 30 percent of that decline.
“We found this happens because immigrants have a lower preference for unionization and because immigrants increase diversity in the workforce that, in turn, decreases solidarity among workers and raises the transaction costs of forming unions,” conclude the authors.
CATO scholars surely view this trend as a positive good; the nation’s largest self-described libertarian think tank favors few things more than the demise of America’s labor unions and an unregulated supply of cheap labor for businesses. Yet those of us who care about American workers and believe in the power of unions should pay close attention to their findings. For the CATO study provides more empirical proof of a phenomenon that ordinary working Americans have experienced first-hand for decades: As more foreign workers flood the labor market, the bargaining power of existing workers erodes, wages stagnate, and the doors of opportunity slam shut.
It’s why historically, union organizers viewed high levels of immigration—both legal and illegal—as a threat to their members, not out of xenophobia, but simply out of an understanding of the law of supply and demand. When labor markets are tight, employers must offer better pay and benefits to attract and retain workers, meaning unions can negotiate from a position of leverage. When labor markets are loose, by contrast, employers can hold wages and benefits flat, or even cut them, and still fill positions with desperate employees who are willing to take any job they can find.
As Harvard economist and immigration expert George Borjas wrote in Politico in 2016, “immigration redistributes wealth from those who compete with immigrants to those who use immigrants—from the employee to the employer,” resulting in a “wealth redistribution from the native losers to the native winners [that’s] enormous, roughly a half-trillion dollars a year.”
It should not be unsurprising that the American Federation of Labor, one of the nation’s oldest and most powerful unions prior to its 1955 merger with the Congress of Industrial Organizations to create the AFL-CIO, strongly supported the Immigration Act of 1924, which slashed the annual number of foreign arrivals from over 1 million a year in the 1900s and 1910s to just tens of thousands a year by the 1930s.
Labor leader and civil rights activist A. Philip Randolph applauded the legislation; he actually called for cutting immigration to zero to help workers, especially Black Americans. Unsurprisingly, the era from the end of the Great Depression in the 1930s until after the 1965 Immigration Act was passed saw a great expansion of wages and benefits for workers while immigration was limited. A few generations later, United Farm Workers leader Cesar Chavez also fiercely opposed illegal immigration and pressed for increased deportations to prevent corporate farms from using migrants as scabs to break union strikes.
Only very recently have unions flip-flopped to their current support of high levels of immigration. As the CATO study notes, “In 2000, the AFL-CIO dropped its support for increasing enforcement against illegal immigrants, supported an amnesty for them, and tentatively endorsed increasing legal immigration.”
Union leaders presumably viewed new arrivals as potential new recruits and figured that the increased dues would outweigh any harm done to rank-and-file members.
That logic is dubious, as the rest of the study proves. The authors note that immigrants have always been less likely to join unions than native-born Americans—33 percent less likely over the past two and a half decades, to be specific. New arrivals are also less likely to feel solidarity with native-born Americans, regardless of their race or national origin, CATO notes.
That’s not a knock on immigrants; it’s just human nature. Social science research along with basic common sense indicates that people who are new to a community won’t have the same level of affinity for other members of the community as people whose families have been there for generations.
In addition to weakening unions, high levels of immigration drive down Americans’ wages. As Borjas explains, “Wage trends over the past half-century suggest that a 10 percent increase in the number of workers with a particular set of skills probably lowers the wage of that group by at least 3 percent.” The net effect, Borjas explains, is to transfer money that workers would have earned to corporate bottom lines.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Humanely reducing immigration levels would help give American workers more bargaining power. Even the libertarians at the CATO Institute admit it.
Deena Flinchum is an IT worker who was employed by the AFL-CIO for 25 years before retiring. She is now a community volunteer in southwest Virginia.
The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.