On Labor Day: Don’t pit immigrants against black workers
San Francisco Chronicle
Labor Day is a national holiday to honor the efforts of workers in the United States and celebrate the American Dream, in which all workers have an opportunity to create comfortable lives for themselves and their families. But this year, two groups of workers – Latino immigrant workers and African American workers – have been pitted against each other and told that if one group is able to achieve the American Dream, it will mean the demise of that dream for the other. In honor of Labor Day, it’s time to examine this argument and illuminate the commonalities of black and Latino workers’ experiences.
Opponents of immigrant rights have promoted the idea that immigrant workers lower the wages and hurt the job prospects of black workers. The main problem with this argument is: There’s no correlation between rising rates of immigration and black unemployment.
Since 1965, there has been a steady rise in the proportion of immigrants in the United States. If there were a link between the presence of immigrants and black employment, we would see black unemployment rates increasing as immigration increases. However, there is no correlation. Since 1965, the African American unemployment rate has jumped around lot, but those jumps haven’t been linked to rates of immigration.
Listen to talk radio and you will hear anecdotes about immigrants replacing black workers. And there are cases where it’s clear that immigrants have replaced black workers – for example, in downtown office buildings in Los Angeles where the janitorial staff was once African American and is now predominantly Latino.
But, as usual, the story is far more complicated than the anecdotes convey. In the case of the janitors in Los Angeles, the building owners tried to get rid of the predominantly black union, lowered wages and took other steps to worsen working conditions. Then, when native-born workers rejected the poor quality jobs, the owners hired sub-contractors that employ a largely immigrant workforce.
Both conversations with black workers and formal economic studies show that the African American jobs crisis has far more significant causes than immigration. In conversations, African Americans point to a wide variety of factors unrelated to immigration that lead to their jobs predicament. Among these are employer preference for white job applicants over equally qualified black applicants; the ghettoization of blacks into certain job categories; the glass ceiling that limits black advancement; and the prevalence of low-wage work among working blacks.
In the academic realm, one study showed that when the rate of incarceration among African Americans was taken into account, previously observed negative impacts of immigration on the wages of low-skilled blacks virtually disappeared.
There are many similarities between the plight of African American workers and immigrant workers. Many are trapped in jobs that don’t pay well, don’t provide retirement and health benefits and don’t offer avenues for moving into better positions.
My recent study found that more than half of black workers in the United States – 56.5 percent – earn low wages. The rate for Latinos – including immigrants and domestic-born Latinos – is even higher: 68.7 percent.
What does it mean to earn low wages? It means being forced to choose between food and prescription drugs, between gasoline and decent child care, and between housing and college for their kids. It means that adults are often forced to work multiple jobs, high school and college-age youth are forced sacrifice schooling opportunities in order to earn monies for their families, or some household members are forced to find employment in the underground economy in order to make ends meet.
Rather than pit immigrants against black workers, it would be much more useful to promote policies that will transform low-wage jobs into better jobs for all workers. Increasing the minimum wage and enacting living wage laws have significantly improved workers’ lives without forcing firms to lay off workers. These policies have also led to some benefits for employers, like reduced turnover, improved employee morale and greater work effort.
These solutions will only have their intended affect if undocumented immigrant workers are included. Ensuring that immigrant workers, whatever their legal status, are given basic labor protections will lift the boats of all workers. This Labor Day, workers should face the era of globalization by joining hands to solve their common problems, not falling prey to the old game of divide and conquer.