Los Angeles Times
August 22, 2004
Black/Migrant Rivalry for Jobs Can Be Eased
By David Bacon
David Bacon is a labor journalist and photographer.
He is the author of "NAFTA's Children."
Blacks, Latinos and labor are three of the most
stalwart constituencies in Democratic Party politics.
But the interests of the groups have increasingly
brought them into conflict.
Take what happened in Los Angeles during the early
1980s. Up until that time, the janitors who cleaned
offices tended to be African American, and many of
those jobs were unionized. Then, seeing a way to save
money, janitorial contractors dumped their existing
workforce and hired Latino immigrants, tearing up union
contracts and dramatically lowering wages along the
way. Hotels cut labor costs the same way. And union
jobs in auto, steel, rubber and aerospace plants
vanished. The new jobs that came along tended to be
low-wage factory jobs, and to the owners of the new
sweatshops, displaced workers were anathema - too used
to high wages, too likely to form unions, too old and,
often, too black.
Things have changed somewhat since then. L.A.'s new
immigrant janitors turned out to be pro-union and have
risked their jobs in attempts to re-unionize the
industry. Many new hotel and factory workers have done
the same. But through it all, black workers have
remained unemployed, and tensions have remained high.
Now, two political initiatives are attempting to bring
immigrants and native-born workers together. One is a
union proposal in the current contract negotiations at
Los Angeles hotels. The second is a new look at
immigration reform contained in a bill introduced by
Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-Texas).
Both the Hotel Employees Restaurant Employees union and
Jackson-Lee see the key to better wages and conditions
as prohibiting discrimination - against both immigrants
and against displaced workers - by enforcing job
creation and affirmative action as national policy.
Both proposals share an assumption that unions and high
wages offer protection against job competition.
In this year's hotel negotiations, the union has linked
protection for the rights of immigrant workers with an
effort to overcome past hiring discrimination. Black
workers today make up only 6.4% of the hotel workforce,
and that's a far cry from the way things used to be.
Clyde Smith, a houseman at the Wilshire Grand,
remembers that when he was hired 35 years ago African
Americans worked in virtually all areas. "There are
significantly less today," he said, "often only one or
two in each department, and sometimes none at all."
The union's current contract proposal has asked hotels
to hire ombudsmen and establish a diversity task force
to reach out to African American communities and
eliminate hiring barriers. At the same time, the union
wants protections for the job rights of the immigrants
who make up a majority of the hotel workforce. "Some
people try to pit one race against another, especially
blacks against Latinos," Smith said. "I think we
shouldn't blame any race or culture."
That's also the thinking behind Jackson-Lee's bill, HR
4885, which would extend permanent legal status to
immigrants who have lived in the U.S. for at least five
years and would prohibit employers from threatening or
intimidating workers based on their immigration status.
The money collected in application fees from those
immigrants would fund job training and other programs
for unemployed American workers. "The rights of
minorities in this country are still a work in
progress," Jackson-Lee said. "Nevertheless, someone
recognized that we had to fix laws in America as they
related to African Americans. Now we have to fix other
laws to end discrimination against immigrants."
Creating jobs for the country's 9.4 million unemployed
would of course require more resources than the bill
would create. But the legislation, cosponsored by 21
other members of the Congressional Black Caucus,
recognizes that jobs and immigration don't have to pit
immigrants against the native born. And it recognizes
that until immigrant workers have legal status and the
security to fight for better conditions and wages, all
low-wage workers will be harmed.
Last week, a new study from the Center for Labor Market
Studies at Northeastern University demonstrated just
how stark the current situation is - and why native-
born workers feel so threatened. Between 2000 and 2004,
jobs held by immigrants rose by 2 million; the number
of employed native-born workers fell by 958,000, and of
longtime resident immigrants by 352,000. According to
the report's authors, "the net growth in the nation's
employed population between 2000 and 2004 takes place
among new immigrants, while the number of native-born
and established immigrant workers combined declines by
more than 1.3 million."
Black unemployment is a national scandal, with the rate
more than twice that for whites. Nearly half (172,000)
of the 360,000 people who lost their jobs in June were
African American, although they are just 11% of the
workforce. In New York City, only 51.8% of black men
aged 16 to 65 had jobs in 2003, according to the Bureau
of Labor Statistics. For Latinos it was 65.7%, and for
whites, 75.7%. June's overall unemployment rate in 2003
But the report also found that very little of the rise
in African American unemployment is the result of
direct displacement by immigrants. Instead, it largely
stems from a decline in manufacturing and cuts in
public employment. In the 2001 recession alone, 300,000
of 2 million black factory workers lost their jobs to
relocation and layoffs. Though the areas where blacks
were concentrated shed jobs, employment is growing in
service, food and high-tech industries in which wages
are low, unions are rare and employers seek workers who
accept less - often immigrants.
According to Migrant Rights International, more than
130 million people live outside the countries in which
they were born. The movement of people from developing
countries to rich industrial ones is happening around
the globe. And it is unstoppable.
As we've seen in the U.S., immigration laws can't stop
everyone from coming, but they do make those who come
unequal. Undocumented immigrants can't legally drive
cars or collect unemployment or Social Security. And
when an employee is already committing a crime simply
by working, he's a lot less likely to want to raise his
visibility by protesting low wages and bad treatment or
joining a union.
The problem with many immigration reform proposals is
that they would reinforce inequality. President Bush's
proposal, for example, envisions a new, temporary
contract-worker program in which workers recruited
abroad could get temporary visas for three or six
years. At the end of that time, they would have to
return to their home countries.
Immigration law shouldn't be used simply to supply low-
wage labor to industry. Jackson-Lee calls this a "flat-
Earth program," but she says the current system doesn't
work either: "It doesn't help anyone. It's not helping
to build the economy - it's helping to tear it down.
Immigrants here need an orderly system that allows them
to do their jobs and build the American economy, and
U.S. workers need to have jobs and do likewise."