Democratic Underground

Embracing Labor: America's Most Valuable Commodity
September 6, 2001
by Maren L. Hickton

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"A man must see before he can say." - Henry David Thoreau

When I was growing up in the 1970s, my mother refused to buy iceberg lettuce and grapes - the result of published reports that immigrants were being used and abused by farmers. She raved on and on about her boycott, that it was absolutely unconscionable that in the land of plenty some businesses engaged in paying poverty-level wages to workers - including children in some cases - who labored long hours in the interest of saving Americans what amounted to pennies at the check-out line.

While I certainly didn't understand the scopious implications of her protest, Mom was Mom and all I knew was that I had to endure feasting on what I thought was a yucky variety of New Age salad greens or no salad at all. Mom also ranted about the citrus growers' exploitation of labor. And after that, she talked about the dreadful labor camps in the textile industry. And then she landed a job and stopped talking. This is what happens to a lot of people, I guess: They get a corporate job and stop talking. They begin to live in their own bell jar, just go with the flow and stop paying attention.

Interestingly enough, here I am - approximately the same age as she was then, feeling very much a part of a movement that is now actively trying to salvage what was lost when people stopped talking. People need to start talking again, cushy jobs or not. And everyone involved in the hiring and negotiation process, from major corporations to small businesses, need to start listening.

What is going on in the U.S. labor market today is not just limited to small pockets of people in specific industries, particular ethnic groups or even the celebrity-branded labor scandals of the 1980s and 1990s. The U.S. is actively encouraging slave labor all over the globe with a domino effect that is impacting all labor segments in our society. While globalization will undoubtedly continue to expand trade, the U.S., including Bush and his Administration, has done little with regard to putting forth a set of policies to protect and fairly compensate employees so that we don't end up in a labor mess of strikes and lawsuits. The President and many other people in high places, for some reason, take labor for granted, ignoring the outcry of workers who are laboring more hours than they ever did before, ignoring the pleas from unions for better jobs with improved wages and benefits, and ignoring the fact that without labor the earth would truly stand still.

This month, the Bush Administration is expected to propose a new Mexican Guestworker Program in response to an ongoing dialogue he has been conducting with his friend and new President of Mexico, Vincente Fox, who wants the United States to offer amnesty to an unknown number of illegal aliens living and working here. The argument goes something like this: If they are living and working here already, what's the big deal?

Many businesses support the immediate naturalization of Mexican immigrants claiming that lower wages to labor equals lower prices to consumers. Some prominent unions think that immigration is good because they believe that it will spur the economy. So the big deal is who do you believe, what effect immigration will have on the U.S. labor market, and the dicey impact it will have on our economy. The other big deal is that this is part of an ongoing pattern where President Bush extends immediate trust that has not been earned. Most interesting, is how many people support offering amnesty, pretty much winging it for what appears to be political reasons, ignoring some hard evidence that does not serve U.S. long-term interests.

In an extensive report conducted by the Center of Immigration Studies ( Steven Camarota, Ph.D., author, writes, "Mexican immigration is overwhelmingly unskilled, and it is hard to make an economic argument for unskilled immigration, because it tends to reduce wages for workers who are already the lowest paid and whose real wages actually declined in the 1990s. Moreover, this cheap labor comes with a high cost. Because the modern American economy offers very limited opportunities for workers with little education, continued unskilled immigration cannot help but to significantly increase the size of the poor and uninsured populations, as well as the number of people using welfare."

According to CIS, increasing the supply of unskilled labor, in the 1990s for example, statistically reduced the wages of all unskilled workers by 5%. But reduced prices to consumers during the 1990s has only been an estimated .08 to .2 percent, which is a tiny fraction of consumer benefit compared to the greater impact on a large share of the working poor - those trying to move from welfare to work.

A conflicting study by UCLA's North American Integration and Development Center claims to demonstrate through computer modeling that illegal immigrants contribute at least $300 billion annually to the nation's economy. To which I ask: Does someone think this income, derived by what percentage of what population, is going to disappear? Or their own argument: If they are living and working here already, what's the big deal?

And there are other studies, both pro and con.

At a time when U.S. employees are being laid-off by the thousands and other employees face an uncertain future, I believe the United States needs to focus on finding creative ways to fairly employ our own workforce before we embark on providing a job placement service for other countries. Not because Mexico has not been a good neighbor or because of a somewhat vain judgment made by President Vincente Fox that "Previous Mexican governments lacked the legitimacy and vision to transform Mexico's foreign policy...," but that he does - simply because he says so. Not because we do not welcome the skills demonstrated by the hard working people of Mexico. What is absent in the proposal is the fact that we would be showing favor to one group of people ahead of many others who have been waiting much longer to become naturalized citizens - workers who have clearly demonstrated value to the U.S. - which may also necessitate a review of some of the seemingly biased practices of the INS.

In Bush's proposed Mexican Guestworker Program, many immigrant workers would be provided with jobs in the United States and, as President Fox noted in a recent Op-Ed (New York Times), "...the Mexican work force could be given economic incentives to stay home, bringing about growth in my country." How about the impact this program would have on our country? Our workforce?

Fox further states that, "Tough decisions will have to be made by both governments, and they need to be made now. If we lose momentum, we will lose the opportunities at hand." I would suggest that "momentum" might be something that President Fox and President Bush are concerned about, both new to their respective positions in office and certainly interested in forging ahead with their agendas. And I would agree that the business community would receive immediate benefit from a flooded labor market, thus enabling them to reduce wages and/or benefits and their bottom-line labor costs. But words like, "decisions...need to be made now," bother me; the people should not be rushed into anything. All Americans, speaking through their representatives in Congress, should decide what, if any, opportunities are at hand that are beneficial to our government, industries, and most importantly, what is fair, first - to every American worker and their family.