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Black/Migrant Rivalry for Jobs Can Be Eased


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 was 6.4%.

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.”

David Bacon is a labor journalist and photographer.
He is the author of “NAFTA’s Children.”

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