The New Union Worker: An Illegal Alien

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By Maria Fotopoulos

Maria is a CAPS Senior Writing Fellow who focuses on the impacts of growth on biodiversity. Find her on Twitter | in | FB.

The writer’s views are her own.


January 6, 2013

The radical erosion of what was once a worker’s best friend – the labor union – is demonstrated by the story of an unemployed American I spoke with recently.

A Midwesterner and union member with six years of experience in environmental abatement and a University of Phoenix business administration degree, Sam (not the worker’s real name) relocated to Southern California. Before moving, Sam researched the job market and union opportunities.

After talking with a Los Angeles construction union, part of the 500,000-member Laborers’ International Union of North America (LiUNA), Sam felt confident of earning wages up to $42 an hour in situations that involved asbestos and other hazardous materials.

Once relocated, Sam found the reality different. Sam’s first job paid $14 an hour; the second one, $19. By the time I talked with Sam, who by then had been living in Southern California for a year, pay had dropped to $12 an hour. Sam told me, “I can't even feed my family; I can't pay my rent.”

Not only was Sam's pay low on the union jobs, conditions often were substandard. At one job site, there were inadequate supplies and no water. “They actually had a Gatorade bottle that they cut the top off of, and we all had to share that bottle,” Sam said.

Besides the pay discrepancy and inferior working conditions, Sam estimated that, out of the several thousand local union shop members, 99 percent were Hispanic. Sam assumed that many were illegal workers with false documents and that paying the $795 membership fee might be the only requirement to join the union.

As it turned out, Sam was right. I asked Richard Greer, LiUNA’s Washington, D.C. representative, how many of their union members might be illegal immigrants. Greer told me that the union doesn’t inquire about immigration status, but that any particular union shop’s membership would likely reflect the geographic area’s demographic mix. An estimated one fourth of the illegal alien population in the U.S. – nearly 3 million – live in California, according to the Public Policy Institute of California.

Greer said that it’s common knowledge that aliens dominate California construction crews. The LiUNA website touts the union’s immigrant heritage and its support for illegal immigrant workers, amnesty and eventual citizenship, as well as the DREAM Act and deferred action for childhood arrivals.

According to LiUNA, its pro-immigrant position is shared among union members, not a surprising position if most of the union workers are not American citizens. A PowerPoint presentation on the LiUNA website attempts to show that, because of retiring baby boomers, the U.S. will over the long term have a labor shortage of 30 million workers. LiUNA argues that only immigrants can fill the gap.

But the evidence doesn’t support LiUNA’s position. The U.S. has entrenched high unemployment. More than 20 million Americans are either unemployed or underemployed. The construction industry, which has a long history of hiring aliens and encouraging illegal immigration, has depressed American construction workers’ wages.

LiUNA and others who lobby for the rights of Hispanic immigrants who are in the the U.S. illegally ignore the fact that the competition for jobs is fiercest for non-degreed Hispanic Americans under age 30. For Hispanics, the broad unemployment rate is about 28 percent for those with a high school diploma, 40 percent for those without a diploma and 45 percent for teens trying to find their first meaningful job.

Unemployed American workers like Sam should not have to take a backseat to illegal immigrants. Unions were originally formed to fight on behalf of Americans who deserve living wages and decent working conditions. A labor market flooded with illegal immigrants undermines a union’s true purpose.


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