Repealing Taft-Hartley to fix immigration

There's very little agreement on the immigration issue, and unlike so many issues, it is not a purely partisan issue. One area where everyone seems to agree is that illegal immigrant labor drives down wages in at least some industries.

I should point out that the evidence of economy-wide effects of immigrants seems to be neutral. We all benefit from cheaper food, so the effects on wages among fruitpickers balances out when you consider the whole economy.

People who argue that immigrants are just taking jobs that Americans won't accept are, after all, basically claiming that Americans don't want those jobs at the rates industry is offering. If they paid higher wages, they'd attract American workers, and charge higher prices. Whether that's an exchange that's acceptable is worth discussing, though the debate is rarely put in those terms.

Illegal immigrants rarely complain about minimum wage, worker safety, or maximum hours per week violations, which means that illegal immigration creates industries in which human rights violations become commonplace. Some object on human rights grounds, others object to the effect on wages for legal workers.

Either way, there's a simple solution to the problem, one which would surely block one major incentive for illegal immigration.

Repeal the Taft-Hartley Act.

Taft-Hartley, for those of you who don't remember your American labor history, was a union-busting bill passed by a Republican Congress in 1947. Among other things, it banned many effective tools that unions can use to support striking workers in brother unions, it gave the President the power to order striking workers back on the job, excluded "supervisors" from union membership, and it allowed states to pass laws blocking union contracts forbidding non-union workers.

Truman vetoed the bill, calling it a "slave labor act," but the Republicans overrode his veto. Since then, much of the South, Midwest and Mountain West have been so-called "right to work" states. In such states, union membership carries no great incentive, and unions are substantially weakened. In the absence of worker solidarity, wages and worker protections continue to drop, until you get the situation we have now. Meatpacking, traditionally a union job in towns like Chicago or Kansas City, now attracts illegal immigrant labor in states like Kansas with weak union protections. Mother Jones locates that shift from unionized urban meatpacking to rural nonunion meatpacking in the 1970s, and reported:

Wages in the meatpacking industry soon fell by as much as 50 percent. Today meatpacking is one of the nation's lowest-paid industrial jobs, with one of the highest turnover rates. The typical plant now hires an entirely new workforce every year or so. There are no waiting lists at these slaughterhouses today. Staff shortages have become an industrywide problem, making the work even more dangerous. … Given the industry's high turnover rates, it is a challenge for a union simply to remain in a meatpacking plant, since every year it must gain the allegiance of a whole new set of workers.

Of course, if Taft-Hartley were repealed, a union formed in one year would not need to regain support from a brand new staff the next year. Unions would undoubtedly be prepared to help verify the legal status of new hires, and would ensure that wages and safety standards were high enough to attract American workers.

Repealing restrictions on union membership, permitting unionization throughout the workforce, would extend those benefits far enough that illegal immigrants would have nowhere to turn. American workers would take those jobs, and the economy would grow.

This solution improves over existing solutions because it creates and enforces community norms. Building a fence or hiring more guards places an enormous cost on society, but increasing the cost of illegally entering the country above the difference in wages between Mexico and the US would cost even more. "Enforcement-only" is a pipedream. Creating temporary workers gives the stamp of approval to the wage eroding aspect of existing illegal immigration. Institutionalizing wage slavery doesn't solve the human rights problem. At best it addresses the fact that our policy and our practice diverge, and it does so by conforming policy to the worst consequences of current practices.

Liberal solutions to illegal immigration tend to be rightly focused on the workplace. Increasing enforcement and fines for employers who hire illegal immigrants, who create unsafe working conditions or who violate other labor laws would probably have some of the same effects as increasing unionization, but at greater cost. The employer has an incentive to hire cheap nonunion workers, and to ignore or fudge legal status so long as illegal immigrants will work for less than legal workers. Placing a mandate on employers to check easily forged documents is will require extensive verification by the government, and when funding is cut for enforcement, the situation will return to its current state.

Unionization creates a community of workers, and that community has an incentive to exclude someone who would undermine that community by undercutting wages or giving in to management pressure on overtime or safety. A community of permanent employees has an incentive to consider who is being added to that community, and that could well make visa and citizenship checks self-enforcing in union membership. Self-enforcing norms are better than externally enforced mandates because they actually work.

This simple solution suggests a broader approach to addressing the underlying cause of illegal immigration – economic inequality across the US-Mexican border. Unionization in Mexico would have the same benefits for wages, worker safety and over-all standard of living that it had in the United States. Unionization was a major factor in creating a vibrant middle class in the post-war US. Promoting unions in Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America would raise wages, reducing the incentive to flee to greener pastures in the United States. It's notoriously hard to form new unions in Mexico, and DR-CAFTA actually weakened labor standards in pre-existing trade deals, so pushing these changes overseas may be tricky. They would, however, have the added benefit of reducing outsourcing by leveling the playing field in terms of labor rights and wages among trading partners.

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Fascinating analysis with interesting possibilities, but there are some issues worth considering that complicate the matter. It is the policy of the Mexican government to encourage Mexican labor to get to the U.S. American dollars now exceed all other foreing income to Mexico except for oil and the current disrepair of the Mexican oil industry (Pemex), a government monopoly as I recall, will soon mean that illegals working in the U.S. will be tha major income source for Mexico. Not all Hispanic illegals are from Mexico and although the majority are, an increasing number are from other Central and South American countries but arrive via Mexico. In point of fact, Mexico harshly deports any and all ilegals it finds competing for work in Mexico and has high fines for employers who hire illegals. As bad as it is in Mexico, it is worse elsewhere in Central America and parts of South America. An increasing number of illegals from elsewhere in the world are also using the Mexican people pipeline. Herin lies a major issue.

Another factor is that possibly 50% of the illegal Mexican labor available in the U.S. are not even earning minimum wage and certainly have few if any benefits, since they are working off the books. This is especially true in smaller business operations or where day labor is concerned. The effect of this is to drive down the cost of labor even more and create this underground, cash economy. There is really little offset of cheap labor vs food costs. The cost of food is more an energy than labor issue. The highest costs for growers is likely energy for machines, fertilizer and water costs in irrigated areas. Retailers live off a very low 3-5% profit margin in the food industry as I recall. The below minimum wage pay will not make employment attractive for Americans, obviously. Caesar Chavez was an extremely outspoken critic of the use of illegals and saw a threat to improving the lives of the farm workers he was attempting to organize.

Similar situations exist in the former stronhold of American labor, as you note. Meatpacking was a significant employer of unionized labor and decent salaries and benefits were available. The same is true for the construction industry. Unions fought hard for the welfare of their members and had even progressed toward democratizing and "decorrupting" including the advancement of minorities in these industries.

I would be less concerned with repaeal of Taft-Hartley I think, than enforcing the labor laws and increasing the punishment of employers who hire illegals and pay below minimum wage. Currently, and despite their conservative philosophy, the Heritage Foundation has done a very detailed economic analysis and found that today, the cost of illegals to the U.S. taxpayer is roughly $19,000 in benefits and services per illegal. That will increase if the proposed legislation is passed in a remarkable way to very large numbers. There is no offset from taxes paid as some have suggested ot multipliers as the dollars circulate through the economy. This appears to be because of the low education level and lack of qualifications for skilled jobs, the exporting of dollars out of the U.S., a lilihood that they will never pay in enough to sustain benefits, and a huge drain on the system early.

This is a sad situation. There are of course other issues not usually addressed such as a massive increase in U.S. population and the impacts of that on the environment, resources, etc. We are at 300 million-plus now and likely the actual number is 320 million or so. U.S. doubling time is almost third world now and less than 45 years and decreasing. It could be 30 years of another 25-30 million people are added a so we could be at 600,000 million by 2040 or so and 1.2 billion (India's population) by 2070. Now that takes some thinking about.

By Donald Wolberg (not verified) on 05 Jun 2007 #permalink

We all benefit from cheaper food, so the effects on wages among fruitpickers balances out when you consider the whole economy.

The savings we incur from illegal immigration in the agricultural sector are minuscule. To put it in perspective, if all agricultural workers were to receive a 40% wage hike, the food bill of the average American family might go up something like $20 or $30 a year.

Repeal the Taft-Hartley Act.

How about "stop illegal immigration." The United Farm Workers union Cesar Chavez founded nowadays represents some tiny percentage of Californian agricultural workers (like 2% last I checked) due to the erosion of unionization caused by illegal immigration. Repealing union laws like Taft-Hartley does no good if employers can simply find more immigrant scabs who aren't members of a union. All the striking in the world won't matter then. Besides, have you noticed that most labor unions favor more illegal immigrants. That is because most union organizers don't give a damn about the long-term interests of the people they represent--just like Democrats are willing to sacrifice the job welfare of the lower class blacks the pay lip-service to in order to gain more Latino votes.

Building a fence or hiring more guards places an enormous cost on society, but increasing the cost of illegally entering the country above the difference in wages between Mexico and the US would cost even more.

Building a fence along the Mexican border might cost $30 billion max if the per mile price of the wall near San Diego is any indication. (It could probably be done for even less if Congress would pass legislation intended to keep left-wing activists lawyers from suing over the wall at every opportunity.) That is a tiny percentage of what we will pay for a senior prescription drug plan or what we've already paid for the boondoggle in Iraq.

This simple solution suggests a broader approach to addressing the underlying cause of illegal immigration � economic inequality across the US-Mexican border.

The underlying cause of wealth inequality between the United States and Mexico is the low mean IQ of Mexicans. See Lynn and Vanhanen's IQ and the Wealth of Nations. In any event, the intractable and dismal performance of even fourth generation Mexican-Americans in education should give no one any hope that we will be able to easily bridge the wealth gap between the United States and Mexico if we cannot bridge the gap in education between white and Hispanic students in the United States.

Liberal solutions to illegal immigration tend to be rightly focused on the workplace. Increasing enforcement and fines for employers who hire illegal immigrants,

I agree that we need more stringent internal enforcement. We should make it very risky and very costly to employ illegal immigrants.

The underlying cause of wealth inequality between the United States and Mexico is the low mean IQ of Mexicans. See Lynn and Vanhanen's IQ and the Wealth of Nations.

A book which created most of the 'IQ' numbers it used by arbitrarily choosing old data from one or more regions and averaging or otherwise adjusting them. (For example, they calculate the IQ of Kyrgyzstan by averaging their figures for Iran and Turkey - which are in turn of dubious provenance. ) Seldom if ever do they justify their choices of which regions they choose to average or otherwise adjust when deriving the 'IQ' of a nation for which they do not have other data for. The rotting zombie of The Bell Curve lurks within those pages, waiting for the unwary, whose brains it will greedily consume.

The short stature of Mexicans can be traced to poor nutrition, which traces to poverty. Assuming the IQ numbers are valid, why shouldn't we treat them as a consequence of poverty, rather than a cause? The suggestion that Mexicans are just inherently stupid is astoundingly racist and not at all productive. Even if IQ meant anything (it doesn't), and it were entirely genetic (it isn't, in fact very little of it may be), I'm not sure how to incorporate that into an argument without delving deep into the literature of eugenics, and I think history has some lessons about that.

How about "stop illegal immigration." The United Farm Workers union Cesar Chavez founded nowadays represents some tiny percentage of Californian agricultural workers (like 2% last I checked) due to the erosion of unionization caused by illegal immigration. Repealing union laws like Taft-Hartley does no good if employers can simply find more immigrant scabs who aren't members of a union.

You missed my point about what Taft-Hartley does. Taft-Hartley allowed states to forbid contracts which require union membership. If a contract could require union membership, you increase unionization and create a community of workers in solidarity. Some might be illegals, but a closed shop is one that can't bring in scabs, limiting the ability of management to undercut the union by hiring illegals. That's my whole point above. I only mentioned strikes in passing, and I don't know how that became an issue.

I don't know what a wall would cost, but I know it wouldn't work. People cross walls, and always have. It's simple economics. So long as the difference in earning power remains vastly higher than the cost of crossing the border, people will keep crossing. Long term, the solution is to raise wages in Mexico, and close off earning potential here. Ramping up enforcement and mandates on employers will be less effective than strengthening the power of labor. Giving labor the power to block scabs creates a system of self-enforcement.