The Undeclared War on the Middle-Class
- Today's Immigration Battle - Corporatists vs. Racists (and Labor is Left
A BUZZFLASH GUEST CONTRIBUTION
by Thom Hartmann
The corporatist Republicans ("amnesty!") are fighting with the racist
Republicans ("fence!"), and it provides an opportunity for progressives
to step forward with a clear solution to the immigration problem facing
Both the corporatists and the racists are fond of the mantra, "There are
some jobs Americans won't do." It's a lie.
Americans will do virtually any job if they're paid a decent wage. This
isn't about immigration - it's about economics. Industry and agriculture
won't collapse without illegal labor, but the middle class is being
crushed by it.
The reason why thirty years ago United Farm Workers' Union (UFW) founder
Caesar Chavez fought against illegal immigration, and the UFW turned in
illegals during his tenure as president, was because Chavez, like
progressives since the 1870s, understood the simple reality that labor
rises and falls in price as a function of availability.
As Wikipedia notes: "In 1969, Chavez and members of the UFW marched
through the Imperial and Coachella Valley to the border of Mexico to
protest growers' use of illegal aliens as temporary replacement workers
during a strike. Joining him on the march were both the Reverend Ralph
Abernathy and U.S. Senator Walter Mondale. Chavez and the UFW would
often report suspected illegal aliens who served as temporary
replacement workers as well as who refused to unionize to the INS."
Working Americans have always known this simple equation: More workers,
lower wages. Fewer workers, higher wages.
Progressives fought - and many lost their lives in the battle - to limit
the pool of "labor hours" available to the Robber Barons from the 1870s
through the 1930s and thus created the modern middle class. They limited
labor-hours by pushing for the 50-hour week and the 10-hour day (and
then later the 40-hour week and the 8-hour day). They limited
labor-hours by pushing for laws against child labor (which competed with
adult labor). They limited labor-hours by working for passage of the
1935 Wagner Act that provided for union shops.
And they limited labor-hours by supporting laws that would regulate
immigration into the United States to a small enough flow that it
wouldn't dilute the unionized labor pool. As Wikipedia notes: "The first
laws creating a quota for immigrants were passed in the 1920s, in
response to a sense that the country could no longer absorb large
numbers of unskilled workers, despite pleas by big business that it
wanted the new workers."
Do a little math. The Bureau of Labor Statistics says there are 7.6
million unemployed Americans right now. Another 1.5 million Americans
are no longer counted because they've become "long term" or
"discouraged" unemployed workers. And although various groups have
different ways of measuring it, most agree that at least another five to
ten million Americans are either working part-time when they want to
work full-time, or are "underemployed," doing jobs below their level of
training, education, or experience. That's between eight and twenty
million un- and under-employed Americans, many unable to find
At the same time, there are between seven and fifteen million working
illegal immigrants diluting our labor pool.
If illegal immigrants could no longer work, unions would flourish, the
minimum wage would rise, and oligarchic nations to our south would have
to confront and fix their corrupt ways.
Between the Reagan years - when there were only around 1 to 2 million
illegal aliens in our workforce - and today, we've gone from about 25
percent of our private workforce being unionized to around seven
percent. Much of this is the direct result - a Caesar Chavez predicted -
of illegal immigrants competing directly with unionized and legal labor.
Although it's most obvious in the construction trades over the past 30
years, it's hit all sectors of our economy.
Democratic Party strategist Ann Lewis just sent out a mass email on
behalf of former Wal-Mart Board of Directors member and now US Senator
Hillary Rodham Clinton. In it, Lewis noted that Clinton suggests we
should have: "An earned path to citizenship for those already here
working hard, paying taxes, respecting the law, and willing to meet a
high bar for becoming a citizen." Sounds nice. The same day, on his
radio program, Rush Limbaugh told a woman whose husband is an illegal
immigrant that she had nothing to worry about with regard to deportation
of him or their children because all he'd have to do - under the new law
under consideration - is pay a small fine and learn English.
The current Directors of Wal-Mart are smiling.
Meanwhile, the millions of American citizens who came to this nation as
legal immigrants, who waited in line for years, who did the hard work to
become citizens, are feeling insulted, humiliated, and conned.
Shouldn't we be compassionate? Of course.
But there is nothing compassionate about driving down the wages of any
nation's middle class. It's the most cynical, self-serving, greedy, and
sociopathic behavior you'll see from our "conservatives."
There is nothing compassionate about being the national enabler of a
dysfunctional oligarchy like Mexico. An illegal workforce in the US
sending an estimated $17 billion to Mexico every year - second only in
national income to that country's oil revenues - supports an
antidemocratic, anti-worker, hyperconservative administration there that
gleefully ships out of that nation the "troublesome" Mexican citizens -
those lowest on the economic food-chain and thus most likely to present
"labor unrest" - to the USA. Mexico (and other "sending nations") need
not deal with their own social and economic problems so long as we're
willing to solve them for them - at the expense of our middle class.
Democracy in Central and South America be damned - there are profits to
be made for Wal-Mart!
Similarly, there is nothing compassionate about handing higher profits
(through a larger and thus cheaper work force) to the CEOs of America's
largest corporations and our now-experiencing-record-profits
construction and agriculture industries.
What about caring for people in need? Isn't that the universal
religious/ethical value? Of course.
A few years ago, when my family and I were visiting Europe, one of our
children fell sick. A doctor came to the home of the people we were
staying with, visited our child at 11 pm on a weeknight, left behind a
course of antibiotics, and charged nothing. It was paid for by that
nation's universal health care system. We should offer the same to any
human being in need of medical care - a universal human right - in the
But if I'd applied to that nation I was visiting for a monthly
unemployment or retirement check, I would have been laughed out of the
local government office. And if I'd been caught working there, I would
have been deported within a week. Caring for people in crisis/need is
very different from giving a job or a monthly welfare check to
non-citizens. No nation - even those in Central and South America - will
do that. And neither should the United States.
But if illegal immigrants won't pick our produce or bus our tables won't
our prices go up? (The most recent mass-emailed conservative variation
of this argument, targeting paranoid middle-class Americans says: "Do
you want to pay an extra $10,000 for your next house?") The answer is
But wages would also go up, and even faster than housing or food prices.
And CEO salaries, and corporate profits, might moderate back to the
levels they were during the "golden age of the American middle class"
between the 1940s and Reagan's declaration of war on the middle class in
We saw exactly this scenario played out in the US fifty years ago, when
unions helped regulate entry into the workforce, 35 percent of American
workers had a union job, and 70 percent of Americans could raise a
family on a single, 40-hour-week paycheck. All working Americans would
gladly pay a bit more for their food if their paychecks were both
significantly higher and more secure. (This would even allow for an
increase in the minimum wage - as it did from the 1930s to the 1980s.)
But what about repressive regimes? Aren't we denying entrance to this
generation's equivalent of the Jews fleeing Germany? This is the most
tragic of all the arguments put forward by conservatives in the hopes
compassionate progressives will bite. Our immigration policies already
allow for refugees - and should be expanded. It's an issue that needs
more national discussion and action. But giving a free pass to former
Coca-Cola executive Vincente Fox to send workers to the US - and thus
avoid having to deal with his own corrupt oligarchy - and to equate this
to the Holocaust is an insult to the memory of those who died in
Hitler's death camps - and to those suffering in places like Darfur
under truly repressive regimes. There is no equivalence.
It's frankly astonishing to hear "progressives" reciting
corporatist/racist/conservative talking points, recycled through
"conservative Democratic" politicians trying to pander to the relatively
small percentage of recently-legal (mostly through recent amnesties or
birth) immigrants who are trying to get their relatives into this
country by means of Bush's proposed guest worker program or the many
variations thereof being proposed.
It's equally astonishing to hear the few unions going along with this
(in the sad/desperate hope of picking up new members) turn their backs
on Caesar Chavez and the traditions and history of America's Progressive
and Union movements by embracing illegal immigration.
Every nation has an obligation to limit immigration to a number that
will not dilute its workforce, but will maintain a stable middle class -
if it wants to have a stable democracy. This has nothing to do with
race, national origin, or language (visit Switzerland with it's ethnic-
and language-dived areas!), and everything to do with economics.
Without a middle class, any democracy is doomed. And without labor
having - through control of labor availability - power in relative
balance to capital/management, no middle class can emerge. America's
early labor leaders did not die to increase the labor pool for the
Robber Barons or the Walton family - they died fighting to give control
of it to the workers of their era and in the hopes that we would
continue to hold it - and infect other nations with the same idea of
democracy and a stable middle class.
The simple way to do this today is to require that all non-refugee
immigrants go through the same process to become American citizens or
legal workers in this country (no amnesties, no "guest workers," no
"legalizations") regardless of how they got here; to confront employers
who hire illegals with draconian financial and criminal penalties; and
to affirm that while health care (and the right to provide humanitarian
care to all humans) is an absolute right for all people within our
boundaries regardless of status, a paycheck, education, or subsidy is
The Republican (and Democratic) corporatists who want a cheap labor
force, and the Republican (and Democratic) racists who want to build a
fence and punish humanitarian aid workers, are equally corrupt and
anti-progressive. As long as employers are willing and able (without
severe penalties) to hire illegal workers, people will risk life and
limb to grab at the America Dream. When we stop hiring and paying them,
most will leave of their own volition over a few years, and the
remaining few who are committed to the US will obtain citizenship
through normal channels.
This is, after all, the middle-class "American Dream." And how much
better this hemisphere would be if Central and South Americans were
motivated to stay in their own nations (because no employer in the US
would dare hire them) and fight there for a Mexican Dream and a
Salvadoran Dream and a Guatemalan Dream (and so on).
This is the historic Progressive vision for all of the Americas...
A BUZZFLASH GUEST CONTRIBUTION
Thom Hartmann is a Project Censored Award-winning best-selling author
and host of a nationally syndicated daily progressive talk show carried
on the Air America Radio network and Sirius. www.thomhartmann.com His
most recent books include "What Would Jefferson Do?" and "Ultimate
Sacrifice" (co-authored with Lamar Waldron). His next book, due out this
autumn, is "Screwed: The Undeclared War on the Middle Class and What We
Can Do About It."
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