“Look for the Union Label”: Are Immigrants the Key to Union Survival?

I. Introduction

The
importance of labor unions has diminished as membership rate has
declined from 20.1 percent in 1983.  [1]  According to the U. S.
Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics, 12.0 percent of
employed wage and salary workers were union members in 2006, down from
12.5 percent a year earlier.  [2]  Given the declining numbers, some
unions are looking to the 12 million undocumented workers in America. 
[3]  Eliseo Medina, vice president of the Service Employees Union
(SEIU), says "[t]here's no question we are going to have to organize
and bring immigrants into our ranks, [i]f we don't, we are going to
become irrelevant because we are not going to be representing the work
force."  [4]

II. Analysis

In
light of the changing makeup of America's workforce, unions have taken
different positions regarding the unionization of immigrants,
especially those who are illegal.  Union leaders supporting President
Bush's guest-worker program say it would give immigrants the rights and
protection that they deserve.  [5]  Meanwhile, opponents argue the
program will merely continue to exploit the workers, subjecting them to
deportation when the work contract expires.  [6]  Additionally, there
is the question of how the government will be able to process the
sudden influx of paperwork that will accompany the guest workers.  [7] 
The logistics of the guest-worker program elicit a fair share of
debate.  However, suppose the guest-worker program is approved by
Congress and formerly illegal immigrants are now able to organize, what
will be the effect on the economy and labor unions?

Currently, illegal immigrants create an economic deficit because
their income is so low that they do not pay enough taxes to offset the
costs they impose on the federal government.  [8]  These costs include
Medicaid, treatment for the uninsured, food assistance programs,
federal prison and court systems, and federal aid to schools.  [9]  If
illegal immigrants are given legal status, average tax payments would
increase by 77 percent while costs on the federal government would
increase by 118 percent.  [10]  Costs increase because legalized
immigrants would now be able to access a full range of government
programs while tax payments would stay at the same level as before the
immigrants were given legal status.  [11]

An increase in the economic deficit is an unexpected result of
granting legal status to illegal status; this is where labor unions can
help.  Labor unions are in need of a boost in membership and many are
looking to immigrants.  Union workers on average earn about 16 percent
more than non-union workers.  [12]  Unionizing would present a win-win
situation for both the unions and immigrants.  By boosting membership,
unions can remain politically visible and socially relevant.  For the
immigrants, unionization would increase their earning power and provide
them with better work conditions.  Additionally, the increase in wages
would correspond to an increase in tax revenues which would undercut
some of the economic deficit.

III. Conclusion

Immigration reform will remain a hot button issue in America for
years to come and there is certainly no easy solution to the problem. 
As politicians continue to debate the merits of the guest-worker
program and other measures of immigration reform, union membership will
continue to dwindle and the economic deficit will continue to grow. 

[1] U. S. Department of Labor, http://www.bls.gov/news.release/union2.nr0.htm (last visited February 3, 2007).

[2] Id.

[3] Krissah Williams, Unions Split on Immigrant Workers, Washington Post, January 27, 2007, available at 2007 WLNR 1640776.

[4] Devona Walker, Unions Want to Bring Illegal Immigrants Into Fold, HeraldTribune, July 19, 2006, http://www.heraldtribune.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=2006607190541.

[5] William, supra, note 3.

[6] Id.

[7] Michelle Malkin, Guest-Worker Plan Will be Disaster, The Press of Atlantic City, A9, January 26, 2007, available at 2007 WLNR 1618349.

[8] Steven Camarota, The High Cost of Cheap Labor:  Illegal Immigration and the Federal Budget, Center for Immigration Studies, August 2004, http://www.cis.org/articles/2004/fiscalexec.html.

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] Walker, supra, note 4.

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