Don’t unions have a problem with undocumented immigrants?

Despite the contributions of immigrant workers to the American labor movement, for much of the 20th century, many unions favored restrictive immigration policies. Their view was that immigration was a threat to American workers because immigrants took jobs away from citizens and lowered standards by accepting lower wages and worse working conditions. In the second half of the 20th century, as shrinking immigration quotas led to a boom in illegal immigration, the AFL-CIO took a position that was liberal toward legal immigration while remaining opposed to illegal immigration for the same set of reasons.

Other unions had a history of opposing restrictive immigration policies, and this view began to gain ground in the labor movement in the 1980s and 1990s. For example, the Service Employees International Union increased its membership during this time in part by organizing immigrant workers, as in the Justice for Janitors campaign of the 1990s. Nevertheless, many unions saw undocumented immigrants as “difficult to organize,” and in the early 2000s, as record-breaking numbers of immigrants entered the country legally and illegally, anti-immigrant sentiment remained high in organized labor.

But the first decade of the 21st century saw a shift gradually take place: by 2009, the AFL-CIO and the SEIU agreed on a set of principles for comprehensive immigration reform. In the 2010s, the AFL-CIO and other major unions have strengthened their commitments to organizing immigrant workers, including the undocumented, and advocating for immigration reform. There is an increasing understanding in the labor movement that, because undocumented immigrant workers are often vulnerable to illegal, exploitative conditions imposed by employers, organizing them while fixing our broken immigration system will benefit all workers by raising the “floor” of labor standards.

It is no coincidence that this shift toward solidarity with undocumented workers has taken place during the same period that workers centers have proliferated in the US, and that a low-wage worker movement has emerged at the same time. When employers pay sub-legal wages to undocumented immigrants (or to anyone else for that matter), it doesn’t just hurt the employees—it also hurts the public (since states get less tax revenue), other businesses that that are abiding by the law (through unfair competition), other workers (as industry-wide standards are lowered), and the entire economy— because higher pay in workers’ pockets means greater consumer spending.

Today, though union membership is declining nationwide, it’s actually growing in Latino communities. From 2002 to 2012, the number of union members of Hispanic descent grew by almost 21%.