Illegal Workers: the Con's Secret Weapon

Conservatives are all atwitter about illegal immigrants. Some want to give them amnesty. Others want to reinstitute the old Bracero program. Others want to build a wall around America, like the communists did around East Berlin. Some advocate all of the above. But none will tell Americans the truth about why we have eleven million illegal aliens in this nation now (when it was fewer than 2 million when Reagan came into office), why they're staying, or why they keep coming. In a word, it's "jobs." In conservative lexicon, it's "cheap labor to increase corporate profits."

Published on Wednesday, March 8, 2006 by

Conservatives are all atwitter about illegal immigrants. Some want to give them amnesty. Others want to reinstitute the old Bracero program. Others want to build a wall around America, like the communists did around East Berlin. Some advocate all of the above.

But none will tell Americans the truth about why we have eleven million illegal aliens in this nation now (when it was fewer than 2 million when Reagan came into office), why they're staying, or why they keep coming. In a word, it's "jobs." In conservative lexicon, it's "cheap labor to increase corporate profits."

Recently George W. Bush insulted working Americans by saying that we need eleven million illegal immigrants here in the United States because (in a slightly cleaned-up version of the more blatantly racist comments of Vicente Fox) there are some jobs that "American's won't do." As the modern-day Sago miners, and the 1950s Ed Norton character Art Carney played on the old Jackie Gleason show (who worked in the sewers of NYC) prove, the reality is that there are virtually no jobs Americans won't do - for an appropriate paycheck.

It's really all about breaking the back of the most democratic (and Democratic) of American institutions - the American middle class.

One of the tools conservatives have used very successfully over the past 25 years to drive down wages, bust unions, and increase CEO salaries has been to encourage illegal immigrant labor in the US. Their technique is transparently simple.

Conservatives well understand supply and demand. If there's more of something, its price goes down. If it becomes scarce, its price goes up.

They also understand that this applies just as readily to labor as it does to houses, cars, soybeans, or oil. While the history of much of the progressive movement in the United States has been to control the supply of labor (mostly through pushing for maximum-hour, right-to-strike, and child-labor laws) to thus be able to bargain decent wages for working people, the history of conservative America has, from its earliest days grounded in slavery and indentured workers from Europe, been to increase the supply of labor and drive down its cost.

In the 1980s, for example, the increasing supply of labor (both from Reagan-allowed consolidations eliminating redundant jobs, and from illegal immigration, which was around 3 million illegals by the time Reagan left office) fed massive union-busting in industry sectors from those directly hit with illegal immigrant labor (like construction and agriculture) to those who only felt its fallout but nonetheless were pressed (like coal mining). In part, because of these national downward pressures on organized labor, the miners who died in the International Coal Group's Sago Mine didn't have union protection.

Indeed, as the International Coal Group's June 2005 form S-A/1 filing notes about one of their other recent mine acquisitions: ".assets are high quality reserves strategically located in Appalachia and the Illinois Basin, are union free, have limited reclamation liabilities and are substantially free of other legacy liabilities." Similarly, it's estimated that the construction industry enhanced their profits last year by over a billion dollars because the availability of illegal immigrant labor has so significantly pushed down the price of construction labor.

"Union free" is good for the CEOs and stockholders of giant corporations. Reagan helped make it possible by reducing enforcement of the Sherman Anti-Trust and similar acts, by making the Labor Department hostile to labor, and by thus producing an environment into which illegal immigrant labor could step. He busted PATCO and popularized anti-union rhetoric, at a time when union membership was one of the primary boundaries that keep illegal labor out of the marketplace.

Today, this fundamental economic rule of labor supply and demand is most conspicuous in the conservative reluctance to stop illegal immigration into the United States. All those extra (illegal) workers, after all, drive up the supply - and thus drive down the cost - of labor. Even in areas where there are not high populations of illegal immigrants, their presence elsewhere in the American workforce drives down overall the cost of labor nationwide. And when the cost of labor goes down, there's more money left over for CEOs and stockholder dividends.

Conservatives can't just come out and say that they are pleased with the estimated eleven million illegal workers in the United States driving down wages. They can't brag that, behind oil revenue, Mexico's second largest source of income is money sent home from illegal "cheap labor" workers in the United States. They can't point out that before Reagan declared war on working people in 1981 we didn't "need a fence" to keep out illegal immigrants from the south, in large part because the high rate of unionization in America at that time, and enforcement of laws against hiring illegal immigrants, served as barriers to the entry of illegals into the workforce. They won't acknowledge the corporate benefits of a workforce whose healthcare is paid for by taxpayers but whose productivity belongs to their corporate masters.

But conservative strategists have noticed that the workers - and the voters - of the United States are getting nervous about nearly 10 percent of our workforce being both illegal and cheap. This has led conservative commentators and politicians to resort to classic "wedge issue" rhetoric, exploiting Americans' fears -- while working to keep conditions relatively the same as they are today.

They talk about building fences. They worry out loud about brown-skinned Middle Eastern terrorists slipping in amongst the brown-skinned South- and Central Americans. They warn us of all the social security money we'll lose if illegals have to leave the country and stop paying into a system from which they'll never be able to collect. They even find themselves obligated - catering to both working-class fears and to the bigots among us - to promote the idea of giant fences around the country to keep illegals out. (A fence that would, no doubt, tremendously profit their big contractor friends.)

At the same time, catering to compassionate Americans who don't realize this is all about driving up corporate profits and driving down workers' wages, cons like Arlen Specter are promoting legislation that would decriminalize the illegals currently in the United States, thus making legal our increased workforce. As Rachel L. Swarns reported in The New York Times on February 25, 2006: "Advocates for immigrants said the [Bush/Specter] plan failed to protect the rights of immigrant workers, who they argue deserve a clear path to citizenship. And the AFL-CIO warned that a guest worker program of unlimited scale would depress wages and working conditions while creating a perpetual underclass of foreign workers."

None of the various con proposals - from a fence to amnesty - address the fundamental truth of the situation: Conservatives and the businesses they represent want to maintain a large, illegal or marginally legal, and thus powerless workforce in the United States, to keep down the price of labor and help them finally destroy the union movement - and, thus, that politically pesky middle class.

The reason for all these lies and obfuscations is simple, and found in the core notions of conservatism, articulated from Burke in the late 1700s to Kirk in 1953 and Greenspan over the past two decades. It's all about power, and since wealth equals power, about the control of wealth in society.

Conservatives believe that what John Adams called "the rabble" - you and me - can't really be trusted with governance, and therefore that job should be kept to an elite few. The big difference between the old-line Burke conservatives and modern conservatives is that Burke and the cons of his day felt that an hereditary ruling class was desirable (because it would inculcate rulers with a sense of "noblesse oblige"), whereas modern cons like Adams, McKinley, Kirk, and Bush believe that the ruling class should be more of a meritocracy - rule by the "best."

And - in the finest tradition of John Calvin (who suggested that wealth was a sign of God's blessing) - what better indication of "best" could there be than "richest"? They believe there should be a thin veneer of democracy on these old conservative notions of aristocracy in order to placate the masses, but are quite certain that it would be a disaster should the rabble ever actually have a strong say in running the country.

This is, at its core, why conservatives embrace the idea of eliminating the American middle class and replacing it with a Dickensian "working poor" class, and are working so hard to use illegal immigrant labor as the lever to bring this about.

As the '60's and '70's showed - during the height of the American middle class's economic and political power - a strong middle class will challenge corporate power and assert itself economically and politically. This represents a very real threat to conservative ruling elites. "The people" may even suggest that the most elite of the elites should pay stiffer taxes on the top end of their income, so that money can be used to provide the economically most disadvantaged with an opportunity to become socially and economically mobile. It would reduce the most massive of the wealth and the power of the most elite of our conservative elites.

Offshoring, union-busting, and nurturing a huge population of illegal workers (while pretending to be frantic about it and bleating about building fences, fielding vigilantes, or offering "amnesty") are the core ways to destroy an economic middle class, thus ensuring the ongoing political power of the conservative elite takeover that began with the so-called "Reagan revolution" and continues to this day.

This is why conservatives who complain about illegal immigration in front of the cameras won't lift a finger in the halls of congress to pass legislation that would put employers of illegals into jail. (They may support "tough fines," just so long as they're high enough to sound like a lot of money to the average working stiff but low enough to be a "cost of business" for a corporation that gets caught.)

If Congress were to pass a law that said, quite simply, that the CEO of any business that was caught employing illegal immigrants went to jail for a year - no exceptions - then within a month there would be ten million (more or less) people lined up at the Mexican border trying to get out of the United States. The US unemployment rate would drop close to zero, and wages would begin to rise. The American middle class would begin to return to viability, as would the union movement in this nation.

Legal immigration is a good and healthy thing for a nation, because it is done at a rate and in a way that allows a country to collectively decide what sort of labor/jobs ratios it wants to maintain. Limitless illegal immigration, however, leads to the modern-day equivalent of slavery, benefiting only the conservative corporate elites.

Thus, progressives need to begin a new dialogue about immigration in the United States. (Similar discussions are already underway in many of the countries of Western Europe.) Issues include:

  • To what extent should the United States bleed its middle class because Mexico is a corrupt oligarchy run by a corrupt former Coca-Cola executive?
  • How do we work out fair and reasonable options for illegal families living and working here who have birthed "anchor children" in the US, now citizens of this nation?
  • How can we ensure "security" along our southern border in an "age of terrorism"? (A good start may be to stop promulgating policies that cause the world to hate us, but that's another article.)
  • How do we recalibrate our business and tax laws so businesses - particularly small and middle-sized businesses - can adjust away from depending on a terrified "working-poor-competing-with-even-more-terrified-illegal-labor" workforce and move toward being able to pay a more robust, domestic, unionized workforce?
  • How can progressives join with the few remaining populist Republicans (like Lou Dobbs and Patrick Buchanan) to forge an alliance to make this an all-American effort and not have it further split the nation?
  • And how can we all collectively work to prevent Bush and Specter from re-instituting the brutal Bracero "guest worker" program of the last century?

As the anguished mining families in West Virginia show, Bush was wrong when he said there were jobs Americans "won't do." But in the face of massive illegal immigration and the union-busting and wage deflation it spawns, there are increasingly jobs that Americans "can't do" and still maintain a viable lifestyle.

While some geographically-specific industries (like coal mining) don't appear overwhelmed by illegal immigrant labor, its impact on the nation as a whole has made it easier for union-busting to take place from the construction industry in New Mexico to the coal mines of West Virginia. Directly or indirectly, illegal immigration affects all working Americans.

Condemning the frightened working-class white guys organizing citizens' militias along our southern border, or vilifying those who listen to Limbaugh and are convinced that "liberals" are in some sort of collective plot to undermine America may feel good, but it doesn't address the real problem. Progressives will be most effective when we reach across the divides created by Bush, Specter, et al, and point out how this is really all about corporate conservative efforts to replace the American middle class with a workforce of "working poor" Americans and powerless illegal immigrants (or powerless "amnestied" workers) - all so CEOs can fatten their paychecks and further reward the "conservative" investor class.

Only then will Mexico and other countries to our south have an incentive to get their own houses in order, and will our middle class begin to recover decent bargaining power and the living wages that accompany it.

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