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Black/Migrant Rivalry for Jobs Can Be Eased

August 22, 2004|David Bacon | David Bacon is a labor journalist and photographer. He is the author of "NAFTA's Children."

Blacks, Latinos and labor are three of the most stalwart constituencies in Democratic Party politics. But the interests of the groups have increasingly brought them into conflict.

Take what happened in Los Angeles during the early 1980s. Up until that time, the janitors who cleaned offices tended to be African American, and many of those jobs were unionized. Then, seeing a way to save money, janitorial contractors dumped their existing workforce and hired Latino immigrants, tearing up union contracts and dramatically lowering wages along the way. Hotels cut labor costs the same way. And union jobs in auto, steel, rubber and aerospace plants vanished. The new jobs that came along tended to be low-wage factory jobs, and to the owners of the new sweatshops, displaced workers were anathema -- too used to high wages, too likely to form unions, too old and, often, too black.

Things have changed somewhat since then. L.A.'s new immigrant janitors turned out to be pro-union and have risked their jobs in attempts to re-unionize the industry. Many new hotel and factory workers have done the same. But through it all, black workers have remained unemployed, and tensions have remained high.

Now, two political initiatives are attempting to bring immigrants and native-born workers together. One is a union proposal in the current contract negotiations at Los Angeles hotels. The second is a new look at immigration reform contained in a bill introduced by Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-Texas).

Both the Hotel Employees Restaurant Employees union and Jackson-Lee see the key to better wages and conditions as prohibiting discrimination -- against both immigrants and against displaced workers -- by enforcing job creation and affirmative action as national policy. Both proposals share an assumption that unions and high wages offer protection against job competition.

In this year's hotel negotiations, the union has linked protection for the rights of immigrant workers with an effort to overcome past hiring discrimination. Black workers today make up only 6.4% of the hotel workforce, and that's a far cry from the way things used to be. Clyde Smith, a houseman at the Wilshire Grand, remembers that when he was hired 35 years ago African Americans worked in virtually all areas. "There are significantly less today," he said, "often only one or two in each department, and sometimes none at all."

The union's current contract proposal has asked hotels to hire ombudsmen and establish a diversity task force to reach out to African American communities and eliminate hiring barriers. At the same time, the union wants protections for the job rights of the immigrants who make up a majority of the hotel workforce. "Some people try to pit one race against another, especially blacks against Latinos," Smith said. "I think we shouldn't blame any race or culture."

That's also the thinking behind Jackson-Lee's bill, HR 4885, which would extend permanent legal status to immigrants who have lived in the U.S. for at least five years and would prohibit employers from threatening or intimidating workers based on their immigration status. The money collected in application fees from those immigrants would fund job training and other programs for unemployed American workers. "The rights of minorities in this country are still a work in progress," Jackson-Lee said. "Nevertheless, someone recognized that we had to fix laws in America as they related to African Americans. Now we have to fix other laws to end discrimination against immigrants."

Creating jobs for the country's 9.4 million unemployed would of course require more resources than the bill would create. But the legislation, cosponsored by 21 other members of the Congressional Black Caucus, recognizes that jobs and immigration don't have to pit immigrants against the native born. And it recognizes that until immigrant workers have legal status and the security to fight for better conditions and wages, all low-wage workers will be harmed.

Last week, a new study from the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University demonstrated just how stark the current situation is -- and why native-born workers feel so threatened. Between 2000 and 2004, jobs held by immigrants rose by 2 million; the number of employed native-born workers fell by 958,000, and of longtime resident immigrants by 352,000. According to the report's authors, "the net growth in the nation's employed population between 2000 and 2004 takes place among new immigrants, while the number of native-born and established immigrant workers combined declines by more than 1.3 million."

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