Smearing Labor as Racist: The Globalist Project to Discredit the Working Class

Contrary to claims that calls for limiting immigration have historically been driven by racism and xenophobia, labor opposition to immigration is largely a reflection of the harms immigration inflicts on America’s working class. Immigration has been a strategy of labor control and profit generation in a world economy since WWII, a globalist project to extend and deepen capitalist control of the planet. Just as factories and fields are moved offshore to take advantage of cheap pools of foreign labor abroad, cheap foreign labor is imported to the factories and fields at home to undermine the living standards of native labor and realize more surplus value from labor.

To cover for the project, history has been revised to convey an image of the American working class as nativist, its motivations white supremacist. We see the project’s organic intellectual beginnings with the work of such historians and activists as Arthur Mann and (and possible FBI informant) Herbert Hill, who accused organized labor of relying on racist ideology, and otherwise downplaying a long history of bigotry, in contradiction to its stated goals of organizing labor regardless of nationality and religion. This body of work amounts to a delegitimization campaign, functioning today to silence opposition to the enforcement and weakening of immigration law by undermining its moral standing. However, there is literature that casts serious doubt on the validity of this revisionist history.

In Immigration and American Unionism (Cornell University Press, 2001), labor economist Vernon M. Briggs documents a dynamic in which unions thrive and union membership grows when immigration is low, while unionism contracts and membership declines during periods when immigration is high. Briggs shows how immigration is used as an instrument of labor control by fractions of the capitalist class and that labor has long understood the harm immigration presents to the working class. “At every juncture prior to the 1980s,” he writes, “the union movement either directly instigated or strongly supported every legislative initiative enacted by Congress to restrict immigration and to enforce its policy terms.” I hasten to add to this argument that the change Briggs sees in popular consciousness by the 1980s represents the colonization of working class subjectivity, especially among its coopted leadership, of the New Left ideas of multiculturalism and identity politics exploited by neoliberals in the globalist project to deepen transnational power.

A.T. Lane, in Solidarity or Survival? American Labor and European Immigrants, 1830-1924 (Greenwood Press, 1987), explores how the need to defend living standards and conventional work practices among native workers came in conflict with the desire to extend solidarity to immigrants because of immigrant resistance to the appeal of class solidarity. It was not out of nativism or racism that labor reluctantly abandoned the ideals of international working-class unity. Many of the workers supporting immigration restrictions were foreign born. In his 1984 article “American trade unions, mass immigration and the literacy test: 1900–1917” (Labor History), Lane observes, “careful examination of the columns of many labor journals has produced few examples of racist thinking applied to immigration.” On the contrary, much was made about the American worker as immigrant in its history. When the question of demographic differentiation did come up in their literature, the explanations were not genetic, but environmental, stressing cultural differences, not racial differences.

Lane’s analysis of the recalcitrance of the foreign-born to accepting national solidarity is supported by Catherine Collump’s 1999 comparison of the US and French experience in “Immigrants, Labor Markets, and the State: A Comparative Approach” (The Journal of American History). In this work she found a twin dynamic of Americanization and ethnicization in which the formation of a multicultural society in the United States led to the development of ethnic groups that claimed equal representation, and thus their cultural distinctiveness. Whereas those who immigrated to France, while maintaining their particular religious faiths, lost their ethnic identity, as a result becoming assimilated with French society at a more individualistic level (albeit we should note that this dynamic is changing in France with the immigration of Muslims, a religious group highly resistant to assimilation). 

Claudia Goldin, in “The Political Economy of Immigration Restriction in the United States, 1890 to 1921,” published in The Regulated Economy: An Historical Analysis of Political Economy (University of Chicago Press, 1994), observes that “immigration in the 1890s had shifted to ethnic and national groups whose schooling levels and living standards were distinctly below those of previous groups.” She concludes that this “flood of immigrants eventually did result in large negative effects on the wages of native-born workers.” The impact was so widespread that it overcame pro-immigrant advocacy in major cities with large numbers of foreign born. What was driving the movement to restrict immigration were the negative consequences of foreign labor on native wages and high labor market uncertainty that brought demands for restriction.

In “Immigration Policy Prior to the Thirties: Labor Markets, Policy Interaction, and Globalization Backlash” (Population and Development Review, 1998), Ashley Timmer and Jeffrey Williamson reinforce these findings, finding “no compelling evidence that xenophobia and racism was at work in these economies.” The effect of large-scale immigration made labor more abundant and governments, pushed by labor, sought to stop the relative decline in wages. Empirical analysis shows that the greater the perceived threat to wages (the perception here is empirically demonstrable) the more restrictive the policy became. (Significantly, the researchers find that inequality has been rising in OECD countries since the early 1970s and, given the force of immigration in driving inequality, this explains renewed interests in reducing flows of immigration.)

Likewise, in two books, The Age of Mass Immigration (Oxford, 1998) and Global Migration and the World Economy (MIT Press, 2006), economic historians Timothy J. Hatton and Jeffrey G. Williamson emphasize the importance of economic and demographic factors, not racism and xenophobia, in explaining restrictionist policies. It was “the low and declining quality of the immigrants” arriving between 1890 and 1930 that provoked the movement to limit immigration, they demonstrate. Hatton and Williamson conclude that “racism and xenophobia do not seem to have been at work in driving the evolution of policy toward potential European immigrants.” In summarizing their work in a 2017 Boston Globe article, Peter Skerry writes, “A stream of illiterate migrants from Southern and Eastern Europe was facilitated by the advent of steamship travel, rendering the trans-Atlantic voyage safer, faster, and cheaper. The resulting ‘declining positive selection’ also translated into increasing numbers of men arriving without families who did not intend to remain, but rather to save money and eventually return home. These ‘birds of passage’ posed challenges involving neighborhood stability, community cohesion, social disorder, and crime.” This situation is echoed in the dynamic unfolding in Europe presently, with the mass influx of young Muslims and eastern European males, and increasingly in the United States, with the shift from Mexican to Central American migrants, which has emphasized young unattached males over families.

(Note: Hatton and Williamson recommend skills-based system for rationing visas, reducing family-based visas, and immigrant taxes to help native-born workers capture some of the economic rend obtained by immigrants. They note the general lack of political will to enforce immigration law or to pursue policies that redistribute the gains from immigration to those who lose on account of it. I will discuss this in another essay forthcoming on this blog.)

By 1906 it had become clear to labor leaders that self-preservation required support for tight immigration restrictions. This represents a historic shift in the reasons for opposition to immigration which, in part, explains why the push for restrictions bore fruit when it did. Lane finds that the source of opposition to immigration in the earlier period of immigration of north-western Europeans was not driven by economic concerns but by Catholic unwillingness to jettison foreign loyalties. (I sympathize with this concern, which we see mirrored in the impact of Islam on western society, especially in Europe. Like Catholics previously, Muslims are more likely to answer to authorities “higher” than the governments in which they live. However, unlike Catholicism, which is a European religion, and therefore more reasonable, Islam is not nearly as amendable to reformation.) The nation was largely undeveloped at that time and immigrants did not have the economic impact they would have in a larger, more developed country. However, as steamships and the growing manufacturing sector drew low-skilled and largely illiterate immigrants from eastern and southern Europe across the Atlantic, public concerns shifted from political and religious to economic, especially focused on market dynamics. By then, capitalists were using immigrants specifically as strike-breakers and more generally as a force pushing down wages and increasing job insecurity, resulting in a culture of futility that made labor more amenable to inferior working conditions. The impact of immigration, combined with the implementation of labor-saving machinery, deskilling strategies and technologies, and the increasing chaos of the business cycle, put native workers in a precarious position. By the end of WWI, American unions were in agreement about the need to restrict immigration. The debate was about how tightly to control it or whether to end immigration entirely, not whether immigration restrictions were right or wrong. 

This is not the story we are told, of course. The story we are told is that Americans are historically racists and xenophobic and white desire (never mind that the Europeans in question were white) to keep out of the country for the sake of race purity genetically inferior subpopulations is what drove anti-immigrant sentiment. It was eugenicist obsession with the problem of dysgenesis that informed legislation and policy against immigration, we are told. To be sure, there were racists and xenophobes, and eugenics was certainly a disturbing phenomenon in US history, and eugenicists tried to influence labor politics, but such beliefs were not driving the issue. What was driving the matter was the struggle between organized labor and capitalist fractions over against other capitalist fractions who sought to use cheap and super exploitable labor to expand the production of surplus value by cutting labor costs and marketing cheaper products. It comes down to class struggle and how that struggle plays out on the ground in its political and ideological forms.

Researchers Leah Haus, in Unions, Immigration, and Internationalization: New Challenges and Changing Coalitions in the United States and France (Palgrave MacMillan, 2002) and Julie R. Watts,  Immigration Policy and the Challenge of Globalization: Unions and Employers in Unlikely Alliance (Cornell University Press, 2002) have noted that recent world economic changes have shifted attention to how contemporary labor unions address immigration, with labor leaders viewing mass migration as the outcome of globalization (which of course is true, which is not to say it is a natural and inevitable force) and have joined forces with pro-immigrant groups to promote immigrant rights and to expand legal immigration. Some might regard this as a growing moral sophistication of labor on these issues. But in my view it actually indicates two things primarily: (1) the colonization of union ranks by New Left ideas of diversity politics exploited by neoliberals to co-opt progressive energy for the transnational capitalist project; (2) the false understanding among many in labor that declining union density (a result of immigration) requires the recruitment of members from the ranks of newer arrivals, even though it is unlikely that the new arrivals will accept an appeal to labor solidarity. Labor solidarity comes with national and cultural homogenization, through which the class struggle can shine more readily, and history shows us that this becomes possible only when immigration is restricted and assimilation is allowed to work. 

The journey to this place is a long one, and strategy going forward depends on a correct understanding of how we got here. Republicans are fond of accusing Democrats of promoting immigration because it creates a more diverse America and diversity is good for Democrats, since whites are seen as an obstacle to Democratic success. However, as the proportion of foreign-born in the US population has increase from less than 5% in the mid 1960s, the height of the liberal Democratic consensus, to more than 13.5% today, the Republicans have gained more power than at any point in nearly a century, from national to local government. Moreover, the character of Republican Party is more right-wing than it has ever been. This can be said of the Democratic Party, as well. At the same time, private sector union density has declined from nearly 40% in the 1960s to less than 7% today. Opening the United States to greater numbers of foreign labor has played a significant role in crippling the left. However, as we saw with the successful labor movement to restrict immigration a century ago, there is a way to turn things around. Unfortunately, unlike a century ago, the decades long movement to successfully restrict immigration is absent today. What stands in its place is a left determine to fracture the working class population into a myriad of identities, divisions unified only by a loathing for class struggle and genuine socialist politics.  

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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