Don't Pin the Woes of American Workers on Immigration

May 3, 2022

In her new book, Professor Ruth Milkman argues that weakened unions and other labor market shifts, not immigrants, have hurt American workers.

Ruth Milkman Book: Immigrant Labor and the New Precariat
Professor Ruth Milkman spoke about her new book, "Immigrant Labor and the New Precariat," at the Graduate Center.

Immigrants to the U.S., particularly undocumented ones, have long been blamed for the loss of good jobs for U.S. workers. In recent years, this notion has been trumpeted by right-wing populists such as Donald Trump. In her timely new book, Immigrant Labor and the New Precariat, Distinguished Professor Ruth Milkman (GC/School of Labor and Urban Studies; History, Sociology) counters this claim, which she calls “the immigrant threat narrative.” Instead, she offers ample evidence that mass immigration to the U.S. is the result, not the cause, of the degradation of U.S. jobs.

Speaking at the CUNY Graduate Center in early April, Milkman, a prominent sociologist of labor and labor movements, laid out the economic and political factors that have hollowed out the standards of U.S. jobs and fueled U.S. workers’ antipathy toward immigrants.

One cause, Milkman explained, is “the labor market restructuring that has transformed the political economy of the country and basically eroded, or I would say upended, the old New Deal order.” Milkman laid out three drivers of this restructuring: deindustrialization, de-unionization, and deregulation.

Deindustrialization, she explained, began in the 1970s when greater capital mobility and cheaper communications and transportation led U.S. corporations to shutter many of their U.S. plants and factories and move them overseas. “No one suggests that deindustrialization spurred the growth in immigration,” Milkman said. “How could immigrants be responsible for factory closings?” Still, she pointed out that many workers hurt by this deindustrialization tie their economic losses to the rising tide and looming threat of immigrants.

“Attacks on unions are also part of this period,” Milkman said. “We've seen enormous evidence for the fact that unions are anathema to market fundamentalists and private sector employers. … Especially since the 1980s, employers routinely go on the assault against unions, trying to prevent their emergence in places where they don't already exist and work to weaken or eliminate them where they do.” The decline of union power, Milkman said, “leads to rapid job degradation, in both union and non-union sectors.” Wages have fallen and health care coverage has been eroded, she pointed out.  

She added, “Even with all the dramatic events of the last year or two, most recently, at the Amazon warehouse here in Staten Island, the numbers are way too small to make a dent in this de-unionization trend thus far. That may change in the future. But for now, I'm afraid we're still in this mess.”

U.S.-born, especially non-college-educated, workers have every reason to be angry at the reversal of fortune that they've suffered. But their anger is misdirected."
     —Ruth Milkman

Finally, deregulation, Milkman said, led to “cutthroat competition in a lot of industries where regulation had put a floor under pay and working conditions.” She added, “My favorite example of this is the trucking industry, where the Motor Carrier Act of 1980 almost overnight transformed the industry into what Michael Belzer called ‘sweatshops on wheels’” in his book by the same name.

As jobs in previously unionized and regulated industries were degraded, U.S. workers exited them in search of better opportunities. Employers, in turn, recruited immigrants to fill the resulting vacancies, notably in industries such as residential construction and meatpacking.

“It's non-college-educated blue-collar men who've been most affected by this,” Milkman said. She added that data from the 2016 and 2020 elections shows that they’re also the most susceptible to the immigrant threat narrative.

In addition to eroding traditional blue-collar work, immigrants are perceived to be taking over and degrading domestic and service-sector jobs such as housekeeping and restaurant work. Here, Milkman pointed to the confluence of two historical trends. One is the growth in income inequality that began in the 1970s and helped drive greater demand for domestic labor. At the same time, Black women who once dominated housekeeping and other domestic service jobs began to exit them as the civil rights movement led to the outlawing of race-based discrimination and, in turn, opened jobs for them in more desirable fields.  

“U.S.-born, especially non-college-educated, workers have every reason to be angry at the reversal of fortune that they've suffered,” Milkman said. “But their anger is misdirected. It should not be directed at immigrants, but rather at employers as well as public policymakers who enabled the explosive inequality that's occurred in recent decades.”

In concluding her talk, Milkman noted, “The U.S. should have a more welcoming policy toward immigrants and refugees. But … at the same time, we need a floor under labor standards to prevent employer abuses of those workers as well as the U.S.-born workforce.”

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