From the colonial period, immigrants were viewed as a potential threat to the interests of workers already in North America. In the early years of the American republic, an extraordinarily high birth rate (5.5 percent) provided the majority of laborers needed for development, thus making mass immigration unnecessary. As the United States and Canada became more industrialized after the mid-19th century, foreign-born workers were considered a necessity by entrepreneurs and industrialists, who encouraged millions to emigrate from Europe and Asia. European laborers, no matter how different, were generally considered to be assimilable, while African and Asian workers were generally considered only as temporary elements of the workforce. The influx of immigrant workers kept wages low and almost always undermined attempts to form craft or labor unions. With only two exceptions (1897–1905 and 1922–29), union membership in the United States grew and shrank inversely to the number of immigrants entering the country, leading to a general union opposition to open immigration policies.
The first national labor organization, the National Labor Union (NLU), was formed in 1866. Widespread unemployment in the wake of the Civil War (1861–65) heightened concern about jobs, and the NLU almost immediately lobbied against the Immigration Act of 1864, which provided for entry of contract laborers. The NLU disappeared during the 1870s, with the Knights of Labor emerging as the premier labor organization in the United States during the 1870s and 1880s. The Knights opposed immigration, especially that of Chinese peasant workers, and worked vigorously for the repeal of the Burlingame Treaty. In decrying the Chinese “evil,” labor leaders emphasized the fraudulent means of migrant entry, illegal immigrants often coming across the Canadian border or under false names. The Knights’ pressure contributed to the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882), but the Knights were equally concerned with general labor recruitment in Europe, which was undertaken, they argued, in order to create a labor surplus. The Knights did manage to secure amendments that put some teeth into the ineffective Alien Contract Labor Act (1885), but the decline of union membership after 1886 rendered the organization less important in immigrant reform than in the previous decade.
More influential than either the NLU or the Knights of Labor was the American Federation of Labor (AFL), founded in 1881. The AFL encouraged the organization of workers into craft unions, which would then cooperate in labor bargaining. Under the energetic leadership of Samuel Gompers, an English immigrant from a Jewish family, the AFL gained strength as it won the support of skilled workers, both native and foreign born. Ethnic concerns soon became entwined with the general depression of wages caused by the massive immigration of the 1880s and 1890s. Chinese immigration was condemned from the first, and the flood of unskilled workers from southern and eastern Europe after 1880 generally were not eligible for membership in craft unions. In 1896, the organization first established a committee on immigration and in the following year, passed a resolution calling on the government to require a literacy test as the best means of keeping out unskilled laborers. The AFL also continued to oppose Chinese and Japanese immigration and supported the Immigration Act of 1917, which required a literacy test and barred virtually all Asian immigration. At the same time, most immigrants were little interested in unionization: Many preferred to work at home, where they could care for their children and protect their cultural values. Most were suspicious of labor organizers, preferring their own labor intermediaries (see padrone system). Although immigrants formed some labor organizations such as the Japanese-Mexican Labor Association (JMLA, 1903), it would take time and two dramatic events to change the immigrant perspective. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire (1911) and World War I (1914–18; see World War I and immigration) proved to be turning points that led to greater immigrant interest in organized labor.
With the threat of wage depression removed by the tight restrictions imposed by Immigration Acts of 1921 (see Emergency Quota Act) and 1924 (see Johnson-Reed Act), immigration was removed as a major labor issue, though unions continued to oppose immigrant labor. Foreign- born workers (13.2 percent in 1920) were more readily welcomed by the labor movement as they found it advantageous to adopt traditional American lifestyles. By 1940, they constituted less than 9 percent of the U.S. population. Labor unions nevertheless faced enormous organizational, economic, and cultural obstacles to unionization, including widespread unemployment during the Great Depression that began in 1929. Between 1922 and 1936, the unionized portion of the nonagricultural labor force stabilized between 10 and 15 percent. As immigration continued to wane and World War II (1939–45) stimulated industrial demand, unionism revived. Between 1945 and 1965, about one-third of the nonagricultural labor force was unionized. By the end of that period, the foreign-born population stood at only 4.4 percent. As Vernon Briggs, Jr., has argued in Immigration and American Unionism (2001), “The mirror-image effect is manifestly clear: as the foreign-born population declined in percentage terms, union membership rose in both absolute and percentage terms.” In 1955, shortly after merging with the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), the AFL-CIO (see American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations) recommended amendment of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 but did not recommend raising the overall ceiling. The organization generally supported government provisions for refugees but strongly condemned the Mexican farm labor program (see Bracero Program) that allowed seasonal labor into the country.
Organized labor at first was generally favorable to the legislation that became the Immigration Act of 1965, which was designed to end ethnic origin as a basis for admission, while not significantly raising the overall number of immigrants admitted. In 1963, the AFL-CIO passed a resolution supporting “an intelligent and balanced immigration policy” based on “practical considerations of desired skills.” Three factors led to an unexpectedly dramatic increase in immigration, however, which once again raised alarms in the labor movement. Government used its parole authority to admit refugees in excess of stipulated ceilings, particularly with regard to Cuba and Vietnam. At the same time, illegal immigration exploded, as legal migrant laborers under the Bracero Program became illegal immigrants when the program was ended (1965). Finally, the understaffing of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) and the fact that U.S. employers were exempt from criminal prosecution for hiring illegal immigrants allowed cheap foreign labor to continue to pour into the country. Between 1970 and 1997, more than 30 million illegal immigrants were apprehended, though deportations were often difficult and millions more entered the labor force. Finally, the preference given to family reunification in 1965 led to an influx of new immigrants from Latin America and Asia. In 1997, these groups constituted 77 percent of the foreign-born U.S. population.
Carnegie Steel Company mills, Homestead, Pennsylvania. Pay cuts in 1892 led to a strike by the Amalgamated Association of Iron, Steel, and Tin Workers.The resulting battle led to several deaths and widespread withdrawal from the union. (National Archives)
Prior to the 1980s, organized labor supported every governmental initiative to restrict immigration. Faced with steadily declining memberships after 1975, however, some leaders reconsidered, focusing their concerns on illegal immigration rather than on general immigration policy. The AFL-CIO applauded the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, particularly for its tough sanctions on employers of illegal immigrants. By 1993, the organization moved further toward support of immigration, explicitly stating that immigrants were not the cause of labor’s problems and encouraging local affiliates to pay special attention to the needs of legal immigrant workers. In February 2000, the AFL-CIO made the historic decision to reverse its position and to support future immigration. It is unclear how vigorously this policy will be pursued in the 21st century and if it will be adopted generally by organized labor, particularly in the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and the continued decline of union membership.