27 Nov

Q&A with Ruth Milkman, on her recent book Immigrant Labor and the New Precariat

Posted By polity_admin_user

“Careful historical research…this new book is a vital corrective to the conservative claim that immigrants ‘take jobs’ from American workers.”
–Hon. Pramila Jayapal, U.S. House of Representatives

In her timely and provocative new book Immigrant Labor and the New Precariat, sociologist Ruth Milkman argues that mass immigration is the effect, rather than the cause, of America’s economic dislocations.  Through a careful analysis of historical data, Milkman shows that it was employers, not immigrants, who destroyed the American middle class. For Democrats to win back white working-class voters without alienating their multiracial base, Milkman suggests the party must embrace populism. Only by placing the blame for deindustrialization where it belongs—on neoliberal economic policies and greedy employers—will they successfully counter the appeal of nativism. America, this book suggests, doesn’t have to choose between welcoming immigrants and helping the middle class. It can, and must, do both.  Ruth Milkman answers some questions about Immigrant Labor and the New Precariat:

Why do so many Americans, especially non-college-educated whites, see immigrants as an economic threat?

Immigration growth occurred simultaneously with economic restructuring and the decline of organized labor.   Starting in the late 1970s, real wages (controlling for inflation) fell for many workers and were stagnant for others; health insurance and pension benefits deteriorated due to de-unionization and new business strategies designed to lower labor costs; and inequality between rich and poor skyrocketed.  Because immigrants began to arrive in growing numbers in that same period, following the 1965 passage of a new immigration law, many working-class Americans blamed foreign-born newcomers for changes that appeared to be tied to immigration but were in fact driven by employers and changes in public policy.

How has the demographic makeup of American immigrants changed over the course of the twentieth century?

In the early twentieth century, most immigrants came from Southern and Eastern Europe.  That flow of new arrivals came to an end in the 1920s, when highly restrictive immigration laws were passed.  When the law changed again in 1965, most of the new immigrants came from Latin American, Asia and Africa.

The rapid rise in immigration after Congress relaxed quotas in 1965 coincides with a decline in job security for white Americans without a college degree, leading politicians like Trump to blame immigrants for the plight of non-college-educated workers. What’s wrong with that argument?

That argument confuses correlation and causation.  Non-college educated U.S.-born workers have indeed experienced economic reversals since the 1970s, but those are not caused by immigration.   Factory closings across the Midwest, for example, have no connection to immigration growth.  Unions declined both because of the disappearance of massive numbers of unionized manufacturing jobs, and because employers mounted an assault on organized labor in other sectors – again, not because of immigration growth.  Tax policies favoring the wealthy also hurt working-class Americans.  The scapegoating of immigrants by Trump and others masks the true causes of the problems facing U.S.-born workers.

Some liberal pundits argue that Democrats should get tougher on immigration to compete with right-wing populists like Trump. Why is that a mistake?

As the U.S. population has grown more diverse in racial and ethnic terms, whites – especially white men — who feel threatened by that shift have increasingly embraced the Republican party and especially Trumpian populism.  In contrast, the Democratic base is comprised of African Americans, the Latinx community, naturalized citizens born outside the U.S., and women.  Right-wing populists denigrate all these groups, along with non-citizen immigrants.  But demographic trends mean that the Republicans’ white male base is shrinking.  Rather than competing with them in opposing immigrant rights, the only viable path forward for Democrats is to embrace the diversity of the U.S. population, supporting both those born in this nation and the newcomers who chose to come here. 

What’s wrong with the common argument that immigrants only take jobs that Americans don’t want to do?

That argument is not entirely wrong, it just omits any account of what shapes “jobs that Americans don’t want to do.”  My book documents the processes through which a wide variety of jobs that once were highly desirable – well-paid, unionized blue collar jobs with excellent fringe benefits – have been transformed into poorly-paid, nonunion jobs with no benefits.  As U.S.-born workers have increasingly rejected such degraded jobs, employers have filled the resulting vacancies with foreign-born newcomers.  A similar process – although for different reasons – has created vacancies in jobs that were historically dominated by African American women, most importantly housecleaning and other types of paid domestic work.   Those jobs were never desirable, but until the 1970s, black women were barred from most other types of employment.  Once the civil rights movement succeeded in opening up clerical and other service sector jobs to black women, they abandoned paid domestic work in droves.  In response, households began to hire immigrants instead.

For decades, union leaders believed it was impossible to organize immigrant laborers. How have the recent successes of immigrant-led unions proved them wrong?

As early as the 1980s, immigrants have shown that far from being “unorganizable,” they are disproportionately eager to unionize.  Indeed, in many cases, they are more responsive to labor organizing efforts than their U.S.-born counterparts.   There are several reasons for this.  One is linked to the fact that most working-class immigrants came to the United States in order to advance their economic status. If unionization can assist them in achieving that goal, immigrants will support organizing efforts.  A second reason is that many immigrant workers – in part because of the stigmatizing treatment they experience in this country from the U.S.-born – understand that their individual fate is tied to that of their community, in contrast to the individualistic orientation that is more often characteristic of the U.S.-born.  That notion of shared fate helps build bonds of solidarity among workers.  This is tied to a third reason, which is that immigrant social networks are already embedded in many workplaces, because of employers’ tendency to rely on referral hiring, i.e. filling vacancies by asking current employees to help them recruit new workers.  The result is that within a given workplace, immigrant workers already know and trust one another, facilitating unionization.  

Should the Democratic Party continue trying to win over non-college-educated white voters, or should it focus on increasing turnout among Blacks, Latinxs, Asians, and other recent immigrants? Is it possible to do both?

I argue that the most effective strategy would be to do both.   That approach was highly effective in the New Deal era, when Democrats built a coalition that included “white ethnics” – most of them second-generation immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe – as well as African Americans. Then as now, a political program that builds bridges between U.S.-born working-class people and people of color (including immigrants) must center on efforts to reduce economic inequality.  Those efforts should include progressive tax policies, universal access to affordable health care, increased minimum wages, improved working conditions, and measures making it easier for workers to unionize.

Ruth Milkman is Distinguished Professor of Sociology at the CUNY Graduate Center and at the CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies. She served as President of the American Sociological Association in 2016. Her latest book, Immigrant Labor and the New Precariat, is available from Polity.