Who Speaks for American Workers?

January 4th, 2011 at 8:59 pm David Frum | 25 Comments |

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The Wall Street Journal editorial page explains why it believes Republicans and Democrats can agree on an immigration deal:

Immigration reform should in theory be possible as well, here given the business need for more skilled workers and the desire among immigrant groups for more legal paths to citizenship.

Notice anybody missing from this equation?

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25 Comments so far ↓

  • nameless

    American workers are not affected directly by the immigration reform. Simply adding more people to the country has no immediate economic effect on existing people: new people increase the supply of labor (more working hands), but also increase the demand for labor.

    The real problem with the quotation is the implication that the immigration reform can provide “skilled workers” for the business. It can not. At least not in a 1:1 fashion. A typical adult illegal immigrant has something like 8.5 years of schooling, on average (in other words, more than half are middle school dropouts!) The people we get are the bottom of the barrel, poorly educated peasants who weren’t even qualified to work in Mexican maquiladoras. Why should be think that we can make skilled workers out of them here?

  • COProgressive

    David wrote;
    “Notice anybody missing from this equation?”

    Ahhh, the American worker? There is a full court press on in the Republican dialogue to demonize the American worker starting with anyone in a labor union.

    We need to remember that it was the labor unions starting back in the 30′s, 40′s through the 80′s and 90′s that gave us the 5 day work week, living wages, paid vacations and was THE PRIME reason for the huge growth in the middle class bringing American labor to a near par with the employer who hired them. A strong union membership was the best way to protect American workers from the abuses of tyrannical bosses, and yes, I had one once.

    Today, I heard at a couple of news sources talking point comments about public service unions driving states into bankruptcy. The conversation expanded into the private industry unions condeming them as well. What I don’t understand is now that we’ve tipped over wage wise, and the general consensus we hear and read is that all the countries problems stem from those nasty unions that will only let employers work their laborers 5 days a week and only 8 hours a day.

    American unions and the American worker isn’t the problem. Globalization, the corporations mandate to maximize profits for the shareholders above all other factors, cheap money pouring out of the Fed, investment vehicles not worth the paper they were printed on, and the general avarice of those in the upper levels of the financial markets who pulled the rug out from under our economy and cost union pension plans and the life savings of millions and millions of American workers looking to retire after a lifetime of work.

    But to listen and read the unions are all the blame.

    “We are undone, my dear sir, if legislation is still permitted which makes our money, much or little, real or imaginary, as the moneyed interests shall choose to make it.” – Thomas Jefferson

  • torourke


    The former head of the INS acknowledges that unchecked immigration lowers wages for those without a high school degree–which is to say–a decent portion of the middle class and most of the lower class:


    See the third paragraph under bullet point #1

  • Kurlis

    American workers are best represented by conservatives. The Democrat Party represents the rich.

  • _will_

    i’ve been through this a couple of times, which seems to be a balanced, thoughtful look at the realities of immigration and its effect on the US economy


    can someone tell me if (and why) it’s wrong? i’m not being glib; i’m genuinely curious…

    and torourke has a point: immigrants may push down wages for low-skilled workers, particularly without a high school degree. Even so, the argument is that “the overall effect is to increase average wages for American-born workers.”

  • JimBob

    Of course mass unskilled immigration hurts those on the bottom of the economic ladder. This isn’t rocket science. Google “Black Teen Unemployment”

    We should follow every other advanced country and go after skilled self sufficient immigrants. Those that won’t be using government services. For a change lets give our poor unskilled workers a chance at a better life by tightening up the labor market.

  • COProgressive

    Kurlis wrote;
    “American workers are best represented by conservatives. The Democrat Party represents the rich.”

    Funny! Good one.

  • JohnnyA


    The article you mention is quite strongly in favor of immigration.

    According to that paragraph you mention, immigration reduces wages by 1% for folks without a high school degree, but increases wages (and jobs) for the vast majority of workers.

    I’d argue that not having a high school degree is what most lowers wages for those without a high school degree. That’s a problem with our education system and a host of social issues (teen pregnancy, drug abuse, crime, etc).

  • JohnnyA


    Agreed we should go after skilled immigrants. Personally, I would have the government publish a list of criteria (education, English proficiency, skills) for applicants to get on the ‘fast track’. And similar criteria for guest workers programs (along with resources to ensure the guests return at the end of their stint). When the workers return to their home country at a higher education and skills level, they will be more likely to find and create local opportunities.

    The unskilled and uneducated in any country will get the short end of the stick. The best way we can help them is to help them get the education and skills.

    Regarding the teen unemployment, I have to say from my view it looks more like teen laziness. When I was growing up in the 70s and 80s, the neighborhood kids made money in the neighborhood: mowing grass, shoveling snow, delivering papers, working in the convenience stores. Kids refuse to do it now. In my neighborhood, there are several kids in the age range when I did these things. Their parents will all tell you the same thing – all these kids do is sit inside and watch TV and play video games, when they are not hanging out at the pool or at the mall.

  • lessadoabouteverything

    For heavens sake, how many people here have laid tar on a 130 degree roof in the Arizona desert? It is dominated by hispanics, and go to any hotel in America and look at the cleaning help. Skilled workers, hell how about hard workers. Imagine a bunch of fat, pasty faced white Americans getting off their asses to pick lettuce, sure. They would go on disability after the second day.

    And if you got you wish and illegals all went home and when hotels and most service industries jack up the prices 20 to 30 percent you will scream how the workers are being paid way too much thinking that they should accept the wages of the illegal immigrant who used to do the work.

  • JimBob

    lessadoa, you really don’t know what you’re talking about. Lets start with cleaning hotels. Big chains discovered it’s cheaper to hire illegals because you don’t have to pay FICA taxes, unemployment, and they don’t complain out of fear of losing their jobs. The hospitality industry has always been entry level jobs for unskilled Americans especially black youth.

    I’ve been skiing at the same resort every winter for 28 years. The condos, hotel rooms, and restaurants, were staffed with college kids taking a semester off for a season ski pass. Recently I’ve noticed that more and more of the employees are illegals. Have the college kids gotten lazy or no longer interested in making some money and getting to ski for free??? I don’t think so. It is just cheaper to hire illegal labor.

    As for agriculture, illegal labor has made us less productive. There is nothing grown that we can’t develop a mechanized way to harvest it.

  • NRA Liberal

    So Frum has discovered the existence of the American worker. Better late than never, David. Welcome aboard.

    Anyone interested in this issue needs to read ex-Reagan trade negotiator Clyde Prestowitz’ book “The Betrayal of American Prosperity”.

  • lessadoabouteverything

    jimbob, again with the silliness. I mention year round hospitality and you bring up ski resorts representing a pretty niche market. We are not exactly going to get to full employment on college summer help. Beyond that are you willing to pay more for your ski passes and hotel room?
    Are enough Americans?

    Look, I want everify, I want employers who hire illegals to go to jail, not just fined. I want a biometric Social Security card that without it you can not get work in America. But I know that will mean a lot of costs will be passed on to me and that will have its own ripple effect, meaning less money to spend on other things. I also know it will mean far less efficiency and far more aggravation.

    And you spout nonsense that mechanization is more productive, but if it were more productive and cheaper they would already use it. Or do you think farmers are not Capitalists, that they hire less productive illegal aliens out of the goodness of their hearts?

    Go to some nursing homes, look at the hired help and see how many of the LPNs are from abroad.
    My wife is from China, did not learn English until High school and was a mediocre student in China, yet she graduated at the top of her nursing class, a class that was nearly half foreign born.

    Skilled, unskilled, you name it, far too many Americans have gotten too fat, stupid, or lazy to do the hard work necessary. (I am not talking a majority, or even a big minority, but a still hell of a lot of people)
    Even here, at Frumforum, which is a pretty literate site with many bright posters, I still see some basic and appalling lapses in logic, grammar, and spelling that would embarrass a 15 year old in Asia.
    Outside in the real world it is even worse, go to a grocery store, offer additional money to get a five or ten back and watch the cashier crumble in confusion. We are talking about elementary school mathematics, this in a job where they do nothing but work with numbers. But if it is not on the cash register they can not do it. Yet you somehow think these people are entitled to their jobs.
    And lets not even go into employee theft. While my wife was going to nursing school she worked part time at a thrift store, the owners went through so much native help and begged my wife to work more since she actually worked and did not steal.

  • JimBob

    When the labor market dries up in agriculture then mechanization takes place. Its always been that way. In the 1960s when the Bracero program was stopped tomato farmers were predicting doom and gloom. The harvest was increasingly mechanized resulting in a quadrupling of production over the next 30 years of tomatoes for processing, and a fall in real prices.

    There is no labor shortage. What has happened in certain industries employers have gotten addicted to cheap illegal labor. Privatizing all the benefits that come with that illegal labor but socializing all the costs. Public schooling, hospitals, crime and over all lower quality of life. Importing poverty.

  • lessadoabouteverything

    “Privatizing all the benefits that come with that illegal labor but socializing all the costs. Public schooling, hospitals, crime and over all lower quality of life.” Again, this is not true. Construction companies in America want to sell their product at a lower cost than their competitors, they do that by hiring cheap, illegal labor, the benefits are not privatized but universal. It keeps down inflation, keeps housing costs lower than they otherwise would have been, increases efficiency since illegal workers are more productive as well. And they do not attend public schools, their American born American citizen children do but that is the law, but they themselves have never drained the American economy having spent their formative years abroad.

    I am not justifying illegal immigration. I want everify, but the costs to society are far greater than you are willing to admit. These people pay into social security, yet will not get any, pay taxes but get no rebate, and even when they do not the productive value of the things that they make are passed onto people who do pay taxes. Without immigration the American population would stop growing except to the extent that people live longer and suck down medicare and social security at greater costs to society. Japan has no legal or illegal immigration and is looking at a slow death spiral.

    Like it or not the trend in America is for less children with each generation (you might get small boomlets but they are transitory as older woman take advantage of fertility treatments, but these are mostly people who delayed having children, not older people having their 4th or 5th child)

    By the way, there would have been a labor shortage, the baby boomers are retiring starting this year. Take a look at the numbers some time, and for the next 18 years a hell of a lot of people will retire.

  • JohnnyA

    “ In the 1960s when the Bracero program was stopped tomato farmers were predicting doom and gloom.” – JimBob

    Then the farmers shut up when they realized they could hire the same Mexicans for even less bringing them in illegally. From 1964, when the bracero program ended, to 1976, INS apprehensions increased approx 1000% from 86K to 875K. (ref: http://www.nfap.com/pressreleases/Nov20_2003_pr.aspx)

    Study after study has shown that enforcement alone is not effective in reducing illegal immigration. We’ve done guest worker programs in the past. In its time, the Bracero program was considered responsible for a 95% reduction of illegal immigration.

  • JimBob

    Illegal labor hasn’t resulted in cheaper housing. If anything it is partially to blame for the housing bubble. When the Clinton Justice Department discovered Asians and Whites have a much higher rate of home ownership than Blacks and Hispanics. So the pressure to make loans to non credit worthy people began. After the Dot Com Bubble and 9/11 Greenspan fueled the housing bubble with near zero interest rates. Then Bush Rove trying to buy the Hispanic vote in 2004 pushed the zero down payment nonsense. Factor in an endless supply of very cheap labor from south of the border and you have a perfect storm. The bubble burst.

    We don’t need a guest worker program. Guest workers turn into permanent squatters.

  • JohnnyA

    “Illegal labor ….” -JimBob

    It’s interesting that in any article about immigration, many posters seem to immediately start talking about illegal immigrants as if they were the same thing as legal immigrants. They aren’t.

    “We don’t need a guest worker program. Guest workers turn into permanent squatters.” – JimBob

    According to who? We’ve done it before with the Bracero program and the vast majority of studies credit it with limiting illegal immigration up to 95% and INS apprehensions went up 1000% after it was terminated. For generations before the Bracero program these kinds of workers came in for seasonal jobs and went home. Only when we increased border enforcement did some workers begin staying year round as some decided it was less risky to stay than risk the crossings.

    The Bracero program had its flaws but I have no doubt we could implement something much better these days.

  • lessadoabouteverything

    “Illegal labor hasn’t resulted in cheaper housing.” Do not be silly. Of course it does. The bubble and the rest are policy issues, but you know full well that paying workers subpar wages means you can sell the house for a lower price. Are you going to state the China’s low wages have nothing to do with their selling things to America?

    I simply don’t understand your resistance to the idea that things are not as black and white as you portray when you obviously have to know it is not.

  • think4yourself

    Jim Bob: Sorry, I have to disagree. While business does hire illegals, I don’t see any evidence to support your contention that it is big business. The big hotel chains are audited too many ways so they don’t try and hire illegals, rather people with provable papers. I also ski and I don’t know that I see lots of illegals (btw – how do you know they are illegal – are you checking their papers? Or our you calling all foriegn workers illegal). I do see lots of non-Americans working at American ski resorts, normally people from the Southern Hemisphere (New Zealand, Chile, etc.) who work at ski resorts year round. By and large they are young ski bums whether or not they are American or international.

    Regarding illegals taking jobs that other Americans would take, the UFW set up a website called http://www.takeourjobs.com where people could apply for non-skilled positions. They got hundreds of thousands of emails (mostly hate mail), but a few applicants, none of whom were willing to work for minimum wage 12 hours per day bent over picking vegatables with no benefits. I suppose we could get rid of everyone willing to work for those wages, and force business to pay $15 per hour with benefits but the consumer won’t stand for having the price of all of their foodstuffs triple. As far as the labor market and mechanization; you said that “when the labor market dries up mechanization takes place.” I suspect it’s the other way around – Mechanization causes fewer workers. As a business owner, if there is a machine that does twice the work at half the cost, I would be foolish not to consider it if I want to stay competitive and stay in business.

    COProgressive: Yes, labor unions have been important in American history from the 1800′s (Howard Zinn’s A Peoples History of the United States is worth reading even if you disagree with it) and have done much to create better working conditions and more wages for workers. In my view, 3 things hurt the labor movement. First, they were unable to reach a place to become partners with business to ensure the success of the business and worker was tied together. Instead negotiating outsized contracts (particularly in benefits over the last 30 years) caused pricing to rise and become uncompetitive and work rules that bordered on silliness (no firing rules, no incentive to work, etc.). These (and other) things insured that US made products became overpriced and of poorer quality compared to the competition. Second, globalization and technology did change the rules, when the same process can be done much cheaper somewhere else, the consumer will demand that is what happens. Rather than fight that through protectionist strategies, if the unions had worked just as hard to find ways to have that benefit their constituency, how much better off would both the unions and their constituents be? Lastly, labor and it’s partners (Democrats and other progressives) have not done a good job making the case that management that pays itself increasingly exhorbitant salaries tied to short-term financial measures actually harm the companies they represent.

    If unions want a seat at the table in the immigration debate, they need to show how their positions benefit both the American worker and the American consumer or they will become increasingly irrelevant.

  • JimBob

    No it doesn’t. Contractors just pocket the difference. They make out like a bandit. All their subs and crews are replaced by Mexican crews and the quality of construction declines to boot.

  • JohnnyA

    “I also ski and I don’t know that I see lots of illegals (btw – how do you know they are illegal – are you checking their papers? Or our you calling all foriegn workers illegal).” – think4yourself

    I was getting at that in my other comment. Some people simply equate immigrant with illegal immigrant and seem to assume any Latin American they see is an illegal immigrant. Sadly, there are a bunch of cops in Arizona with the same mindset…

  • JonF

    Re: Big chains discovered it’s cheaper to hire illegals because you don’t have to pay FICA taxes, unemployment, and they don’t complain out of fear of losing their jobs.

    Maybe the last item on your, but most big chains don’t hire under-the-table workers– that makes them vulnerable to serious legal repercussions, and their very size makes them easy targets. Under-the-table work is usually found at small businesses which are less likely to be investigated. Illegals hired at larger firms usually use bogus SS#s and taxes are paid under those numbers, but sequestered by the SSA which can’t identify the proper recipient– they have quite a lot of money in suspense as as result.

  • torourke


    I was aware that the article was written by a supporter of unchecked immigration, which is why it was so significant that it was willing to acknowledge the fact that such immigration puts a heavier burden on those who are least able to shoulder it. I agree that there are other factors, many of them cultural, that cause those without high school degrees to struggle. But the simple fact is that unchecked immigration adds to their difficulties, and we can do something policy wise to address this.

  • JohnnyA

    “I was aware that the article was written by a supporter of unchecked immigration” -torourke

    Nobody in the article or these comments is calling for unchecked immigration. The one sentence in the article addressing immigration says “Immigration reform should in theory be possible as well, given the business need for more skilled workers and the desire among immigrant groups for more legal paths to citizenship.”

    Another false straw man. Just like some posters who seem to equate all immigrants and or any group of low income workers of Hispanic origin with illegal immigrants doesn’t make it so. The same goes for trying to say any discussion of immigration reform is a request for unchecked immigration.

    Like I said earlier, the article you cited says that immigration affects the income of workers without high school degrees by less than 1% while benefiting the vast majority of workers. The single factor that can most improve the income of uneducated workers (by much more than 1%) is to get that education, yet instead you propose to punish the rest of the country because a small fraction of the population wasn’t able to get around to finishing high school. That’s like the tail wagging the dog.