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Why unions embraced immigrants – and why it matters for Donald Trump

patterns of thought

In his speech on immigration, the Republican presidential candidate echoed hardline stances once voiced by unions. But decades of union campaigns have drawn immigrants and minority voters into their fold.  

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    Immigrant Juan Morales (r.) protests on Aug. 31, 2016, against US Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, who is in Phoenix to speak on immigration. Mr. Morales, originally of Mexico City, has lived in Arizona for 21 years.
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After seeming to debut a more forgiving stance on immigration last week, Donald Trump arrived in Phoenix on Wednesday brandishing a resolutely hardline plan, warning of an undocumented criminal menace and promising deportations on an unprecedented scale.

"We will begin moving them out Day One. As soon as I take office. Day One. In joint operation with local, state, and federal law enforcement," he said, according to transcripts.

As he has in the past, Mr. Trump tied his promise to carry out deportations to anti-globalist economic ideas. But he also drew a direct line between the fortunes of the country's native-born laborers and the presence of undocumented immigrants – a connection he has rarely made in his remarks on the topic.

"While there are many illegal immigrants in our country who are good people, many, many, this doesn't change the fact that most illegal immigrants are lower skilled workers with less education, who compete directly against vulnerable American workers, and that these illegal workers draw much more out from the system than they can ever possibly pay back," he said.

"We will reform legal immigration to serve the best interests of America and its workers, the forgotten people. Workers. We're going to take care of our workers."

But the globalization that Trump denounces has also contributed to a decades-long reshaping of unions – a traditional voice for workers, and often vocal opponents of globalization – toward greater inclusion of immigrants, even those without legal status. And the reasons behind organized labor's shifting stance on immigrant workers, now decades in the making, may undercut Trump's narrative of foreigners arriving to America to crowd out the native-born. 

"If you have a union job, you know that immigrants are not stealing your jobs," says Lowell Turner, a professor at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations, in an interview with The Christian Science Monitor. "You see your reality around you and know that's not happening."

This electoral season, Trump has seen greater support among union members than any Republican candidate in recent memory – enough to spook Democrats and union leaders. His core support in the primaries, surveys showed, was from white men who worked with their hands, and they tended to look favorably upon both unions and economic policies typically considered progressive. 

He has also bragged of having "tremendous support" with union members. 

"Manhattan is a hundred percent – you're building a building, it's essentially a hundred percent union. So I've worked with unions over the years – I've done very well with unions," he told a crowd in New Hampshire in February, according to The Washington Times.

But he has garnered endorsements from only two unions – those representing border patrol and New England police – and his low approval among Hispanics and other minorities has likely helped ensure that the vast majority of union endorsements have chosen to remain firmly in the Democrats' camp.

One of those Hillary Clinton supporters is Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, who was the guest at a Monitor Breakfast earlier this week:

Trumka expressed confidence in organized labor’s ability to turn out votes for Clinton, despite Mr. Trump’s inroads into the white working class.

“We’re probably about where we were with Barack Obama at this point with the election,” Trumka said, adding that the more organized labor gets information out to workers, “the better off we get.”

For much of their early history in the United States, unions viewed certain groups of immigrants with suspicion, if not outright animus. Perhaps the most notoriously xenophobic law in US history, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, was passed largely at the behest of the organized labor. The fear of job replacement faded after the passage of a 1924 national-origins quota, as immigration levels fell for several decades. When national reform came up for passage again in 1986, unions' focus was on winning sanctions against employers that hired the undocumented, whom they saw as potential strikebreakers.

But by then, changes in unions' attitudes were already beginning. Starting in the late 1970s, deregulation measures had sent membership numbers reeling. And in urban areas like Los Angeles, deteriorated wages, benefits, and working conditions caused many native-born workers to abandon certain lines of low-skilled manual jobs, according to the 2000 book "Voices from the Front Lines," edited by sociologists Ruth Milkman and Kent Wong.

When they left, immigrants stepped in to take their place, mostly from Central America and Mexico.

"They were soon replaced by low-wage immigrants, and as employment skyrocketed [in those sectors], vigorous new organizing efforts emerged among the newly recruited foreign-born workers," Dr. Milkman and Mr. Wong write. 

Union leaders in favor of organizing immigrants thought they were likely to be too nervous for collective action, however. Campaigns like the Service Employees International Union's Janitors for Justice, first conceived in 1985, won important victories from employers and showed unions that immigrants, including the undocumented, were capable of loud advocacy, Dr. Milkman tells the Monitor.

"I myself was very surprised at the successes that occurred in that area," she says. "The whole thing – immigrant unionization – is one of the few bright spots in a bleak story."

As those efforts were replicated across labor, especially in meatpacking, hospitality, restaurants, and other service industries, immigrants and native-born Hispanics began to exercise growing clout within the ranks. In 2000, the AFL-CIO, the largest union confederation in the country, called for an end to employer sanctions, and for legal status for 6 million undocumented immigrants. The move came largely as a result of pressure from an immigrant-led coalition known as the Change to Win Federation, and it caused a sea change in thought.

"I think there was a shift in consciousness," says Mae Ngai, a historian at Columbia University who specializes in immigration and labor. "Even if some of these older unions like the Machinists were not organizing immigrants, they could see other people doing it.  They could see that immigrants were not their enemy, not their competition, not their enemy they had to fear."

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