In his new book, Hell to Pay: How the Suppression of Wages is Destroying America, Michael Lind raises a flaming sword at the three-headed monster he identifies as devastating the American workforce. In a brisk 179 pages (excluding the afterword), Mr. Lind makes an easy-to-follow case for how de-unionization, outsourcing, and mass immigration have converged to disempower and impoverish American workers. Readers may not be surprised to learn I will be focusing primarily on his arguments regarding mass immigration and how employers use it to abuse and exploit workers for profit.
However, I cannot recommend the book, in toto, highly enough for anyone desperately stuck in a losing situation in the workforce and seeking to understand why. In an age where the predominant positions expressed in the press, politics, and academia are in full-throated support of globalization, free trade, and open borders, Lind's common sense book somehow seems revolutionary. In reality, it is restating old truths that were learned the hard way, but are now sadly forgotten.
The basic idea that forms the foundation for the book is a dismantling of "human capital" theory that dominates much of the thinking of the professional class. In layman's terms, the theory states that, in the free market, a person's wage is based on their output. If you're making minimum wage, that's how much you are worth. If you want to earn more, then "learn to code." The CEO making a million times more than the janitor? Well, that is just the will of the invisible hand. This is obviously false, because we live in a dynamic world with imperfect people. People are discriminated against. People are exploited. Fortunately, Lind identifies how wages are actually determined, which is by bargaining power. If employees have leverage, like in a tight labor market or in a collective bargaining unit, they can demand higher wages. From this theory, Lind demonstrates how de-unionization, outsourcing, and mass immigration have obliterated worker bargaining power.
Lind points out the variety of ways worker power has been diminished in the United States. From collusion by companies to not compete with each other for labor with things like salary bands and no-poach agreements, to forced arbitration, the use of contractors, and the gig economy. If the human capital theory of wages were correct, it would be difficult to understand these tactics designed to limit worker mobility and power. If you understand that wages are determined by relative bargaining power, these tactics make perfect sense.
If I had a criticism of the book, it would be that he actually understates the effect of America's immigration policy on workers. Lind writes:
But while the effects of pro-employer immigration policies should not be exaggerated, it is intellectually dishonest to ignore the harm done by immigration arbitrage strategies to substantial numbers of American workers, from farmworkers and janitors to professionals in the tech sector.”
While no one should ever exaggerate, in the case of immigration it is not required. In addition to American farmworkers, janitors, and tech workers (all of whom are disadvantaged), Mr. Lind could have easily added: construction workers, retail service industry employees, manufacturing workers, landscaping workers, and cleaning services workers (among others) to his list.
The use of both legal and illegal immigrants as strikebreakers and replacement workers by employers continues in our time. Here is Natalie Kitroeff in the Los Angeles Times in 2017: 'Immigrants Flooded California Construction. Worker Pay Sank. Here's Why.' Another journalist, Sara Murray, wrote about the destruction of unions in the U.S. meatpacking industry for The Wall Street Journal in 2013: 'On the Killing Floor, Clues to the Impact of Immigration on Jobs.'"
One unfortunate omission in his discussion of the impacts of mass immigration on workers is the rising forced and child labor examples across the landscape. This might be because the book was recently published, which means the writing occurred before The New York Times exposed massive child labor of unaccompanied children and the recent indictments involving forced labor. It is no accident or coincidence that the Department of Labor's "Low Wage/High Violation" industry list includes many with high proportions of foreign workers. When workers are paid, they are still seeing wage theft rise. Employers focus recruitment on foreign workers because they are exploitable and our immigration policies are an enabler of theft and abuse. In other words, they recruit foreign workers because they have less bargaining power. The corrosive societal effects of this exploitation will ripple through the country for years to come.
Though the book may be a tad defensive discussing the negative impact of pro-employer immigration policies, at one point he calls it "perhaps the greatest taboo of the bipartisan neoliberal regime," Lind still sticks up for the workers and shatters myths:
When farmers, ranchers, home builders, and others complain that they can't find enough American workers, what they really mean is they cannot find enough Americans willing to work for the wage they prefer to pay. Unless wages are skyrocketing in a particular occupation or industry, the claim by employers in that sector that there is a labor shortage is obviously false."
In a slight slip up, he misidentifies agricultural workers as H-2Bs rather than H-2As, but he still calls for that program's abolishment along with H-1B tech visas. Lind argues that ending these oft-abused programs would push employers to raise wages or innovate their business models. Hell to Pay argues for an immigration policy envisioned by the great Barbara Jordan where the job prospects and wages of American workers are the priority. Given his stated priorities and skepticism of mass immigration, one would assume he is also skeptical of the illegal executive work programs like Optional Practical Training and the litany of categorical parole programs the Biden Administration has created from whole cloth.
Lind also calls for revamping the immigration system to a points-based merit system with strict numerical limits to ensure the companies cannot use the system to unnecessarily flood the labor market for their gain. The goal of his suggestions is to increase worker bargaining power relative to the employers. This does not mean workers do not need to acquire training and skills for the changing economy. It does, however, mean policy makers should not live in denial regarding how bargaining power for workers is determinative in wage rates.
Your mileage may vary on the proposed solutions offered by Hell to Pay, and we can always quibble about particular omissions or points of emphasis. Maybe you are skeptical of labor unions or think free trade is largely beneficial. While you may disagree on the proposed solutions, Lind makes a compelling argument demonstrating the devastating impact of an economic model that treats foreign and American workers as being as replaceable as piston rods. The book makes clear that the real problem is the relative weakness of worker power in the current economy. Workers may be in the weakest position relative to employers since before The New Deal. Serious supporters of workers will speak directly to this imbalance and propose solutions to rectify it. We need more voices expressing the costs of pro-employer policies in a world where the victims of mass immigration have their existence mostly denied or diminished. So three cheers for Michael Lind. May his book make it to the hands of a sleeping Congress.
JARED CULVER is a Legal Analyst for NumbersUSA
Updated: Thu, May 25th 2023 @ 2:04pm EDT