Search for:

Why are Unions Supporting Big Business Immigration Policy?

author Published by Jared Culver

There are very few issues where labor unions are on the same side of the Chamber of Commerce. That is just common sense given the interests of labor rarely, if ever, coincide with the interests of employers. However, since 2000, labor unions have abandoned their historical skepticism of mass immigration and gradually learned to love bloated labor markets. It is one of the most significant policy shifts in this century and it has been devastating for workers across the country. Unions began to think of foreign workers as potential members to bolster their shrinking ranks rather than cheaper substitutes for employers. Of course, if that were true, then why would union busting companies still support a policy that expands unions? 

The Wall Street Journal  reported a story with the headline “Unions Flex Power When Workers Are in Short Supply.” The lead of the story states unions are winning fights for higher wages and better benefits due to labor shortages in industries. From the WSJ:

“Pilots at American Airlines last month ratified a contract boosting wages by more than 40% over its four-year term. West Coast dockworkers secured a 32% raise through 2028 this summer. United Parcel Service workers affiliated with the International Brotherhood of Teamsters struck a deal that will increase top hourly pay by 18% over the five years. The agreement will push the average full-time driver to $170,000 annually in pay and benefits, the UPS chief executive said.”

That is some significant worker gains, and the United Auto Workers are fighting the Big 3 American automakers for similar increases. In this context, it makes total sense that the Chamber of Commerce and all employers are in lockstep demanding amnesty for tens of millions of foreign workers already in the United States and the simultaneous exponential expansion of foreign workers allowed in the country. Less clear is why labor unions are supporting an immigration policy that drastically undercuts their bargaining power. 

There have been studies that suggest increasing immigration undercuts unionization. This phenomenon is not unique to the United States. Studies in Europe have found the same thing:

“Austria experienced a strong increase in immigration and a substantial decline in union density over the last decades. The share of foreigners rose from less than 2% at the beginning of the 1970s to roughly 11% in 2012 (Statistics Austria 2016). At the same time, the share of employees who are members of a trade union declined from around 60% in 1960 to barely 27% in 2016 (OECD 2019). This decrease is unparalleled in developed countries and the de-unionization in Austria surpasses by far the extent of de-unionization seen in, e.g., the United Kingdom, the United States or Germany.”

So the evidence seems to clearly point to expansion of immigration leading to negative impact on labor unions. Union membership declined to an all-time low in 2022 in the United States. To be sure, other factors have played a role in labor union decline. Right to Work laws have hampered union organizing. Hostility from employers, including Starbucks and Amazon, have also tried to stymie union efforts. But there is still no doubt that increasing immigration has had a negative impact on labor unions and workers in general. 

This all leads to the mystery of how labor unions are supporting policies that lead to their own demise. Do labor unions believe every single employer’s consistent support for expanding immigration is a product of their benevolent nature? If employers believed that expanding immigration would expand union membership, they would oppose it. Employers could be mistaken, but the evidence at home and abroad does not suggest they are. 

One explanation may be that union leadership is part of a political coalition in the Democratic Party that has become invested in globalization and open borders. To be a part of that coalition, they have to support the larger goals of the political party, even when those goals are counter to union interests. Hostility of the Republican Party to unions leaves the labor movement with little choice, but to take what they can get from their current allies. 

While it is hard to believe today, there was a time Democrats were far more skeptical about open borders and mass immigration. Darling of the left, Senator Bernie Sanders, once said of open borders:

“It would make everybody in America poorer —you’re doing away with the concept of a nation state, and I don’t think there’s any country in the world that believes in that. If you believe in a nation state or in a country called the United States or UK or Denmark or any other country, you have an obligation in my view to do everything we can to help poor people. What right-wing people in this country would love is an open-border policy. Bring in all kinds of people, work for $2 or $3 an hour, that would be great for them. I don’t believe in that. I think we have to raise wages in this country, I think we have to do everything we can to create millions of jobs.”

You know what youth unemployment is in the United States of America today? If you’re a white high school graduate, it’s 33 percent, Hispanic 36 percent, African American 51 percent. You think we should open the borders and bring in a lot of low-wage workers, or do you think maybe we should try to get jobs for those kids?

I think from a moral responsibility we’ve got to work with the rest of the industrialized world to address the problems of international poverty, but you don’t do that by making people in this country even poorer.”

Then-Senator Biden said:

“Now, I know I’m not supposed to say it that bluntly, but they’re the facts, they’re the facts. And so everything else we do is in between here. Everything else we do is at the margins. And the reason why I add that parenthetically, why I believe the fence is needed does not have anything to do with immigration as much as drugs. And let me tell you something folks, people are driving across that border with tons, tons, hear me, tons of everything from byproducts for methamphetamine to cocaine to heroin and it’s all coming up through corrupt Mexico.”

So there was a time when, prodded by labor unions, Democrats were skeptical of open borders and mass immigration due to their negative effects on America. Now that unions are supportive of mass immigration, American workers have lost the former party of the working class. The hope for bipartisan support for immigration policies that protect American workers is gone because the largest political advocate for those workers has taken the side of Big Business. 

Today, it really is true that American workers are seemingly a constituency without a party dedicated to protecting and furthering their interests. The push for increasing immigration is one of the few areas of bipartisan consensus. The fact that it reduces job opportunities for American workers and lowers their wages is rarely discussed. Part of this reality can be explained by the absence of union voices in support of American workers. The political reality is stark, but the silencing of labor’s traditional skepticism of mass immigration has left workers without a defender against the current political consensus. 

The biggest impact of union shifts on immigration can be seen in Congress where Democrats are obstinately opposed to any discussion of reduction of immigration. In 2007, President George W. Bush attempted an amnesty bill that saw some union opposition lead Democrats like then-Senator Barack Obama help take the bill down. By 2013, the Senate’s Gang of Eight immigration bill had uniform union and Democratic support. Now, any attempts to legislatively tighten immigration enforcement are adamantly opposed by the entire Democratic Party. The loss of labor’s voice for immigration sanity has made immigration enforcement persona non grata in the Democratic Party. Any hope for Congress passing laws to increase immigration enforcement and reduce the numbers depends on labor unions waking up to the reality. 

Take Action

Your voice counts! Let your Member of Congress know where you stand on immigration issues through the Action Board. Not a NumbersUSA member? Sign up here to get started.

Action Board

Donate Today!

NumbersUSA is a non-profit, non-partisan organization that relies on your donations to works toward sensible immigration policies. NumbersUSA Education & Research Foundation is recognized by America's Best Charities as one of the top 3% of well-run charities.


Immigration Grade Cards

NumbersUSA provides the only comprehensive immigration grade cards. See how your member of Congress’ rates and find grades going back to the 104th Congress (1995-97).

Read More