Hartmann says he wants to “put Lou Dobbs out to pasture.” But a close look at his new book belies his progressive call to arms
Radio host and author Thom Hartmann has a new book, Rebooting the American Dream. Hartmann has a progressive reputation, and his book supports unions, calls for eliminating tax cuts for the rich and advocates other sensible ideas. But like many liberals, when it comes to immigration his tune changes.
In one chapter, Hartmann says he wants to “Put Lou Dobbs Out to Pasture.” But Hartmann, like Dobbs, criticizes corporate power and then turns his fire on workers and immigrants. Instead of taking Lou Dobbs on, Hartmann repeats many of the stereotypes and falsehoods that gave Dobbs a reputation as one of the most anti-immigrant commentators in U.S. media. Hartmann, like Dobbs, claims to speak for the interests of working people. And his ideas do reflect the thinking of a certain section of the U.S. working class. That makes it important to understand the impact of his recommendations.
There has always been a conflict in U.S. labor about immigration. Conservatives historically sought to restrict unions and jobs to the native born, to whites and to men, and saw immigrants as job competitors — the enemy.
This was part of an overall perspective that saw unions as businesses or insurance programs, in which workers paid dues and got benefits in return. Labor’s radicals, however, from the IWW through the CIO to those in many unions today, see the labor movement as inclusive, with a responsibility to organize all workers, immigrant and native-born alike. They see unions as part of a broader movement for social change in general.
In 1986, the AFL-CIO supported the Immigration Reform and Control Act, because it contained employer sanctions. This provision said employers could only hire people with legal immigration status. In effect, the law made it a federal crime for an undocumented person to hold a job. Since passage of the law, immigration raids have led to firings and deportations of thousands of people in workplaces across the country. In many cases employers have used the law as a way to intimidate immigrant workers, and rid themselves of those trying to organize unions and protest bad wages and conditions.
Transnational corporations invest in developing countries like Mexico, moving production to wherever wages are lowest. Treaties like the North American Free Trade Agreement promote low wages, privatization, the dumping of agricultural products, and other conditions that increase corporate profits. But those measures also impoverish and displace people, forcing them to migrate to survive.
When those displaced people arrive in the United States, corporate employers use their hunger and vulnerability to enforce a system of low wages and fear. In this system, corporations are aided by U.S. immigration laws. While they’re always presented in the media as a means of controlling borders, and keeping people from crossing them, for the last hundred years they’ve been the means of regulating the supply, and consequently the price, of immigrant labor.
When the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 criminalized work for undocumented immigrants, it was a subsidy or gift to employers. When working becomes illegal, it’s much harder for workers to organize unions, go on strike, and fight for better conditions.
Immigration agents now check documents workers must fill out to get a job, and require employers to fire those whose documents are in question. In Washington state, they did this in the middle of a union drive among apple workers, and fired 700 people. That organizing effort was broken. Smithfield Foods cooperated in raids and firings at its huge Tarheel, North Carolina meatpacking plant. Workers only overcame the terror they caused when citizens and immigrants, African Americans and Mexicans, agreed to defend the jobs of all workers, and the right of everyone to join the union. When they won their union drive as a result in 2007, it was the largest private-sector union victory in years.
Immigrants are fighters. In 1992 the drywallers stopped construction for a year from Santa Barbara to the Mexican border. They’ve gone on strike at factories, office buildings, laundries, hotels and fields. Some unions today are growing, and they’re mostly the ones that know immigrant workers will fight to make things better. The battles fought by immigrants over the last twenty years changed the politics of cities like Los Angeles, and are helping to make unions strong today.
Because of experiences like these, in 1999 the previous AFL-CIO support for employer sanctions was overturned by grassroots immigrant rights coalitions and labor councils around the country. The federation’s new position called for repealing sanctions, for protecting the organizing rights of all workers, and for a new amnesty program to legalize workers already here.
Dividing workers won’t improve wages, standards
In the context of this progressive movement, Thom Hartmann’s proposals go backward.
Hartmann says, “So long as employers are willing and able (without severe penalties) to hire illegal workers, people will risk life and limb to grab at the America Dream. When we stop hiring and paying them, most will leave of their own volition over a few years, and the remaining few who are committed to the United States will obtain citizenship through normal channels.”
People are coming to the United States because of the poverty in their home countries. That poverty is in large part the product of NAFTA, CAFTA, corporate trade agreements, and market reforms to make those countries friendly to investors. No matter how many walls are built on the border, or laws passed to deny people their rights or ability to work, people will do what it take for their families to survive. That means people will migrate so long as the U.S. creates the conditions that force them to.
Making it illegal for people to work here in the U.S. simply makes people vulnerable, and makes organizing harder and riskier. Mississippi, for instance, passed a law making it a felony punishable by 5 years in state prison and a $10,000 fine for someone to work without papers. That law was proposed by supporters of the old White Citizens’ Councils.
Immigration to Mississippi didn’t stop after the law was passed. No one went home. But the state has some of the lowest wages and the fewest unions in the U.S. That law was fought by the legislature’s Black Caucus and by its progressive unions, who wanted workers, immigrants included, to have more rights, not fewer.
Hartmann is also factually wrong. It is not possible for undocumented workers to “obtain citizenship through normal channels,” as he asserts, without changing U.S. laws, which he opposes.
Hartmann appeals for the support of native-born workers, calling for “protecting the labor market” by driving immigrant workers out of it using employer sanctions and immigration raids. This will keep wages up, he claims. This was the rationale for the old position that progressive trade unionists changed in 1999. Hartmann’s argument historically was used, not just against immigrants, but against other people as well. It justified the color lines that kept Black workers and other workers of color and women out of many jobs and industries, and out of some unions too.
Hartmann criticizes corporations for attacking working people, but then ignores the fundamental role that workers themselves play in that conflict. The reason why wages and living standards in the U.S. go up is because of the organizing efforts of workers themselves. Uniting people together is the essential requirement for organizing. Hartmann’s drive against immigrants sets workers against each other instead, making it harder for workers to unite to organize and strike.
“Protecting the labor market” is a throwback to the era when unions limited themselves to representing a select few skilled workers, trying to keep their number low by limiting access to craft skills and job opportunities. In many cases, those limits were imposed by color lines and sex discrimination. That idea was defeated first by the organizing of industrial unions, which brought all workers together regardless of race, sex or immigration status, and then by the civil rights movement, which tore many of those barriers down.
Hartmann says he wants to “bring back the unions,” and supports the Employee Free Choice Act, which would make union organizing easier. But organizing rights need to be extended for all workers, and his anti-immigrant prescriptions would create a two-tier workforce in which some workers have those rights while others do not.
Then he attacks those unions who do help immigrant workers to organize and advocate for their rights: “It’s equally astonishing to hear unions going along with this [advocating for the rights of the undocumented] (in the desperate hope of picking up new members) and embracing illegal immigration.” Hartmann says he believes in high wages, but then attacks workers and unions when they fight for them.
His grasp on labor history is equally shaky. Hartmann says, “The history of the labor struggle in America has always been about securing wages and benefits that provide a decent living for workers and their families. And the best way to guarantee that is by making sure the labor market is not flooded. Working Americans have always known this simple equation: more workers, lower wages; fewer workers, higher wages.” He continues: “They limited labor-hours by supporting laws that would regulate immigration into the United States to a small enough flow that it wouldn’t dilute the unionized labor pool.”
Hartmann treats the long struggle to limit work hours as the same as efforts to stop immigration and deny rights to immigrants. That’s not true. The fight for the eight-hour day and basic protections for workers had nothing to do with fighting against immigration or immigrants.
In fact, the people who fought the hardest for shorter hours were the people who worked the longest ones — starting with the immigrants, women and African American workers in Chicago packinghouses and garment sweatshops. Some of the Haymarket martyrs, who gave their lives for the 8‑hour day in Chicago, were immigrants themselves. They never said that the way to get better conditions was to attack immigrants. They called on all workers to unite and organize together, and gave their lives for their beliefs.
Cesar Chavez and undocumented workers
In order to make his anti-immigrant prejudice seem one shared with Chicanos and Mexicans themselves, Hartmann repeats a common misconception about Cesar Chavez and the farm workers movement. He says, “Even as major a labor figure as César Chávez, the co-founder of the United Farm Workers (UFW) union, fought against illegal immigration, and the UFW turned in undocumented workers during his tenure as president. “
Chavez and the UFW organized all farm workers, people with visas and the undocumented, together. Many of the union’s most active members and leaders have been undocumented. The union fought to make sure that California’s Agricultural Labor Relations Act, that gave the state’s farm workers the right to organize, didn’t keep undocumented workers from exercising that right. The union fought against immigration raids, especially during strikes and organizing drives.
Chavez did call for turning in undocumented workers to the Border Patrol, for which he was criticized strongly by union members and other community and labor activists like Bert Corona. But he did this because growers and the Border Patrol colluded to bring in undocumented people as strikebreakers. Chavez was against strikebreaking, and believed that all workers have the right to organize. Undocumented workers have always made up most of the members of his union.
Hartmann says, “So a snapshot of the labor situation in March 2010 shows us that there were more than 32 million Americans who were unemployed or underemployed. At the same time, the number of illegal immigrants in the United States quadrupled from 3 million in 1980 to almost 12 million in 2008, 6 no doubt diluting our labor pool. A parallel trend not entirely unrelated-shows that the percentage of the private workforce in the United States that was unionized declined from roughly 25 percent in the early 1980s to around 7 percent in 2009.”
Undocumented workers don’t create unemployment. They didn’t shut down 12 GM plants after the company got the bailout. The company did, with the agreement of the government. Undocumented workers didn’t cut California’s state budget or refuse to raise taxes, resulting in the layoff of thousands of teachers and public workers. Immigrants are not responsible for this economic recession. The banks and the government that deregulated them are responsible, as the recent report on the roots of the recession clearly shows. The operation of this economic system in the interests of large corporations and the wealthy produces periodic recessions and high unemployment, and has done so for over 150 years, in periods both of high and low migration.
Blaming the undocumented for the decline of the labor movement is not only false, it’s ridiculous. After spending much of his book criticizing corporations for attacking unions, he blames workers themselves for the decline in union membership. In actual fact, immigrant workers, including the undocumented, have been the heart of many of the most important union organizing efforts for two decades: Justice for Janitors, Smithfield, Hotel Workers Rising, the great grape strike, the Southern California drywall strike, and many others. The energy and commitment of thousands of immigrants, united with that of people born here, is what is keeping unions alive and helping them to grow. Instead of supporting these efforts, Hartmann attacks the unions that fight for the rights of immigrant workers.
Hartmann equates guest worker programs with the legalization of undocumented people. Guest worker programs, described as “close to slavery” by the Southern Poverty Law Center, allow big employers and labor contractors to bring people to the U.S. on the condition that people have to work in order to stay. If they organize or protest illegal conditions, their employer can have them deported. Legalization means that people without papers who are already here get a residence permit, which gives them the ability to live a normal life. No employer can threaten to deport them because employers have nothing to do with their visas.
The difference between legalization and guest worker programs is the difference between having rights and not having rights. That’s why the AFL-CIO has opposed guest worker programs, while supporting the legalization of the undocumented.
Why deportation doesn’t boost wages
Finally, Hartmann says that if the undocumented are fired or deported, prices will rise because employers will have to pay higher wages. But then he cautions readers that we should be willing to accept those higher prices. This is an argument employers have always used to justify low wages — that higher wages will mean higher prices. It’s even used to justify sending production out of the country — cutting labor costs supposedly brings us cheap tennis shoes and I‑pods. But it has always been a false argument.
First, deporting people doesn’t produce higher wages. When workers get deported, employers simply find other workers desperate for jobs. The Chipotle fast food restaurants recently fired 600 people in Minnesota because they were undocumented. But the company didn’t raise wages to attract new workers, and the price of their burritos stayed the same.
Second, wages only represent a small fraction of the price of most consumer products. Less than 5% of the price of a box of strawberries or a dress winds up in the pocket of a farm worker or seamstress. Employers could double wages and absorb the increased cost, and still make handsome profits.
Why don’t they? Because worker have to force them to do this. If farm workers or sewing machine operators want higher wages they have to organize unions and fight for them. That requires including all the workers in a field or factory, not just a privileged few.
Any union organizer can explain these basic facts of working-class life, as can most progressive workers. The true test of whether Thom Hartmann is on their side isn’t just how much he criticizes big corporations. Lou Dobbs criticizes them too. The test is whether he stands for equality and the rights of all workers and their families.