Organized labor has become a leading proponent of President Barack Obama’s immigration agenda, a departure from more than a century of hostility to foreign-born workers.
Some of the nation’s most influential labor leaders have heaped praise on comprehensive immigration plans that will help grant citizenship to many of the nation’s 11 million illegal immigrants.
The AFL-CIO, one of the nation’s largest labor unions, kicked off a 14-city rally backing the president’s plan on Wednesday.
"This is a top priority for America’s unions because a roadmap to citizenship for those who are American in every way except on paper is critical for all working people" AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said in a statement. "We understand that solidarity means standing together with predominantly immigrant workforces to improve wages and workplace safety."
Some labor and immigration experts say Big Labor’s enthusiasm for legalization efforts stems from solidifying political support for the Democratic Party, as well as declining union membership.
"Organized labor is a wing of the Democratic Party now, even tighter than it was in the past, and Democrats are heavily invested in open immigration," said Vincent Cannato, professor at University of Massachusetts Boston. "Organized labor is hoping that this creates a strong Democratic Party, which will play into their own interests."
The vast majority of illegal immigrants who would be amnestied are Hispanic; Obama won between 70 and 75 percent of Hispanic voters according to 2012 exit polls. That voting bloc is even more reliably Democratic than unions; AFL-CIO exit polls showed that 65 percent of union members cast ballots for the president’s reelection.
Peter List, a former union member turned anti-labor activist, said that if Democrats retain that level of support from illegal immigrants, it could secure even more union influence on labor policy. Hoped-for future initiatives include controversial proposals such as doing away with secret ballots in union elections.
"The unions are doing it to shore up their political base," he said. "They’re trying to make conservatives a permanent minority because they need to get these labor reforms through."
Illegal immigrants could also help reverse sagging union rates. If the nation’s resident aliens unionize at the same rate as citizens—11.3 percent—labor groups stand to add more than 1.2 million people to its membership rolls. The gains could be even higher because of the trades that employ illegal immigrants, according to Cannato.
"Unions see their future growth in organizing service industries—Wal-Mart, janitors, restaurants—jobs that are largely held by immigrants," he said.
The blue collar manufacturing jobs that have traditionally served as organized labor’s base has disappeared over the last 30 years thanks to technological innovation and outsourcing.
The Heritage Foundation found that nearly 80 percent of union manufacturing jobs vanished between 1975 and 2010, while nonunion manufacturing held steady at 11.8 million workers. Organizing service workers recognizes the realities of a globalized economy, according to List.
"[Unions] recognize that structural changes to the economy have made blue collar union manufacturing jobs go away, so they’ve had to adapt," List said. "Service sector jobs can’t be outsourced, that’s the unions’ target group and it’s made up mostly of immigrants."
Fewer than 10 percent of Hispanics belonged to unions in 2012. That accounts for the second lowest unionization rate among ethnic groups, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Legalization would take down a major barrier to Hispanic entry into unions, according to Peter Skerry, professor at Boston College.
"Elements of labor union movement, especially service workers, have been championing illegal immigrants and organizing them," Skerry said. "But it’s not a very feasible task when illegal immigrants are very unstable, very transient, and not planning on sticking around let alone bothering to join a union."
"There are a lot of barriers to joining, but I think this will make it easier."
For more than a century labor leaders have been among the most ardent supporters of restrictions on both legal and illegal immigrants "because they were supportive of the idea that immigration was bad for unskilled workers," said Cannato.
Members are holding the line on opposition while union bosses like Trumka may have allied themselves to the president’s agenda. The majority of union members oppose amnesty for illegal immigrants, according to a January survey from Rasmussen Reports.
"[The bosses are] not representing 100 percent of their members on this, but it is tactical," Cannato said. "They're trying to organize service workers, not miners or steel workers. This is their way of reaching out."