L.A. Workers Join Fierce Debate Over Immigration

Times Staff Writer

Drexell Johnson and his Young Black Contractors of South Central Inc. are hungry for work -- and when polite requests for an opportunity are rebuffed, they’re not afraid to raise a ruckus.

After Johnson was cut out of a contract when Staples Center was being built, he drove to the construction site, spinning 360-degree rolls and kicking up doughnuts of dust until, he said, a bulldozer nearly ran him down. In Torrance, his group staged a mock hanging in front of an automaker’s office. And earlier this month, they hauled a makeshift “slave ship” to an Inglewood mall development to symbolize economic injustice.

The tactics may seem outrageous, but they underscore the rage and frustration that Johnson and his cohorts feel about losing out to other workers in the region’s construction boom. Their anger is fueled by a 14% unemployment rate among African Americans in Los Angeles, twice as high as among whites.

So the news that President Bush and some members of Congress are pushing to bring more blue-collar guest workers into the country -- perhaps 400,000 annually -- leaves the contractors indignant.


“Hell, no, don’t bring no one in from nowhere,” said Johnson, a 47-year-old Mississippi native who founded his consortium of 35 minority contractors a decade ago. “Train the people here. Give the people here the same opportunity you’re willing to give someone out of this country.”

The guest-worker proposals have reignited fierce debate -- and sharply divided the Republican Party -- over some of the most controversial aspects of national immigration policy. Do immigrants take jobs from Americans? Or are they needed to fill jobs Americans won’t do? Do they lower the wages of America’s least-educated workers? Or do they benefit most Americans by providing cheap labor for a wide range of jobs, from nannies to construction workers?

Such questions are particularly critical in California, where immigrants make up one-third of the state’s labor force, the highest percentage in the nation.

Unlike legislation recently passed in the House, the Senate’s comprehensive immigration bill, scheduled for debate next month, is expected to contain bipartisan provisions for guest workers and a path to legalization for undocumented immigrants.

The proposal to allow hundreds of thousands of guest workers into the country each year to fill jobs if qualified Americans can’t be found for them is sponsored by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Edward Kennedy (D-Mass). It is considered the most likely of several proposals to be included in the Senate’s bill; Bush also advocates a temporary-worker program but has provided few details about how it would work.

Backers of the McCain-Kennedy approach include a rare alliance of business and labor leaders who say there is a need for more immigrants to fill jobs in such blue-collar fields as landscaping, construction, healthcare and food service. As baby boomers retire, advocates say, the need for new immigrant labor will grow.

Supporters also argue that so many migrants come here illegally -- 700,000 annually, according to estimates by the Pew Hispanic Center -- that the most realistic option is to provide legal ways for some of them to work.

“It is a common-sense solution to bring an underground economy above ground, with strong labor protections to improve working conditions for all,” Kennedy said in a statement.


But the proposal has proved highly divisive, splintering alliances and creating new ones. Republicans are split between those who support business demands for more workers and those who want to restrict immigration. Democrats also are torn, some by issues stemming from ethnicity and class.

“The Democratic Party cannot afford to ignore the tension and anger among blue-collar African Americans and whites here, because they feel [immigrants] are taking their jobs,” said Kerman Maddox, a Los Angeles public relations executive who has worked on several Democratic campaigns. “Everyone wants the emerging Latino vote, but at what expense?”

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) opposes a large-scale guest-worker program outside agriculture, fearing it will increase illegal immigration. Sen. Barbara Boxer, also a California Democrat, has voiced similar fears, opposing Bush’s proposal. But their constituents are strongly divided, as was demonstrated last week when activists held dueling rallies at Feinstein’s Los Angeles office.

A coalition of churches, labor unions and immigrant advocacy groups staged a noisy rally, featuring Korean drums and a Mexican trumpeter, urging legalization for undocumented immigrants and more visas for workers and relatives of Americans. Later that evening, immigration-control advocates held a vigil urging Feinstein to oppose any new guest-worker program.


Latinos themselves are split on the issue. A Pew Hispanic Center poll last August found that 34% of American-born Latinos surveyed believed that illegal immigrants hurt the economy by driving down wages, compared with 55% who viewed them as an economic benefit by providing cheap labor. The survey found that 32% opposed a temporary-worker program, while 59% favored one.

Major unions back the proposal as a way to bring exploited workers out of the shadows to press for labor rights -- and union membership. Some union members, however, fret that business owners are using immigrants to drive down wages.

Richard Salinas, for instance, is a Los Angeles roofer with Local 36 of the United Union of Roofers, Waterproofers and Allied Workers. A second-generation Mexican American, Salinas says many contractors are hiring nonunion laborers -- many of them undocumented immigrants -- for less than half the $30-an-hour union rate, no benefits and no scheduled wage increases. The idea of more guest workers worries him, he says.

“If they’re just trying to get foreign cheap labor, I’m against that,” Salinas says. “These [immigrants] are very hard-working people, but my concern is the wages and contractors turning to them instead of union shops.”


Salinas’ concerns are borne out by some research. Harvard University professor George J. Borjas, the nation’s leading labor economist on immigration, has found that the immigrant influx between 1980 and 2000 lowered wages of American high school dropouts by 7.4%, for an annual loss of $1,800 on an income of $25,000. The effect was worse for native-born Latinos and blacks, he said. Overall, he found that all U.S. workers suffered a 3.7% wage decline.

“You can’t have a huge increase in the labor supply without having an impact on the wage structure,” said Cuban-born Borjas, adding that the data had turned around his original, more positive view of immigration.

“If one cares about the well-being of the less advantaged, having a guest-worker program to import hundreds of thousands of workers is a huge mistake,” he said.

Giovanni Peri, an economist with UC Davis, says he believes that immigration doesn’t help less-educated American workers -- he found their wages dropped by 2% -- but that it does benefit most of Americans by making goods and services cheaper.


Some unions argue that the solution to falling wages isn’t to keep out immigrants but to organize them.

One oft-cited example is the janitorial field. The Service Employees International Union, which represents 1.8 million service workers in the United States, Canada and Puerto Rico, has been highly successful in reorganizing janitors around the nation.

In Los Angeles, for instance, most janitors were unionized African Americans making middle-class wages until the mid-1980s, according to Mike Garcia, president of the SEIU’s Local 1877, which covers California. But building owners and labor contractors broke the unions, replaced black janitors with largely undocumented workers from Mexico and Central America and drove wages down to the bare minimum with no benefits, he said.

In 1987, the union launched a “Justice for Janitors” campaign to reorganize the workers. After nearly two decades of aggressive tactics, the union represents 85% of Los Angeles janitors, compared with 20% when the campaign began, Garcia says. Union jobs pay $11 an hour with fully paid benefits, compared with $8 an hour before the union’s strike in 2000, he says.


“Once you reorganize, wages rise for everybody: the documented and undocumented, native-born and immigrant,” said Eliseo Medina, SEIU executive vice president.

Garcia said now that the union has negotiated higher wages, its largely Latino members are planning to seek contractual language guaranteeing African Americans at least 12% of janitorial jobs, reflecting their presence in the population, Garcia said. The hotel workers union last year negotiated similar guarantees for black workers.

Still, Garcia remains uneasy about the guest-worker program. “Employers are pushing for guest workers because they want to legalize low wages and no benefits,” he said. “If employers pay decent wages, and if the country allows free and open unionization

Business groups, however, don’t see it that way. Three dozen trade associations have formed the Essential Worker Immigration Coalition, based in Washington, D.C., to press for more guest workers. In testimony before Congress, industry leaders say good-paying jobs, including those in welding, roofing, nursing and construction, are going wanting.


A legal guest-worker program would “level the playing field,” said Laura Reiff, coalition co-chairwoman. “It’s hard now for our members to compete against the bad actors.”

On a recent morning at the state Employment Development Department on Crenshaw Boulevard, the mostly African American job seekers anxiously surfed the Internet, made phone calls and collected fliers touting job-training opportunities.

Damon Metters, 42, lost his full-time hours cleaning a bowling alley and quit a security firm after, he said, it failed to pay him. Anthony Brooks, 22, hasn’t been able to find work since his seasonal job at Old Navy ended in December.

Both men have high school educations and want full-time jobs that pay at least $10 an hour, perhaps as janitors, warehouse workers, supermarket staff. Many employers are offering only part-time hours without benefits, and that, they said, doesn’t cover monthly bills. Metters said he doesn’t know how to search for jobs and apply for them online.


Metters is surviving on a monthly $132 welfare check, food stamps and the good graces of his father, who has offered him lodging. Brooks is living in a homeless shelter.

News of the guest-worker plan brings strong reactions from both men.

“No!” Brooks said. “Why don’t they let us have the jobs?”