The Endless Demand for Cheap Labor

By Wayne Lutton
Volume 7, Number 3 (Spring 1997)
Issue theme: "Restraining the American brain"

From Colonial times to the present day, there has been tension between the demands by special business and agricultural interests for cheap labor, and the desire by the vast majority of citizens for select and limited immigration. In his 1928 study, America - Nation or Confusion?, Edward Lewis related how big business, including big agriculture, called for practically unlimited immigration at the conclusion of World War I, despite the fact that the U.S. was in a post-war depression and there was a labor surplus. After President Coolidge signed the 1924 Immigration Act into law - which had the effect of capping legal immigration at 150,000 annually - business, ethnic, and religious lobbies immediately launched a campaign to relax the limits. This effort to flood America's labor pool continues.

We here reprint excerpts from Chapter Two of Lewis's remarkable book.

The Quota Laws

and the Demand for Labor

It has long been the assumption of the American people that immigration was a necessity for our industries, that our country would have stifled and decayed if it had not received a steady stream of immigration, and that now we will destroy our prosperity if the flow is cut off.

No more striking proof of this statement could be presented than the testimony before the Senate Committee on Immigration in January, 1921. The secretary of the Rural Land Owners' Association in Texas stated

This is all I desire to say, gentlemen, that the future welfare of that section of the state is absolutely dependent upon the use of Mexican labor. If our farmers are deprived of the privilege of bringing in this Mexican labor at times when they need it, the agricultural development of that section of the country will be absolutely done for.1

A business man from Miami, Florida, pleaded for negroes from the Bahamas to harvest Florida's crops. He said that Florida would be helpless without them. "They are law-abiding people. They do not sympathize with the unions. There are no radicals among them."2

The cigarmakers of Florida called for Cuban immigrants. Cuba, as is well known, is, like Mexico, a mixture of Spanish, negro and Indian. But we were told the country could not get along without the Cuban. He is essential to the hand-made cigar industry of the United States. Americans won't do the work.

It is a very difficult, hard occupation,-it is a sedentary occupation-it is very difficult for an American to accustom himself to such labor. The Cubans are of small physique and they like that kind of work because it does not require much exertion.3

Congressman Hudspeth of Texas also asked that the literacy test and the proposed Johnson bill be suspended as to Mexicans. He declared that the Mexicans were needed for the beet-sugar and the cotton crops and as shepherds.4

A representative of the Dallas Chamber of Commerce asserted that the only supply of labor in the Southwest was the Mexican.

Mr. W. B. Mandeville representing the American Beet Sugar Company, added his voice to the demand for Mexican labor. He said that if "we can not have access to this surplus labor, that we need from the Mexican border to take care of our crops, I don't see how in the world it is going to be possible to take care of the beet-sugar crops of the west. It is going to be practically an impossibility."5

The same story went up from all over the country. The construction industry said that it could not go on without immigration to furnish its unskilled labor. Brigadier-General Marshall, general manager of the Associated General Contractors of America declared

And any action that would lead to the lessening of immigration of the unskilled class of labor would seem to be directly against the interests of the country, thinking of the question not alone from the point of view of construction, but also from the point of view of agriculture.6

A representative of the wholesale sash and door association of Chicago testified that

We are quite largely dependent upon common labor, and have been affected by the shortage of labor during the past few years. The people of our country do not want to see the natural flow interrupted.7

The implications and the necessity of the demand I will consider in a moment. But such the demand was, widespread, emphatic, almost hysterical.

The committee partly heeded it. It refused to pass the Johnson bill which would have interdicted all immigration for one year. Instead, it passed the first quota law, the quota law of 1921, limiting the immigration in any one year to 3% of the foreign-born population here in 1910, and that from any one country to 3% of the persons here in 1910 born in that country.

Yet within six months after the employers had warned the committee of a shortage of labor in this country, there was hardly a section of the land where not only skilled but common labor was not a drug on the market. As soon, however, as conditions began to improve, the demand for freer immigration returned to the charge. In February, 1922, the National Association of Manufacturers published in its magazine, American Industries, a symposium of replies from forty-six leading business men of the country. The overwhelming vote was opposed to the quota law.

In January, 1923, the National Canners' Association declared that "the shortage of adequate labor is a serious and growing problem in the production and conservation of perishable food products" and urged that the quota law be modified to admit "a larger number of intelligent and desirable residents of other countries who are skilled in agricultural pursuits."8

The President of the National Manufacturers' Association in pre-senting resolutions of the Association in favor of freer immigration declared

Unless rough labor is to be had in the basic industries, many skilled workers cannot be utilized. Already many departments in typical industrial establishments are not operating because it is impossible to secure the common labor to perform necessary preliminary operations. The present condition, if unrelieved, will prevent necessary railroad expansion, extension and repairs, and further threaten the efficiency of our already impaired transportation service.9

Mr. Thomas W. Lamont, in a speech at Chicago in 1923, declared "that the protection of labor by restrictive legislation has been overdone and has resulted in higher costs to the consumer by making labor scarce and wages higher."10

In 1922, the Associated Industries of Massa-chusetts called for a change in our immigration policy on the ground that "a growing shortage of labor was interfering with necessary production."

Mr. Elbert H. Gary, Chairman of the Board of the United States Steel Corporation, declared to his stockholders at their annual meeting in 1923

You are aware of the fact that in recent years, Congress has passed a law which restricts immigration. In my judgement the law as passed was one of the worst things this country has ever done for itself economically.11

The New York Journal of Commerce argued, "A certain class of worker is necessary to the progress of our industries and the present immigration law has practically eliminated this class."12 The New York Herald said, "If the number of manual workers allowed to come into the United States is not increased, the country cannot go on with the digging, the road-making, the railroad construction, the building, the farming, and all the other foundational work that must underlie the whole national structure of production and business."13

The New York Times of January 3, 1923, editorially quoted the New York Board of Trade as declaring for selective immigration without regard for quota. It said that the report "hits the nail on the head when it says that ‘without unskilled labor the heart-beat of our country's activities will stop.'"

" seems there is always a shortage. No matter when restriction of immigration is proposed - in 1907, in1913 when the literacy test was being pressed, in 1921 when the great depression had already started - always there is a dearth of labor." In its issue of May 17, 1924, the Literary Digest presented a symposium of views on the proposed Johnson Quota Act, since enacted, from the foreign language press. Let one quotation suffice. The others, a great number, were all similar in tone and content.

The Daily Svornost, a Chicago Bohemian journal, argued

Of what value it (the immigrant element) is to our country could best be visualized by picturing what disaster would befall all the metropolitan cities and all the large manufacturing establishments, the public utility and transportation companies, if the various national groups, including only foreign-born inhabitants and the first generation should leave this country. Practically all industry and commerce would stop and all the large cities would practically be wiped out, for there are very few Americans whose grandparents or remote ancestors came to this country, who are employed at manual labor.

Mr. William H. Barr, president of the Inter-Racial Council, said on March 22, 1923

To what extent would this country have progressed, if during the last twenty years the admission of the foreign born had been prohibited? Who would man the mines, the iron and steel mills, and the foundries, the machine shops, the silk mills and knit good shops, the glass factories, lumber mills and other industries? Our native born workers are largely skilled workmen - as they should be - and we cannot look to them to provide the industries with the primary grades of work. We must look to the foreign born to provide the unskilled labor. If this class of labor is not forthcoming, how can the wheels of industry turn around?14

The above quotations give a fair and rather complete exposition of the opposition to the quota law which is based on the need for labor. This demand for cheap labor has been in the past all-conclusive. No matter what fears we might have from our pouring immigration, we quieted them when we were told the country would go to ruin without ever new levies of raw labor. At last we began to question this scare cry. Indeed, it was time that it was subjected to severe scrutiny.

Always a Shortage

The outstanding fact, however, is that it seems that there is always a shortage. No matter when restriction of immigration is proposed - in 1907, in 1913 when the literacy test was being pressed, in 1920 just before the great depression, in 1921 when the great depression had already started - always there is a dearth of labor.

On December 7, 1920, William H. Barr, President of the Inter-Racial Council, issued a statement "in which he argued against restriction of immigration, maintaining that there was no surplus of unskilled laborers in industry generally" and "that such unskilled workers as did arrive were not in competition with the more skilled American worker...."15 This would seem to indicate that no Americans were unskilled workers and that competition of immigration in the field of unskilled labor was of no moment.

P. A. S. Franklin of the International Mercantile Marine Corporation declared on December 11, 1920, on returning from Europe, that any drastic restriction of immigration would be folly. "There is a shortage of labor in this country and we need every hand we can get," he said.

Yet the terrible depression of 1920-1921 was already on the country. Its first effects had been realized by December, 1920. By January, 1921, when the hearings began before the Senate Committee, the force of the blow was widely and keenly felt.

"The terrible depression

of 1920-1921 was already

on the country....

At the very time these witnesses were declaring that there was

a shortage of unskilled labor,

there were 2,500,000

men and women out of work." The witnesses then admitted that many men were out of work, but they said, like Mr. Barr, that it was skilled labor that was idle. They asserted that there was still a shortage of unskilled labor and of course it was unskilled labor that they wanted.

At the very time these witnesses were declaring that there was a shortage of unskilled labor, there were 2,500,000 men and women out of work. Mr. W.I. King in his book, Business Cycles, published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, estimates that in the first three months of 1921 there were 2,404,000 fewer persons employed than in the first three months of 1920. The number employed in factories was almost two millions less in the first quarter of 1921 than it had been in the first quarter of 1920.16 "In Jan., 1921," says the Encyclopaedia Britannica, "an unemployment survey made by the U.S. Employment Service for 35 states and the District of Columbia showed 9,400,000 employed in Jan. 1920 and 6,070,648 employed Jan. 1921, and estimated 3,473,446 as unemployed in the country as a whole. The greatest reduction in employment during this period was that of 82% in Michigan, 50% in Ohio and Indiana, 44% in Illinois, 43% in Connecticut, 38% in Massachusetts, 28% in New York, 32% in Wisconsin, 22% in New Jersey. In establishments studied by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the greatest decreases between Feb., 1920, and Feb., 1921 were 44.2% in hosiery and underwear, and 4I% in automobile manufactures; the smallest decreases were 2% in bituminous coal mining and .1% in cotton manufacturing."17

The statistics do not show what portion of those unemployed was skilled and what portion was unskilled labor, but it is manifest that such enormous numbers of unemployment were cross-sections of society, and not from any one group. Factory labor was probably the worst hit of all, and when factories close the skilled are certainly not the only ones to suffer.

The total inaccuracy of these claims of a labor shortage made in December, 1920, and January, 1921, throws a flood of light on the whole demands for labor on the part of industry. They were crying out that there was a shortage of labor when the depression was actually on us. So insensitive were they to actual conditions that one wonders if their belief in a labor shortage is not to a great extent a complex. I believe that it is largely a complex. I believe, in short, that many of them would never agree, short of the actual overcrowding of this country, that there could be too many immigrants. For, what these men mean is that there should never be a labor shortage. The flow must never be checked in prosperous times.

An Endless Demand

for Cheap Labor

The policy is vicious, secondly, because, after all, it is a policy based on a demand for cheap labor. The employers who speak of the necessity of meeting a shortage of labor, mean too often the necessity of supplying a labor demand at their own price. It is easy to impugn motives and to fall into the facile denunciations of radicals. But after reading page after page of testimony and appeals by employers, one is forced to conclude that the first concern of many seems to be the satisfaction of the present want for labor, and cheap labor, with little regard for the morrow.

The Southwest wants the Mexican, the Southeast the Cuban and the Bahaman negro, and there are still those who want the Japanese. A vice-president of a large manufacturing company inveighed passion-ately against the shortage of labor and the resultant high wages, and declared that we should let down the bars both for the Chinese and for the Japanese. Mr. Francis C. Harley, Secretary of the National Immigration Council, testified before the Senate Committee in 1921

Because of the conditions that existed in the West, the big undertakings that were going on, for example, the development of our water power, the reclaiming of hundreds of millions of acres of land, in the West, we needed a great many laborers.... Our committee planned to bring in Chinese labor, for our work and our plans were going along well when the Armistice came along.18

Then it was thought that the returned soldier would fill the gap and the plan was abandoned.

"The immigrant is the lowest in the scale [of wages], but soon demands the native rate, and when he does the employer calls for new immigrants at the low rate. Indeed, many of the employers appearing before the Committee who called for alien labor admitted that they had had a labor supply but had lost it,

and accordingly promptly demanded that the loss be made up

from alien sources." The sober fact remains that [various ethnic immigrants] all have a lower wage scale than our native common labor. In short, it is not so much that labor cannot be found as that it cannot be found at the wage scale which it was willing to accept when it entered the country. The immigrant is the lowest in the scale, but soon demands the native rate, and when he does the employer calls for new immigrants at the low rate.

Indeed, many of the employers appearing before the Committee who called for alien labor admitted that they had had a labor supply but had lost it, and accordingly promptly demanded that the loss be made up from alien sources. The suspicion is strong that they were outbid by other markets, and consequently, bred in the old false philosophy, turned naturally to Europe for a new, cheap supply. A successful employer of negro labor in the lumber mills of the South was more sympathetic with the negro laborer. He flatly told me that the southern plantations had lost their labor supply because they did not treat it well enough or pay it well enough and that the plantations would never get the supply back. These employers become then the first to demand that a new supply of foreign labor be brought in to replace the labor they let drift away from them.

Here, then, is the first indication that the cry for immigrant labor is endless. As long as a supply is available to take the place of native labor that demands more pay, so long will there be a cry for more immigrant labor. If the only test is whether employers are asking for more labor, the test will never fail. Save in times of great depression, they will always want more labor below the native scale. But the nature of the demands indicates more than that. It indicates that the demand will continue so long as the country is not filled up with settlers. Only when the saturation point is reached will the cry for more immigration cease. Mr. Millholland, a former inspector of immigration at New York, declared in an article in the Forum, printed in the proceedings of the Committee

From East to West, the cry of every farmer, every contractor, and employer is for labor - labor to sow and to reap and to gather into barns; labor for the public works, the shops, and for a thousand other forms of our activity. This labor must be found somewhere.

And he added that there was no limit now discernible to the population we could absorb. Two hundred and fifty million immigrants could settle in the South without the South "feeling the strain of excessive population. Washington, Oregon, Califor-nia, Idaho, Utah, Montana, and Wyoming could accommodate them all [all of India's entire 300,000,000 people] with as much land as they had at home and each state still be in a position to yell, ‘Come West, young man, come West.'"19 He said that there would be no end to the process until the country was filled up, and that we would "enter the danger zone according to Macauley's famous prediction, only when we have a population of 20,000 to the square mile"- that is 160,000,000 people. A billion people is the lowest limit most friends of free immigration will admit.

Will Americans Do Common Labor?

But the clearest proof that there is no end to this demand short of the complete filling up of the country is the constant cry that the American-born will not do common labor, and therefore a constant new supply must be added.

The easiest answer to the catch-word that Americans won't do common labor is that it is not true. If there were no foreign labor at all, there is no question but that native labor would still be doing all our work.

Wayne Stayskal, © 1997, Tribune Media Services.

Reprinted by permission. When we are told that the foreign-born have built our railroads and subways and bridges, we have a right to answer that the assertion appears to be of a piece with most of the arguments in defense of the immigrant, an exaltation of the immigrant at the expense of the native born. It is time to say that the native born did their share likewise - a greater share than that of the immigrant. It is time to ask where we would have been without the native born.

Likewise, to the frequent question of the free immigrationists to which they believe there is no answer, "Who would have done our common labor, who would have built our railroads, and operated our mines if it had not been for the immigrants?" the answer is simply the native born would have done it as they did before the immigrant came and as they are doing now when not pushed aside by the immigrant. TSC


1 Senate Hearings, Committee on Immigration, 1921, p.123.

2 Ibid., p.41.

3 Ibid., p.50.

4 Ibid., p.62.

5 Ibid., p.119.

6 Ibid., p.259.

7 Ibid., p.266.

8 New York Times, January 26, 1923.

9 Circular dated December 28, 1922.

10 Chicago Tribune, September 22, 1923.

11 New York Times, April 24, 1923.

12 Quoted Literary Digest, November 18, 1922.

13 Ibid.

14 New York Times, March 23, 1922.

15 New York Times, December 8, 1920.

16 W.I. King, Business Cycles, p.30.

17 Encyclopedia Britannica, 12th Ed., Vol. 32, p.839.

18 Senate Hearings, Committee on Immigration, 1921, p.382.

19 Ibid., p.673.