Remembering When Democrats Turned Their Backs on American Workers

By Jerry Kammer, August 2, 2016

"Democrats are the party of working people. But we haven't done a good enough job showing that we get what you're going through, and that we're going to do something about it."
– Hillary Clinton, accepting the Democratic Party's nomination for president, July 28

Hillary Clinton's claim that Democrats are "the party of working people" brings to mind the Senate hearing where Ted Kennedy made it clear that on immigration policy they had walked away from that historic trust. I was a reporter at that hearing, and I remember it well.

It was 2006 and Kennedy was urging colleagues on the Judiciary Committee to support comprehensive reform that would not only provide legal status to millions of illegal immigrants but also bring in hundreds of thousands of additional foreign workers annually who would also be given a path to citizenship.

Kennedy and other Democrats were willing to flood low-wage labor markets because that was the price of support from business lobbyists who were expected to attract Republican support. Those lobbyists included representatives of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, National Association of Manufacturers, the National Restaurant Association, and the American Hotel and Lodging Association.

Kennedy made common cause with the employers whom he normally opposed on such issues as the minimum wage, health care benefits, and the rights of unions to organize workers. But at that 2006 hearing on immigration reform, the liberal lion planted his tongue in his cheek and declared that he had become "the spokesman for the Chamber of Commerce."

The irony of the hearing doubled when Sen. Jon Kyl, a rock-ribbed conservative and former chairman of the Phoenix Chamber of Commerce, demanded that attention be paid to how the bill would hurt American workers. Kyl predicted that if Kennedy got his way, the next economic downturn would summon the wrath of constituents competing for work with the millions of new guest workers. He noted that the bill would allow the new workers to settle permanently in the United States.

The hearing showed a remarkable political realignment on immigration policy. Kennedy had allied himself with business interests, a standard conservative move, in order to advance his culturally liberal agenda. Kyl had turned away from his usual support for business in response to the cultural conservatism of his constituents in Arizona, which was experiencing a rapid growth of its population of unauthorized immigrants.

When the reform bill came up for a Senate vote in 2007, Hillary Clinton sided with Ted Kennedy. Her position contrasted dramatically with that of a future rival, independent Senator Bernie Sanders.

Sanders condemned the legislation as a sellout of working people. "With poverty increasing and the middle class shrinking, we must not force American workers into even more economic distress," he said. He added this to the stormy debate, which ended in the bill's defeat, largely due to Republican opposition:

At a time when millions of Americans are working longer hours for low wages and have seen real cuts in their wages and benefits, this legislation would, over a period of years, bring millions of low-wage workers from other countries into the United States. If wages are already this low in Vermont and throughout the country, what happens when more and more people are forced to compete for these jobs? . . . This immigration bill is legislation that will lower wages and is designed to increase corporate profits.

For many years, Democrats and their labor union allies led the push for restrictive immigration policies that would protect American workers' wages and working conditions. We'll take a look at that in our next blog post.