[Publisher's Note] The Wall War | Harper's Magazine

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“I can see nothing but a missed opportunity to inform the broader public about economic realities in our increasingly stratified country.”

A version of this column originally ran in Le Devoir on February 4, 2019. Translated from the French by John Cullen.

In days past, when the American political spectrum included a genuine left, even people with little education understood the effect of a surplus in the labor market. You didn’t need to be an expert in Marxism or political economy to know that too many people applying for the same jobs meant that salaries would go down. You would also have learned in school that labor unions were formed in the nineteenth century partly in order to counteract the exploitation of workers until then sustained by mass immigration (particularly from Ireland and China). Older students may have studied the history of the industrial strikes in the Northern states, strikes that were broken by the “importation” of poor blacks from the South. This was a tactic dear to the big proprietors, who capitalized not only on the law of the market but also on the historic racism of poor whites toward the descendants of slaves. Students of labor history may have also learned that the federal minimum wage, established in 1938, protects all employees, including non-union workers, and that this basic guarantee does no harm whatsoever to the country’s economic health or to the ambitions of capitalist entrepreneurs—quite the opposite, in fact.

I recalled those fundamental lessons when the “Wall War” broke out between President Trump and Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House. I leave to other commentators the task of analyzing the truce that allowed the federal government to reopen until February 15; as for me, when I consider the confrontation, I can see nothing but a missed opportunity to inform the broader public about economic realities in our increasingly stratified country.

Why didn’t Speaker Pelosi take advantage of the president’s rigid and obsessive conduct to drive this lesson home to him? Over the course of many decades—but especially since the end, in 1964, of the Bracero Program, which allowed Mexican agricultural workers into the United States on a temporary basis, and the enactment of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), in 1994—tens of millions of undocumented Latinx, most of them Mexicans, have crossed the Mexico–US border in search of a better life. As illegal residents, these poor but resolute people have been welcomed gladly by the big farmers in California and by the owners of hotels and restaurants more or less everywhere in the country. What could be better than being able to pay excellent workers less than the minimum wage, knowing that such workers could never lodge a complaint without incurring the risk of being sent back to the other side of the Rio Grande? Those workers (poor whites, poor blacks, and Latinx US citizens) who could have legally campaigned for higher wages knew that there would always be five undocumented candidates ready to replace them if they agitated too hard. The situation suited everyone, except for a few idealists like César Chávez of the United Farm Workers union.

It’s not only in the Southwestern United States, however, that employers have sought the benefits of a low-paid, foreign labor force. In New York, an ultra-unionized city, real estate moguls like the Trumps learned from the example set by heads of enterprises in Houston, Phoenix, and Los Angeles. Why bother with full-price American workers when there are thousands of foreigners available for cheap? So it was a good idea, back in the days of communism, to invite some undocumented Poles to work on Manhattan construction sites for $4 to $5 an hour. The New Yorkers operated on the same principles as their Southwestern colleagues, and in the same capitalist spirit. Today, the very wealthy members of the Trump family take advantage of undocumented, low-cost workers in their golf clubs in the New York suburbs. (Such employees, like the housekeeper Margarita Cruz, have recently been laid off.)

Instead of making a deal that would have benefited the poorest and most vulnerable citizens—those at the bottom of the scale, mistreated by their bosses and threatened by the excess of undocumented workers—the Speaker of the House was content with uttering such clichés as, “We are a great country that has been blessed and reinvigorated with the faith and family values of generations of immigrants.” Et cetera.

A true friend of the underprivileged would have made the following proposal: in exchange for the wall, Trump and the Republicans should agree to raising the federal minimum wage from its current level of $7.25 an hour to $15 an hour, and the construction of the wall should be considered a public works project supervised by a government agency. Deep down, Democrats and Republicans are in agreement as to the wall’s essentially symbolic nature; so why not make it a project that would really help impoverished Americans as well as establish a better future for immigrants who are not yet naturalized? But the Democratic Party remains the party of free trade, the party of NAFTA, the party financed by Wall Street elites. It is most assuredly not the party of the left.

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