Learn about Life in the 1920s

Lower Immigration causes Shortage of Unskilled Labor in 1925

NEARLY 17,000 MORE COMMON LABORERS left the United States than came into the country during ten months' operation of the new 2 per cent. quota immigration law, according to an analysis made by the National Industrial Conference Board, and a recent report of the immigration committee of the National Association of Manufacturers cites the diminishing supply of unskilled laborers as "a fundamental defect in the legislation." The executive secretary of the American Engineering Council, estimating a reduction of 800,000 workers a year as compared with years before the war, insists that the loss can only be made up by improved management which will reduce the waste of human labor.

While the Industrial Conference Board first calls attention to the deficit in raw-labor supply, it points out that the ultimate effect of the new quota law can not be determined at this time. The Board concludes, however, that "the scaling down of immigration to about a fifth of what it was before the war has the immediate effect of stabilizing the growth of our population, with the attending result of a sustained high-wage level." With actual money wages averaging 116 per cent. above what they were before the war, with the decline in the purchasing power of the dollar, and assuming the pre-war standard of living, the Board figures that "the wage-earner is about 30 per cent. better off, as regards 'real' wages, than he was at the peak of the wage level of 1920." For the ten months from July, 1924, to April, 1925, since the new law reducing quotas from 3 per cent. to 2 per cent. went into effect, the figures are given as follows:

  "Common laborers admitted were 27,908, as against 97,886 during the same period a year previous; but 44,750 of that class left the country during the same time, leaving an actual deficit of 16,842.
  "Net immigration of all classes shows a decrease of 71.4 per cent. as against the corresponding period the year before. A total of 242,965 persons were admitted, as against 637,602 during the same period the year previous, showing a decline of 62 per cent. in total immigration. In the same period, 78,578 departed, as compared to 63,324 a year ago, leaving a net immigration during the last ten months of 164,387, as against 574,278 during the corresponding ten months in the year prior to the new quota law.
  "Of the 242,965 admitted, 13,352 were farm laborers; of this class, only 1,232 left the country during the same period, leaving a net gain of 12,120 of farm laborers. Others admitted were: professional people, 8,809, while 1,665 emigrated; skilled labor 41,716, of which class 7,171 left; miscellaneous occupations, 40,204 were admitted, 6,367 of this class leaving; no occupation, including women and children, 98,927 came in, and 17,262 departed."

"Even in prosperity we are losing the aliens who do our dirty work," comments the New York World, which remarks that it was not expected that the law would shut off a foreign supply of unskilled labor. It works out that poor wage-earners used to come singly, hoping to earn enough to send for wife or relatives, while now the unnaturalized Greek, for example, who sees Greece's quota of 8% persons a month filled far in advance with "preferred class" persons, gives up and goes home. If the immigration law is retained unchanged, continues The World, one consequence is evident:

"This nation must furnish its own native labor for the rough work of field, mine and factory. Machines can not completely take the place of muscle. The social results should show many of the beneficial results produced by a like situation in Australasia. An easily exploited, roughly handled mass of ignorant foreign workers may have meant much to industrial prosperity, but it meant endless evils also. Native-born labor will not work for 40 cents an hour, twelve hours a day, as much steel labor did before public sentiment compelled a reform. It will insist upon some of that dignity for manual effort which observers just after the Civil War noted was being undermined by cheap foreign labor."

In the Pittsburgh steel region we find The Gazette Times declaring that there is good reason to believe the prospective shortage will not materialize in troublesome form. To quote:

"As time passes the demand for common labor will decline rather than increase. This because, more and more, machinery is displacing the hand-worker. One of the great steel companies a snort time ago shut down two blast furnaces. But this did not mean that its total production of pig iron was to be reduced equivalent to the normal production of two furnaces. By improvement of processes its furnaces remaining active produced their own normal output and enough in addition to equal what one of the closed stacks would have yielded as ordinarily operated. The same thing is going on all over the land and in a great variety of operations."

In Illinois, at the very time of the Conference Board's statement, the Chicago Evening Post, on the authority of both the state employment service and the Chicago labor agencies, reports a bigger surplus of unskilled labor in the State than for several years past. Industry need not worry, because—

"The explanation of the paradox is probably in the presence of increasing numbers of Mexicans who have crossed the border to work on the railroad-construction gangs, in the Michigan beet fields, and in other occupations where the hours are long and the pay, according to American standards, is low.
  "This change in racial strains is apparent to any one who has strolled across the river during the last few days. Where voluble, gesticulating Latins once loafed, the broad-brimmed, sun-tanned, undersized men from the republic to the south are conspicuous among the idlers who await the posting of a labor-agency bulletin announcing a job which they desire. With the negroes, they form a new source of unskilled and semi-skilled Northern labor.
  "Whether the Mexicans of this class make more desirable citizens than the dwellers in southern Europe, which the reduced quotas exclude, is a question for the future to answer. It can be said definitely, however, that under present conditions, industry need have no fear of a shortage of workers of this class, despite the apparent deficit cited by the Conference Board."

Down South the Montgomery Advertiser intimates that "the new exclusive law may be working only too well. Certainly the policy of excluding immigrants has already forced a heavy demand upon the agriculture of the South." In this way:

"American industry, which has heretofore depended upon immigration from Europe for its heavy toters and pick-swingers, had to make its demands upon the negroes of the South. There is a menace in this to our boasted 'Nordics.' There must be heavy toters and pick-swingers if American civilization is to survive, and if we keep out the dark-complexioned pick-swingers from Southern Europe our Nordics had better look out.
  "On the face of the Government's immigration figures, it looks like a serious loss. Such a conclusion, however, ignores the fact that most immigrants, when applying for admission, give as their occupation that which they hope to follow on arrival rather than that in which they are experienced. Many who come here classed as unskilled laborers graduate into other classes of work, whereas others capable of only unskilled labor, list themselves as belonging to specialized trades. As to outgoing laborers, much depends on whether they are leaving the country for good."

On the latter question the New York Times notes that formerly more aliens departed with no intention of coming back, whereas "more applications have been received at Ellis Island for temporary visits to Europe during the past three weeks of June than in any corresponding period since the new law went into effect."

Conceding that there are cases of individual hardship, the Detroit News speaks of a larger question of national welfare—

"Big employers are not in business for their health. They want free trade in labor. But, also, they want import tariffs which will secure their goods against foreign competition. However, a native laborer is as much entitled to this security as is his employer under the immigration law expecting to become a good American. Because human nature is human nature, wo can not hope that all big employers will subscribe immediately to the quota system, but complaints from other quarters should be fewer with a larger appreciation of the fact that the admitted alien is himself one of the chief beneficiaries of the Act."

Source: Literary Digest - July 25, 1925