The Wall Street Journal on 9/18 (payment required) tracked the work migration of a Cantu family men – self-described subidos. These are Mexicans with green cards, who leave their families in Mexico and pick up relatively well paying jobs on a contract to contact basis, crisscrossing the United States.
“Thanks to quirks in the law, they have green cards enabling them to come to the U.S. for work stints. Many, like the Cantús, call themselves ‘subidos’ from the Spanish verb for ‘to rise,’ because they do the grueling jobs of pouring concrete for tall structures such as grain silos for the ethanol plants increasingly rising across the Great Plains. ”
By quickly filling jobs and providing needed skills, such workers are a boon to employers. They rarely put a burden on social services, because they leave their school-age children and elderly relatives at home. Nonetheless, there is some evidence that the Mexicans drive down wages in the industries where they work.
Some guest workers had their status legalized under the Simpson-Rodino Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, which granted amnesty to 2.7 million undocumented workers. It offered that group, who call themselves ‘Rodinos,’ the chance at green cards that confer permanent-resident status and the right to work. The act was intended to encourage U.S. citizenship, but some preferred the guest-worker way of life, as the Cantús do, earning wages in the U.S. but keeping their families and their living costs in Mexico.
Others acquired work visas through programs that legalized imported farm workers during times of labor shortages. Still others won green cards after being sponsored by a parent who became a naturalized U.S. citizen, or by marrying a U.S. citizen. About 100,000 Mexicans also legally commute short distances across the border for day jobs in the U.S.
Mr. Cantú’s father arrived in the U.S. as a relief laborer during World War II. He worked regularly in the U.S. under the Bracero program for farmhands, which ended in 1964. He became a U.S. citizen in the early 1990s. His citizenship made his children and grandchildren eligible for green cards. It took eight years to obtain them. Since 2003 they have been taking advantage by landing concrete-pouring jobs in the U.S.
The presence of so much Mexican construction labor worries union officials in Midwest and mountain states, though demand for construction appears strong enough now to support both foreign-born and local workers. The Pueblo, Colo., cement plant being built by subidos, for instance, is within sight of a massive project, Xcel Energy Corp.’s $1.3 billion Comanche-3 power plant, which employs union workers, nearly all U.S.-born. Ethanol construction tends to be divided between union shops in large towns and subidos in rural areas.
Union officials complain bitterly that competition from Mexico is driving down wages, and there is evidence to back them up. Roberto Cantú’s Pueblo pay stub shows he earned $14 an hour for a 45-hour week, and $21 for every additional hour. Pete Mustacchio, business manager of Cement Masons Local 577 in Denver, says Colorado’s union pourers earn twice that, including an hourly wage of $23.40, plus health-insurance and pension benefits valued at another $9 an hour. Overtime starts at $35.10 an hour.
Figures compiled by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics indicate wages in concrete work fell 16.5% in 2005 from 2000 — to $508 a week from $604, adjusted for inflation — despite a soaring demand for workers. Meanwhile, the proportion of cement workers described as ‘foreign-born Hispanic’ has risen to almost 55% from around 35% in the late 1990s. Statistics suggest many are replacing African-Americans, whose employment in concrete work declined to 9,000 in 2005, from 18,000 six years ago.
David Card, a University of California at Berkeley economist, says the decline in earnings is part of a long-term trend of nonunion construction workers replacing a unionized work force. Other factors are at play besides the subidos. Illegal-immigrant labor drives down wages even more than do legal subidos, and technology has reduced the need for some skilled workers.
An expanded guest-worker program probably would deepen the wage squeeze, says Harvard University immigration economist George Borjas. ‘I find a 10% rise in worker supply results in a 3% decline in wages’ locally.
Earl Agan, business manager of Cement Masons local 51 in Des Moines, says ethanol-plant construction should be a reason to hire more union workers, not fewer. He has 260 members qualified to pour silos, at least 50 of whom are presently without work. ‘Contractors have my guys traveling all over the country,’ Mr. Agan says, arguing that remote work sites shouldn’t justify importing workers. His conclusion: Contractors want a bigger share of the profit and won’t employ union labor if they don’t have to.