Why Did Labor Unions Not Aggressively Fight H1-B Expansion?

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Executive Summary

  • Unions have been curiously lacking in aggressiveness in fighting the expansion of the H1-B program.
  • We cover why unions acted this way.


The following quotation is telling about the lack of effort unions exerted in stopping the expansion of the H1-B program.

The AFL-CIO also raised limited objections.43 The union did take a stance opposing the expansion of the H-1B program, but it did not actively lobby against the bill, and did not devote its massive resources, such as member letter-writing campaigns, to this issue.

Furthermore, when the 2000 legislation arose, the AFL-CIO actually considered actively supporting the H-1B expansion.44 Another union, the Communications Workers of America, expressed some concerns but officially supported both the 1998 and 2000 increases. – University of Michigan Journal of Law Reform

In one of the strangest areas of horse-trading we can recall reading, the AFL-CIO preferred to focus on amnesty for illegal aliens over fighting against enlarging the H1-B program.

The AFL-CIO, which had done only lukewarm lobbying against the H-1B increase in 1998, now in 2000 even toyed with the idea of actively supporting the increase, in exchange for industry’s supporting the AFL-CIO’s request that Congress grant amnesty to illegal aliens. – University of Michigan Journal of Law Reform

Why does the AFL-CIO want to support illegal aliens? This only provides more labor competition to US workers, driving down wages.


One reason may be that labor unions tend to be more prevalent outside of IT and STEM and therefore they did and do not see the H1-B program as much of a threat to their base of union members. This is explained in the following quotation.

Browse the 55 member unions of the AFL-CIO, the country’s largest union coalition, and you will see a snapshot of the American economy not as it is now, but as it used to be: steelworkers and auto workers, ironworkers and blacksmiths, longshoremen and mine workers, train dispatchers and railroad signalmen. It is a good thing that all of these unions exist, and they should continue to exist and to serve their members.

But it is rather telling that in the year 2019, die stampers and engravers have unions dedicated explicitly and specifically to representing them, but tech workers do not. That is, to say the very least, an embarrassing oversight in planning by organized labor.

the five most valuable companies in America are all tech companies. Not only are none of those companies unionized—there is not even an existing union dedicated to trying to unionize those companies in a systematic way. The approach to organizing the richest, most powerful, and most influential industry in the world today has been entirely, pathetically piecemeal. The retail workers union has tried to organize Amazon a bit, and entertainment unions have tiny pieces of work at tech companies in the entertainment space, and various professional and white collar unions have sniffed around parts of the work forces here and there, and a number of “alt-labor” groups have made strides in tech, but there is no organized—there’s that word!—effort to unionize the millions of working people at the most powerful companies in America, which are tech companies. This is, to be perfectly clear, a profound failure at the very top of the labor world. – SplinterNews

This quotation discusses the issues faced by IT workers (in addition of course to the H1-B issue)

Certainly, the gross salary for information technology positions can be generous, but that salary can be heavily garnished — sometimes up to 50 percent of the total paycheck — by staffing firms and headhunters that many companies rely on for HR needs. Then there are the other miscellaneous pitfalls of the less-than-ideal information technology job: non-compete clauses, few long-term career paths and demands to stay current on new technologies or risk being replaced by someone significantly younger.

Out of the approximate 3,000,000 tech workers in the United States, maybe 5,000 in total are union members.

In the world of labor relations, organized unions have been the best option towards progress for workers. So far, nobody has been able to develop an app that can replace them. – The Atlantic