The myth of "Jobs Americans Won't Do"
January, 2006
By Hal Netkin

The world watched as rescue efforts were made in vain to save two men trapped in a West Virginia coal mine. The fatalities rose the state's death toll of miners killed in two separate mine disasters to 14 in less than a month

Normally given little public attention, many citizens and editorials spoke in praise of these men and the risks they take in one of the dirtiest and most dangerous jobs in America.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the fatality rate for coal miners is over seven times higher than for all industries as a whole, making it the most dangerous job in America.

Judging from the names of the miners, it appears that they are all Americans.

This must come as a great surprise to President George W. Bush who is frequently heard saying that immigrants take jobs that Americans don't want.

But in spite of the dangerous and unhealthy working conditions, Americans are still doing coal mining jobs because according to the West Virginia Coal Association, the industry must pay miners an average of more than $50,000 yearly, and provide health care and pensions -- unless, of course, the industry hires illegal immigrants.

Now once high paying dirty and dangerous jobs in industries such as meat packing, fishing, construction, and roofing, to mention just a few, pay little more than minimum wage to illegal immigrants who fill them.

The union busting corporations who benefit from hiring illegal immigrants have their PR departments working full time in spreading the myth to the public that illegal immigrants take jobs that Americans won't. Chief among them, is the agri-business industry which has spread the myth that without illegal immigrant labor, a head of lettuce would cost $5.

According to Philip E. Martin, Professor of Immigration and Farm Labor at the University of California, Davis, consumers who pay $1 for a head of lettuce are giving 19 cents to the farmer and 6 cents to the farm worker. If we doubled the wages of farm workers, the cost of a head of lettuce would increase by 6 cents to $1.06. For labor costs to force lettuce to $5 per head, farmers would have to pay field workers $4.06 per head of lettuce. At that rate, it would be the kind of work every American would want to do.

The problem American industries have is not that of the cost of labor. The problem is that if one company uses illegal labor, then other companies have to do the same to compete. For example, in the agri-business if one grower can outdo another by lowering the cost of a head of lettuce by just pennies then all growers must do the same to survive.

Even the federal government sometimes trumps illegal immigrants over Americans. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the Bush administration decided to waive a provision of the Davis-Bacon Act which guarantees construction workers the prevailing local wage when they are paid with federal money attracting thousands of illegal immigrant workers to New Orleans. When contractors did not provide living per diem for the workers, they were content to camp overnight in vacant lots and fields.

The coal industry provides cheap fuel -- and America has lots of it -- so much so highly in demand, that the coal industry must look to one of two ways to solve their labor shortage problem: pay American miners even more than they presently do, or use cheap foreign labor. In Kentucky, coal mining companies are already considering recruiting miners from the Ukraine, where labor doesn't organize and where they're not too worried about work safety.

You can bet that the coal mining companies are quietly rooting for a guest worker program lauded by President Bush and many politicians on both sides of the aisle.

Guess what? There are millions of impoverished Mexicans who risk their lives crossing the border illegally who would gladly work in the coal mines at a fraction of the wages Americans now earn.

Americans should oppose any foreign guest worker programs because Americans will do those "dirty" jobs if compensated fairly.

Hal Netkin is a North Hollywood activist. Email him at