How Will Elections Impact the Latino Workforce?

Farmworker Juanluiz Salinas picks celery Monday, Nov. 14, 2005, on the Deardorff-Jackson Co. farm near Fillmore, Calif. The farm has 800 acres of celery ready for winter harvest, but has only about half of the 70 farm workers needed to work the fields. As farmers nationwide complain about labor shortages, and pressure the Bush administration for a massive guest worker program to bring inHispanic workers, civilian groups and the Border Patrol increase efforts at the border to stem what they claim is an unchecked flow of illegal immigrants. (AP Photo/Ric Francis) (National Journal)

Ready or not, demographic changes are impacting the country's workforce. Whoever wins the 2012 election must address the concerns of the fast-growing Latino community, including those who are employed and aspiring to move up.

The health of the U.S. economy is closely tied to the strength of the Latino workforce, said Janet Murguia, president and CEO of the National Council of La Raza, one of the country's largest Latino advocacy groups, during a Washington event examining how the presidential election will affect Latino workers.

Latinos make up 16 percent of the U.S. labor force, a figure that's projected to grow to 18 percent by 2018. Latino workers, presently estimated at 21.3 million, also are less likely to hold college degrees than either whites or blacks and generally take fewer dollars home. On average, Latino men make 66 cents for every dollar earned by white men, while Latinas make even less, 60 cents. Latinos in general are overrepresented in construction, meatpacking, agriculture, and the service industry.

By 2050, "we're going to be almost at a third of the workforce," Murguia told a small gathering at the AFL-CIO headquarters Tuesday. "We have to make smart decisions in the short, mid-range, and long term.'

Need for less-skilled workers for car washing, food service, and farming resulted in a Latino surge in lower-wage jobs. Many immigrants, especially those with less schooling, are more willing to take such jobs. This bloc of workers, according to panelists, will be affected by policies ranging from restrictions in collective bargaining and initiatives for small businesses to increased enforcement of workplace violations.

The numbers of Latinos killed on the job — two per day — was highlighted as one statistic that the next president must work to reduce in the next four years. Already, the Labor Department has made policy shifts to combat "wage theft" — nonpayment for work performed — in Latino communities. Since 2009, the agency's Wage and Hour Division has hired 1,000 more investigators, half of whom speak Spanish, and has collected $594 million in back wages.

Collective bargaining gives Latino employees an opportunity to improve their working conditions, said Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO. Organized workers are able to negotiate for better wages and improved working conditions. Unionization is crucial to Latinos because many rely on wages to climb into the middle class. "Collective bargaining equalizes," Trumka emphasized.

Yet preparing tomorrow's workforce to compete in the global economy and adapt to the evolving job market will generate long-term impacts. Education leaders, federal authorities, economists, and policy analysts have insisted that America's future workforce must be trained in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields, or have some technical training for manufacturing jobs in the green sector, areas where Latinos are largely absent. Between 2009 and 2010, for instance, only 8 percent of all certificates and STEM degrees went to Latinos, the latest data show.

Will Latino voters make a difference in the current election cycle? Panelists responded "yes" and "maybe."

Latinos are influencing local and state elections, either by running for office, or supporting congressional candidates. Panelist Thomas Saenz, president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said they will play a major role in electing members of Congress who will advocate for issues important to Latinos, such as the Dream Act.

Even Mitt Romney has softened his hard-line stance on immigration and the Dream Act, some panelists noted.

"I'm not sure he would have done that if he were not in Colorado in front of a Hispanic audience," a skeptical Murguia commented.