Labor and the New Immigrant Rights Movement: Lessons from California
Published on: Jul 28, 2006

Ruth Milkman is professor of sociology and director of the Institute of Industrial Relations at UCLA. She has written extensively on labor issues and is the author of L.A. Story: Immigrant Workers and the Future of the U.S. Labor Movement, published this summer by the Russell Sage Foundation.

The groundswell of immigrant rights demonstrations that emerged across the nation in reaction to the passage of the Sensenbrenner bill (H.R. 4437) by the U.S. House of Representatives in late 2005 took many by surprise. Yet this wave of protest did not come out of nowhere. The groundwork was laid by over a decade of organizing by both the labor movement—not only traditional unions but also the “worker centers” that have proliferated in recent years—and the broader immigrant rights movement. Moreover, the dynamics leading up to the spring 2006 marches were prefigured in many respects by events that occurred a dozen years ago in California, in response to Proposition 187, an anti-immigrant measure passed by the state’s voters in 1994.

Although H.R. 4437—which would criminalize unauthorized immigrants for simply being present in the U.S. without documentation, as well as those who assist them—differs in content from Prop. 187, which proposed denying public services (including schooling) to undocumented immigrants, both were harsh Republican-sponsored attacks on immigrant rights that enjoyed widespread support among voters. Prop. 187 triumphed at the polls in California in 1994, but was later struck down by the courts as unconstitutional; similarly, the chances of the Sensenbrenner bill actually becoming law are virtually nil. Nevertheless, in both cases the threatened enactment of such measures deeply alarmed both authorized and unauthorized immigrants and sparked massive popular protest, especially among Latinos. Prop. 187 generated street demonstrations larger than any since the Vietnam War, as well as a wave of naturalizations among legal immigrants in California. An unprecedented level of immigrant political mobilization followed, especially in Los Angeles, where the labor movement had already begun organizing immigrants in the workplace in the early 1990s and was well positioned to seize the opportunity presented by community outrage over Prop. 187 to extend its work into the electoral arena.

The parallels between the initial grassroots reaction to Prop. 187 twelve years ago and that to H.R. 4437 this year are striking, raising the prospect that the political drama that unfolded in California in the mid-1990s might now be re-enacted on the more spacious national stage. Acutely aware of that possibility, many of the May 1, 2006 demonstrators carried signs that promised, “Hoy Marchamos, Mañana Votamos” [‘Today We March, Tomorrow We Vote’]. And it was no accident that immediately after the demonstrations, the new “We Are America Alliance” and a host of other organizations launched naturalization and voter registration drives. Many Republicans, too, are cognizant of the danger these developments pose to their party’s future, but at the moment they are far too divided over the proposed immigration reform legislation to do much to avert it.

Labor and Immigrant Rights

As the debate over immigration reform legislation took shape in the fall of 2005, divisions emerged within the organized labor movement. While no one in the labor camp supported the repressive Sensenbrenner proposals, the “guest worker” program in the original McCain-Kennedy bill, which enjoyed support from many business groups and from the Bush administration, became a key point of disagreement. Some unions, most notably the giant Service Employees International Union (SEIU), argued in favor of McCain-Kennedy. They supported a guest worker program on the condition that it would be accompanied by key protective measures (such as freedom for guest workers to change employers) and as part of a package that provided a clear path to legalization for the millions of undocumented immigrants already in the country. Others in organized labor, however, including the national AFL-CIO, staunchly opposed any guest worker provisions, citing the bracero program and other historical examples to argue that such arrangements inevitably make workers vulnerable to extreme forms of employer exploitation.

The division to some extent mirrored the dramatic 2005 split in the organized labor movement as a whole, which caused seven unions, led by the SEIU, to form the Change to Win (CTW) Federation and leave the AFL-CIO. Although not all the CTW affiliates joined the SEIU in supporting McCain-Kennedy, the lines of disagreement within labor reflected a structural difference between CTW and the AFL-CIO. The unions that have been most active in recruiting new immigrants into their ranks in recent years are concentrated in the CTW camp. SEIU is the leading example here, but UNITE HERE (which represents textile, garment and hotel workers), the Laborers, and the Carpenters—as well as the tiny United Farm Workers—now have significant immigrant memberships. The other two CTW unions, the Teamsters and the United Food and Commercial Unions, have also recruited some immigrants into their ranks, although to a much lesser degree. By contrast, the AFL-CIO affiliates, rooted mainly in the public sector, old-line manufacturing, transportation, communication, and skilled building trades, represent an overwhelmingly native-born constituency—and one whose support for the rights of undocumented immigrants is at best lukewarm at the rank-and-file level.

In short, because the CTW affiliates have so many foreign-born members (of whom an unknown but by all accounts substantial proportion are undocumented) these unions had a very strong pragmatic interest in supporting the one legislative proposal with any chance of passage that included a path to legalization—even if it meant holding their noses over the guest worker provision included in the package. By contrast, the AFL-CIO could take a stand based on abstract principle, given its overwhelmingly U.S.-born membership, among whom few saw legalization as an urgent need. In the end, there was less to this disagreement than many of the media accounts suggested: it was basically a tactical rather than a strategic difference, and one that is now essentially moot, since the probability of any new legislation being passed is very slim. In the unlikely event that some compromise emerges between the bill recently passed by the Senate and H.R. 4437, it will be so different from the original McCain-Kennedy proposal that neither faction in the labor movement is likely to support it.

However, all this ignores another critical piece of the contemporary labor scene, namely the vibrant worker center movement, which emerged in the 1990s. As Janice Fine and Jennifer Gordon have documented in detail, the centers are not conventional membership-based unions but rather community-based organizations that engage in advocacy, service work and organizing among low-wage immigrant workers. The congruence between the geography of the spring 2006 marches and that of the worker centers themselves is striking: compare Fine’s national mapping of the worker centers at with the geography of the marches shown at (p. 2).