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

Although there are some tensions and disagreements between unions and worker centers, they are increasingly cooperating and forging coalitions over immigrant rights issues. At first, these coalitions mainly involved the CTW unions, but in the aftermath of the dramatic spring demonstrations, the AFL-CIO is also seeking to build ties to the worker centers. At this point everyone in the labor movement can see the potential of immigrant organizing as a source of revitalization for the ailing national union movement, and so all parties are trying to ride that wave. After all, the U.S. working class now has a huge foreign-born component—as has been the case throughout most of the nation’s history (excepting, ironically, the peak years of labor’s strength from the 1930s and 1960s, when restrictive legislation barred most immigrants from entering the country), even though immigrants today are underrepresented in the ranks of union members. The immigrant organizing that has occurred in recent years has been disproportionately located on the west coast, and especially in Southern California.

The California Story

As a massive stream of immigrants from Latin America and Asia poured into California in the 1970s and 1980s, most observers presumed that the newcomers would have little or no impact on the labor or political scene. Least of all did anyone expect the burgeoning population of undocumented workers from Mexico and Central America—most of whom had minimal formal education and few economic resources—to become a significant force. And with union density in a free fall both nationally and in California, organized labor’s obituary had been written many times over.

Yet, by century’s end, the labor movement had been transformed in the nation’s most populous state, with union density inching upward there even as it continued to decline relentlessly in the U.S. as a whole. A wave of Latino immigrant unionization campaigns in southern California in the 1990s, accompanied by innovative grassroots organizing efforts among the region’s low-wage workers (already largely foreign-born and Latino), were key ingredients in this unexpected shift. These early organizing successes soon had political repercussions, laying the groundwork for an alliance between labor and Latinos that soon became a political powerhouse both in Los Angeles and statewide.

The momentum propelling that alliance forward stalled in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, and in the recall election two years later that thrust Arnold Schwarzenegger into the governorship, but the infrastructure constructed in the 1990s remains intact. And while the conditions that fostered Latino immigrant organizing in 1990s California reflect the particularities of the state and its largest metropolis, they may yet prove prefigurative of shifts in the national political landscape.

Immigrant organizing in California began with a series of successful union drives among low-wage immigrant workers, many of them undocumented. The most famous example is the SEIU’s “Justice for Janitors” campaign, which made a key breakthrough in Los Angeles  in 1990 and went on to consolidate its gains thereafter. At the same time the “worker center” movement expanded in the region, with an explicit focus on immigrant rights yet with an approach that eschewed conventional unionism. The worker centers systematically engaged unauthorized immigrants in various forms of civic and political participation, despite their inability to vote and their lack of official citizenship rights.

All this activity came as a surprise to both labor movement insiders and many outside observers, who at the time viewed immigrants, and especially the undocumented among them, as “unorganizable.” The newcomers were presumed to be vulnerable, docile persons intensely fearful of any confrontation with authority, and thus poor prospects for recruitment into unions or other organizations. But this once-conventional wisdom was overturned in the course of the 1990s, as Latinos emerged as protagonists in one union drive after the next, and as the labor movement increasingly engaged them in grassroots political activism as well. Evidence rapidly accumulated to suggest that foreign-born workers generally, and Latinos in particular, were actually more pro-union than native-born whites. By century’s end, the once-dominant view of immigrants as “unorganizable” had been largely replaced by its opposite: Now many claimed that immigrants were more receptive than natives to union organizing campaigns!

Several factors helped foster that receptivity. One was the strength of social networks among working-class immigrants—networks that are essential to basic survival for foreign-born newcomers and that can help galvanize unionization efforts as well as political mobilization. In southern California, with its relatively homogenous immigrant population (largely Mexican and Central American), these networks were especially tight.
In addition, for Latino immigrants in particular, class-based, collective organizations like unions are highly compatible with past lived experience and world views—whereas native-born workers tend to have a more individualistic orientation. And crucially, the shared experience of stigmatization among immigrants, both during the migration process itself and continuing after many years of settlement, means that when unions or worker centers reach out and offer a helping hand, it is often welcomed with enthusiasm.

Indeed, the sense of stigmatization, and of being under siege in a hostile environment, can foster solidarity and organization rather than generating passivity and fear, as many commentators once presumed. One example is the energetic community response to Prop. 187, which turned out to be a crucial stimulus to immigrant political mobilization in California. Even the previously apolitical Mexican hometown associations were politicized by the fears the xenophobic ballot initiative provoked. But above all it was organized labor, fresh from the success of the Justice for Janitors campaign and others in the years just before Prop. 187 was put before the voters, that seized this moment of opportunity. The weakness of traditional political machines in Los Angeles (thanks to an earlier period of political reform a century ago) as well as the relatively small number of political offices and the high costs of mounting electoral campaigns, created a vacuum that the city’s newly strengthened labor movement was destined to fill.