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

Starting in the early 1990s, the County Fed was transformed from a junior partner of the local Democratic Party establishment into a force with its own capacity for grassroots field mobilization. Labor now devoted extensive resources to helping immigrants eligible for naturalization become citizens and then mobilizing them at the polls. The legendary Miguel Contreras, a labor organizer who became the County Fed’s Secretary-Treasurer in 1996, was the leading architect of the city’s labor–Latino alliance, which built on the SEIU’s base as well as that of the hotel workers’ union (now part of UNITE HERE) where Contreras previously had been on staff. Under his leadership, the County Fed deployed its massive economic and human resources into organizing direct mail, phone banks, precinct walking, and worksite outreach efforts that targeted union members as well as new immigrant voters. Candidates supported by the County Fed, mostly Latinos, began to win contest after contest in congressional, legislative, and city council races, rapidly displacing the old-line political insiders. An early example was the 1994 election of union organizer Antonio Villaraigosa to a state assembly seat representing northeast Los Angeles. Two years later, the County Fed helped the Democrats regain control of the state Assembly. And in 1999, Villaraigosa became the speaker of the Assembly, going on to become mayor of the nation’s second-largest metropolis in 2005.

In these years, the relationship between labor’s growing political clout and its ongoing efforts to unionize unorganized workers took the form of a virtuous circle. For example, the SEIU added 74,000 Los Angeles home care workers to its ranks after engaging in a long political campaign to change state law to create an “employer of record” for this growing occupational group. And labor repeatedly used its clout to foster high-road community development, for example by making city subsidies for new hotels and other major development projects contingent on employers’ agreeing to pay a living wage and/or to be neutral in union organizing campaigns among the workers later employed on the sites.

Although street demonstrations and other forms of “non-citizen citizenship,” as Jennifer Gordon calls it, are accessible to unauthorized immigrants and other non-citizens, in a society where the meaning of political participation is largely restricted to voting, the key hurdle immigrants must overcome in becoming an integral part of the polity is acquiring formal citizenship. In contrast to a century ago, when naturalized citizens were more likely to vote than their native-born counterparts, today the opposite is true. On the national level, voting rates are lower for Asians and Latinos (regardless of citizenship status) than for other ethnic groups. However, thanks in large part to the efforts of the labor movement to naturalize those eligible and to increase electoral participation, the gap between California Latinos and  whites in voting rates has virtually disappeared. If one controls for age, citizenship, and socio-economic status, Latino turnout rates in the state were only 1 percentage point lower than those of comparable whites from 1994 to 2000; in the 1998 election, when labor mobilized especially energetically because of an anti-union referendum item on the state ballot, Latino turnout was 4 percentage points higher than that of comparable whites.

Latinos in California do not only vote; they mostly vote for Democrats. Some Latinos did cast their ballots for Arnold Schwarzenegger in the 2003 recall election, but when he launched a broad anti-union attack in the form of a series of referenda on the November 2005 ballot, the tide turned against him, in yet another California election where labor’s political mobilization played a critical role. The standard comparison is to Texas, George Bush’s former state, where Republicans still capture much of the Latino vote. That divergence is partly the lasting legacy of former Republican governor Pete Wilson’s sponsorship of Prop. 187; the weakness of organized labor in Texas is another key factor.

It was California’s union leaders who spearheaded the national effort to change organized labor’s policy on immigration in the late 1990s, winning passage of an AFL-CIO Executive Council resolution in 2000 that officially reversed labor’s previous support for employer sanctions and called for a new amnesty program for the undocumented. Over the months that followed, organized labor launched a national campaign for immigration reform, an effort that was rapidly gaining ground until the events of September 11, 2001 suddenly put it into the deep freeze. One attempt to revive the lost momentum was the 2003 Immigrant Worker Freedom Ride, an initiative led by Maria Elena Durazo of the L.A. hotel workers’ union (who is also Contreras’ widow and who now heads the Los Angeles County Fed) carried out in coalition with a range of immigrant rights organizations.

In California, then, and especially in Los Angeles, the labor movement has been a potent vehicle of Latino immigrant mobilization, both in the workplace and at the voting booth. That is why L.A. was at the epicenter of the immigrant rights movement that emerged this past spring, with a reported 500,000 marchers in the city’s streets on March 25, 2006, and even more on May 1, when cities across the nation were engulfed in mass protest. The labor–Latino coalition that developed in the region in the aftermath of Prop. 187 has flourished ever since, stacking up huge electoral successes, winning hearts and minds in the immigrant community, and building lasting organizational capacity.

To be sure, labor cannot claim sole credit for the massive outpouring of immigrant rights activism manifested in the spring 2006 marches. The Catholic Church, immigrant hometown associations, a variety of immigrant rights advocacy groups, student organizations and perhaps most important, the ethnic media, all played critical roles. Even some employers lent support to the effort. And the vast geographical scope of the demonstrations—which were largest in southern California but also substantial in places like Nebraska and South Carolina—reflects the many changes that have taken place in the immigrant landscape over recent years. Not only has the overall size of the nation’s undocumented population grown dramatically since the early 1990s, but both authorized and unauthorized immigrants have become much more widely dispersed geographically, for reasons Doug Massey has shown. Once highly concentrated in southern California, as well as other traditional destinations like Texas, Illinois, and Florida, immigrants have increasingly settled in communities all across the nation. Similarly, immigrant-focused labor organizing has begun to sprout up in many parts of the country where it was once unimaginable.

There is good reason to expect that the political dynamic that unfolded in California in the 1990s could now be replicated on a national scale. If that occurs, unionism could once again become a key agent of social transformation, as it was for southern and eastern European immigrants in the 1930s and 1940s, when the labor movement helped narrow the inequalities between the haves and have-nots, and propelled many first- and second-generation immigrants into the middle class.