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 http://www.epinet.org/content.cfm?id=2221 with the geography of the marches shown at http://www.mrss.com/news/Groundswell-Report_Final.pdf (p. 2).

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.

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.