Immigrants and the Road to Power

Immigrants and the Road to Power

The once conventional wisdom that immigrants, especially the unauthorized, are unlikely candidates for labor organizing has turned out to be not so much wrong as incomplete. It overlooked several factors that make low-wage immigrants more “organizable” in the workplace than many of their U.S.-born counterparts. First, because new arrivals find jobs through social networks made up of other immigrants from the same place (and often from the same extended family), many workplaces contain within them an unusual potential for solidarity rooted in those very networks—a relatively rare phenomenon among U.S.-born workers. Further contributing to that potential is the shared racialization and stigmatization that many immigrants experience, which often serves as a unifying force. And while organizing is risky, the risks it involves are relatively modest compared, for example, to crossing the border without papers or, for that matter, labor organizing in many of the countries where immigrants grew up.

Moreover, the available evidence suggests that many low-wage immigrant workers (unlike most of their U.S.-born counterparts) understand their fate not only as determined by their individual attributes or achievements, but also as bound up with the fate of other members of the immigrant community. That worldview can spur collective action, when the opportunity for it arises. The hostility immigrants routinely experience—whether or not they are undocumented—reinforces this collectivist worldview. And some immigrants have a background of political and/or union activism in their home countries, which also predisposes them to engagement in immigrant labor organizing after they arrive in the United States.

Today, immigrants make up about 15 percent of the U.S. work force, or twenty-three million workers, about a third of whom are unauthorized. Whereas immigrants come from all over Asia, Africa, and Latin America, the unauthorized are predominantly Mexican or Central American. But even the Latino working-class population is highly stratified internally, and this constitutes another critically important driver of immigrant labor activism. That activism often focuses on improving the position of the most disadvantaged migrants, a group that includes the millions of unauthorized Mexican and Central Americans laboring in low-wage, precarious jobs at the very bottom of the U.S. labor market. The fact that other Latino immigrants have been able to secure more stable working-class jobs with better pay and conditions motivates those stuck in the worst jobs to hope that they can do the same. It is precisely this aspiration for upward mobility that informs the new immigrant labor movement.

That movement embraces and enriches traditional trade unionism, but is not limited to that organizational form. It also ...

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