[Marxism] Organizing Immigrant Workers

Jon Flanders jonathan.flanders at verizon.net
Wed Dec 14 08:53:34 MST 2005

On Wed, 2005-12-14 at 14:55 +0000, Calvin Broadbent wrote:
> I think it is vital 
> that the ethnic minority workforce be organised in the same trade
> union 
> movement as the white workforce and with the same exact rights.

While unions in the US have made progress in recognizing the importance
of organizing immigrant workers, and have significantly changed their
orientation vis a vis immigrant labor, they have a ways to go yet.

They still cling to the notion of "controlling the border" in some way,
as opposed to an open borders position.

LG works in the construction trades, which perhaps have been most
adversely affected by the use of immigrant labor by unscrupulous

I try to imagine explaining to one of these construction workers what an
open borders position should be.

Let's see. If a Mexican worker wants to come to the US, he or she would
sign up at the border with the union representing the trade they want to
work in. They would then be directed, with the union's help to a
construction site needing labor and there be a union member getting a
union wage. 

For this to work, all employers would *have* to be union, and penalties
for paying less than the prevailing wage, excluding a union or
exploiting immigrant laborers would have to be draconian. There would be
no penalties for being an "illegal immigrant."

In order to achieve this state of affairs, we would need a workers
government, ala the Chavez model, unafraid to represent the workers

In short, this would require a revolution the the US. You can imagine
the objections to this scenario that would be thrown at you by a
co-worker sitting across a lunch-room table. "Pipe Dream" would probably
be a mild rejoinder.

I would then respond that under our current capitalist government, it's
a pipe dream to imagine that the employers would ever give up their
right to work non-union with the cheapest possible labor force. Any
government intimidation of immigrant workers simply helps the employers
keep *all* workers in line. Immigrant workers fear expulsion, native
workers fear losing their jobs to non-union labor and make concessions
to keep their jobs.

I have had this kind of discussion on the job, admittedly in an industry
not so pressured by immigrant labor. You are not going to change the
hearts and minds of the average white worker right now with such an
argument, but you will get a grudging admission that you make some good

In the meantime, it is possible that some unions will support organizing
efforts by immigrant workers. It happened in California with the
dry-wall workers and janitors, for example. See appended report below.

Jon Flanders

"Organizing Immigrants


While once thought of as the hardest to organize, there is enough
experience in California to convince many organizers that immigrants are
often more militant and willing to organize than native- born workers
(Milkman 2000b; Delgado 1993; DeFreitas 1993; Wells 2000). Throughout
the 1990s, immigrants waged successful union campaigns in a range of
low-wage immigrant dependent industries, including homecare, janitorial
services, hotels construction, and even manufacturing. These campaigns
account for a significant portion of the growth of union members in the
state, and will eventually counteract the under-representation of
immigrants in California unions documented above. Immigrant organizing
has shifted the center of gravity of the California labor movement from
the traditional labor stronghold of Northern California to Los Angeles,
the most common destination for new immigrants in the state and the
nation. Milkman writes, “to the surprise of many observers, Los Angeles
emerged in the 1990s as a key site of labor movement experimentation and
as a showcase for successful immigrant organizing, an embryo of the
broader revitalization effort that the new AFL-CIO leadership and its
allies are currently attempting to jump-start.”

Successful immigrant organizing in Los Angeles is quite recent. While
the International Ladies’Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU) had been the
first union in recent decades to seriously attempt to organize Latino
immigrants in the late 1970s, it was more successful in training a new
generation of Latino organizers and union leaders in Los Angeles than in
increasing union membership among Latino immigrants (Milkman 2000b). The
first large-scale breakthrough in immigrant organizing was the SEIU’s
Justice for Janitors campaign, whose 1990 strike and victory marked the
unionization of over 6,000 workers and was the largest private sector
immigrant organizing success since the farmworkers in the 1970s. SEIU
conducted a carefully orchestrated campaign to recapture previously
unionized building services in many urban areas around the country, but
their most spectacular success was clearly in Los Angeles, where Central
American and Mexican workers, many of whom were undocumented and had
political experience in their home country, re-energized the struggle.
Quoting Milkman (2000b: 7-8):

It dramatically demonstrated not only the potential for galvanizing
immigrant workers into a militant, solidaristic force for labor movement
revitalization, but also the critical role of union leadership in that
process. The Justice for Janitors campaign combined grassroots
rank-and-file mobilization, on the one hand, with careful strategic
planning on the part of experienced union leaders with access to
extensive financial resources as well as expertise, on the other…. The
organizers deliberately avoided the traditional NLRB electoral system in
favor of an innovative approach that combined careful research into the
power structure of the industry, strategic planning, and militant,
media-savvy rank-and-file mobilization tactics. The janitors were the
first, but not the only immigrant organizing drive that occurred in the
early 1980s.

Shortly after the janitors’ victory, there was a five-month strike by
Mexican drywall workers, who used their ties to their villages-of-origin
to build sufficient solidarity to close down hundreds of job sites
dispersed throughout Southern California, effectively halting
residential construction. About 2,400 drywall workers doubled their
wages and became union members when the contractors finally buckled and
the Carpenters Union negotiated a contract for them (Milkman and Wong
2000a). Another well- known case was the wildcat strike at American
Racing Equipment wheel factory, where 1,200 Latino workers voted to be
represented by the Machinists and have received substantial pay and
benefit gains in the ensuing years (Zabin 2000). Like the “drywalleros,”
this campaign was spontaneously initiated by rank and file workers,
rather than initiated and directed by the union, as was the case of the
janitors. While the American Racing and drywall campaigns needed
organized labor to bring a successful conclusion to their efforts 
the tremendous spontaneous militancy illustrates the willingness of
immigrants to fight for their rights and take the risks necessary to

More information about the Marxism mailing list