This book about the challenges of organizing immigrant workers into unions could not have come at a better time. The immigrant work force is growing, not just in California, but also in states like Nebraska, Georgia, and North Carolina. The AFL-CIO has done an about-face on immigration policy, supporting an amnesty for workers who are here illegally and lobbying to repeal the employer bar on hiring undocumented workers. The recent citizenship drive among Latino immigrants may reveal unionization to be a more appealing option in the future. And the strong U.S. economy continues to absorb immigrant workers, making them a central part of the American labor landscape.
The significance of California as the focus of a book on immigrant organizing is made evident in David Lopez and Cynthia Feliciano's masterful opening chapter, "Who Does What? California's Emerging Plural Labor Force." The authors show how California is at the forefront of a nationwide trend toward an increasingly diverse labor force of varied ethnic and national origin. In 1996 foreign-born Latinos and foreign-born Asians constituted 27% of the work force, the second largest group after native-born whites. But the occupational distribution of Latino immigrants contrasted sharply with that of whites. Latino immigrants constituted 17% of all workers, but they comprised 49% of laborers and 5% of professional and technical employees, whereas whites (56% of all workers) made up 71% of professional and technical workers and 30% of laborers. (The situation of Asian immigrants was mixed.) The authors are especially concerned with policy implications of the "emerging second generation" of workers, the children of re cent immigrants. But rather than echo anti-immigrant sentiments that were common during Governor Pete Wilson's term, the authors warn of dire consequences of ignoring the educational needs of this generation of future Californians. Unlike in the past, these children of immigrants may be stuck in low-paying jobs. This ethnic occupational stratification is likely to generate social tensions. The authors suggest that unions may provide the only means to improve the lives of these workers.
Most of Organizing Immigrants focuses on several organizing experiences that occurred in California in the early 1990s. Subjects of the contributors' analyses are janitors, garment workers, and employees at the American Racing Equipment wheel factory in Los Angeles; Southern California drywallers; hotel workers in San Francisco; and the Los Angeles Manufacturing Action Project (LAMAP), an innovative but short-lived attempt to link unions and community groups in a city-wide organizing strategy. One important overall result of these analyses is an affirmation of the conviction that immigrants are organizable--a view that has largely displaced earlier conventional wisdom to the contrary.
One of the questions this volume usefully addresses is whether this period of successful immigrant organizing in the early 1990s was sustained throughout the decade, or whether these cases represented isolated instances, difficult to reproduce and even to consolidate. The authors were able to follow up on organizing actions that sparked great optimism when they first occurred. The result is a more measured assessment of what is possible given the numerous obstacles to organizing that remain in this country. The tone of the chapters is therefore one of cautious optimism.
The challenge of organizing immigrants includes the substantial legal obstacles that face all union organizing in the United States. These legal obstacles are well known to U.S. labor scholars and trade unionists, and they are recounted here in the chapter on janitors by Catherine L. Fisk, Daniel J.B. Mitchell, and Christopher L. Erickson. In this case the narrow legal definition of "employer" and the restrictions on secondary boycotts hinder the organization of janitors.
The use of new organizing strategies, including those that circumvent the NLRB electoral process, are especially important in immigrant organizing. Rachel Sherman and Kim Voss stress this point in a chapter that finds union locals that used innovative organizing tactics, such as recruiting bilingual organizers and deploying a rank-and-file-intensive strategy, were more successful in their attempts to organize immigrant workers.
A key lesson to draw from this book is that understanding more about the social experience of immigrant workers is critical to successful organizing. In a rich case study of American Racing Equipment, Carol Zabin suggests that the failure to take advantage of the workers' social networks in other manufacturing plants was a missed opportunity to extend union organization. In the chapter on the drywallers' strike, Ruth Milkman and Kent Wong highlight the fact that most of the workers came from the same Mexican village, which was key to that bottom-up organizing effort. Such details make this book valuable to students of immigration and ethnic studies as well as labor.
The volume strives to bring together literatures on industrial relations and on immigration that have traditionally remained apart. But the chapters signal the need to work even harder to integrate these perspectives. The fact that the drywallers, janitors, and workers at American Racing Equipment organized themselves before any unions appeared is portrayed as a factor in their success. Other chapters highlight the importance of pre-existing social networks and the prior organizing experiences of workers in their home countries. Yet in most cases these chapters do not explore the self-organizing process, the backgrounds of the workers that make them prone to organization, or the social networks that permit them to maintain solidarity and extend their organizing efforts, The book incorporates extensive interviews, but surprisingly few of these are with immigrant workers, Instead we hear from employers, industry executives, union attorneys, and native-born union organizers.
These cases of immigrant organizing illustrate the importance of integrating ethnographic research on immigrants into future analyses of union organizing. Such issues as immigrants' prior work and organizing experiences in their home countries, their social networks in the United States and in their countries of origin, the role of transnationalism in forging their identities, the tactics they use in grassroots organizing, and the role of such institutions as the church and hometown associations must find their way into the literature on union organizing strategies. Better incorporation of the immigrant experience in such studies can help bridge the gap between immigrants and the culture of unions. The existence of this gap is suggested by Hector Delgado, who quotes an activist as saying, "Organized labor is perceived in Latino communities as an 'outsider.'" Delgado contributes a perceptive concluding chapter that offers a critical but sympathetic account of union and AFL-CIO failure to support LAMAP due larg ely to internal union politics.
This important volume breaks new ground in its analysis of how unions organize immigrants. At the same time, the book reveals gaps that underscore the need for future research exploring the organizing experience from the perspective of immigrant workers.
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|Author:||Cook, Maria Lorena|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Apr 1, 2001|
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