Everybody in the Tent: Lessons from the Grassroots About Labor Organizing, Immigrants, and Temporary Worker Policies
35 Pages Posted: 18 May 2014
Date Written: May 16, 2014
Why are so many immigrant workplaces non-unionized and what can the labor movement do about it? The questions about whether and how effectively to bring immigrant workers into the labor movement involve not just the impact of immigrant labor on organizing efforts, but also the effect of the labor movement’s policy positions on immigrant labor. According to the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (“AFL-CIO”), protections for immigrant workers are as important to the labor movement as protecting jobs for U.S. workers. While there are great examples of union success in organizing immigrant workplaces, however, the vast majority of immigrant workers remain unorganized. The residential construction industry is one of the areas where low-skilled, non-unionized immigrant workplaces dominate the landscape. Unions have had some limited and scattered success in rebuilding the residential construction industry labor movement in places like Los Angeles, California, but the success has not been sustained.
In this article, I share perspectives of local residential construction workers and labor leaders collected from a series of interviews in Las Vegas, Nevada about obstacles to organizing immigrants. I conducted over 100 interviews between 2006 and 2008 that are the basis for a larger project on working conditions among immigrant workers in the residential construction industry in Las Vegas. In this article, I explore how immigrant workers and local organizers respond to questions about the difficulties in organizing immigrants. Their responses should provide some guidance to policy advocates and the labor movement as they formulate positions around comprehensive immigration reform proposals.
In Part I of this article, I describe what academics view as obstacles to immigrant worker organizing, including changes in the structure of the construction industry, and restrictive immigration laws. In Part II, I describe the Las Vegas Residential Construction Industry Study and explore the gap in perceptions between local union leaders and non-union workers about obstacles to organizing. I conclude in this part that the construction trade union movement must incorporate aspects of immigrant organizing strategies that have occurred in the service industry. In Part III, I explore the effects of union activity in the most recent negotiations over comprehensive immigration reform, analyzing how the AFL-CIO’s position might work at cross-purposes to its stated goals of organizing immigrant workplaces and bringing immigrants into the labor movement. I conclude that by conceding the contingent nature of construction work and then limiting the legal avenues for immigration into construction work, the AFL-CIO’s compromises further weaken local labor organizers’ attempts to organize immigrants.
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