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January 2003, Volume 9, Number 1

Organizing Immigrants

Milkman, Ruth. Ed. 2000. Organizing Immigrants: The Challenge for Unions in Contemporary California. Cornell University Press.

This nine-chapter book examines campaigns to organize low-wage and generally unskilled immigrant workers in the Los Angeles area in the 1990s. The book, which includes papers presented at a conference at UCLA in May 1998, opens with the observation that a "subculture of opposition" had to be created among immigrant workers from various European countries in the 1920s and 1930s to forge successful unions: "a new moral code [had to be] developed that convinced workers that they owed the same kinds of loyalties to workers of other nationalities that they owed to people of their own nationality." (p 3). The Congress of Industrial Organizations was most successful federation of unions that created a working-class consciousness among immigrant workers, and "the birth of the CIO came a full decade after the flow of immigrants from Europe was cut off." (p 5)

The major question addressed in the book is whether unions can once again serve as vehicles for uplifting masses of unskilled immigrant workers. Some authors stress the differences between current immigrants and labor markets and those in the past, while others stress the similarities. The differences include high levels of both legal and unauthorized migration; globalization that tends to shift bargaining power to employers and makes many businesses that employ immigrant workers economically fragile, and the fact that many of today's immigrants may be more familiar with unions and labor laws in their home countries than European peasant immigrants were a century ago.

The longer immigrant workers are in the US, the more likely they are to earn higher wages and belong to unions.

There were three catalytic efforts to raise wages for immigrant workers in the Los Angeles area in the early 1990s: Justice for Janitors in summer 1990, a campaign at American Racing Equipment in 1990, and a drywall workers' strike in summer 1992. The drywall workers' strike, reviewed in Chapter 7, explains how two-thirds of the 4,000 mostly Mexican immigrants in summer 1992 eventually joined the Carpenters union. The Pacific Rim Drywall Association signed an agreement with the Carpenters union on November 10, 1992 that doubled piece-rate wages for hanging drywall and introduced health insurance.

Chapter 9 reviews the Los Angeles Manufacturing Action Project, an effort to organize immigrant workers in Los Angeles and San Francisco areas by coordinating the efforts of various unions as well as involving the Catholic Church and community groups. The effort largely failed, for reasons that are laid mostly to personality clashes and rivalry between unions that prevented full funding-- the California recession of the early 1990s and continued immigration were not considered important factors.

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