Harvest of Empire, Part 2

Against the Current, No. 128, May/June 2007

Kim Moody

ACCORDING TO THE Migration Policy Institute’s estimate, 1.8 million foreign-born workers belonged to unions in 2003, up from 1.4 million in 1996, increasing as a proportion of union membership from 8.9% to 11.5% in that period. The rapid increase in the proportion of foreign-born union members was due in part to the decline in membership among native-born workers.(1)

Ruth Milkman, in the introduction to a recent study of immigrant organizing, reached the following conclusion concerning the unionization of immigrant workers:

“A key finding from this analysis is that recent immigrants (those arriving in 1990 or later) are the least likely to be unionized, whereas those who have been in the United States the longest (arriving before 1980) have unionization levels roughly double those of newcomers, and in California over four times as great.”

She goes on to say, “In fact, for the nation’s most settled immigrants, union membership is as likely — and for most subgroups more likely — as for native workers.”(2)

In other words, as time goes on and immigrants become more accustomed to their new home, establish documented status, or become citizens they are as or more likely to join or organize a union than native-born Americans. The outpouring of millions of immigrant workers on May 1, 2006 was certainly a signal that they will fight for a better life even in the face of repression and possible job loss. These signs are extremely important as they can lay the basis for current and future organizing.

Although U.S. unions have a history of anti-foreign attitudes and practices, that has begun to change. In addition, immigrants are already attempting to organize in a variety of ways. The question is: Are the strategies and structures of today’s unions fit for the job? Are they even looking at some of the immigrant groups with the most potential bargaining power?

On May 1, 1886 hundreds of thousands of workers, many of them immigrants, struck across America for the eight-hour day, creating what would become International Workers Day almost everywhere in the world except the United States. One hundred and twenty years later on May 1, 2006 millions of immigrant workers struck and demonstrated for the right to work without harassment in the United States. It was called “A Day Without Immigrants,” and many of the nation’s worst paying jobs would go unperformed for all or part of the day.

If the estimates of five or six million participants are right, then perhaps as much as a quarter of the country’s 21 million foreign-born workers took action of some sort. Unlike May 1, 1886, unions did not call this action and played only a supportive role in it.  A network of some 600 advocacy and community organizations with strong backing from the Catholic Church served as the organizational backbone for May 1 and the March and April demonstrations that preceded it.(3)

The turnout was all the more impressive because the organizers in different cities had different agendas. Some called for a boycott or stay-at-home, but others, like L.A. Cardinal Roger Mahony warned potential demonstrators not to risk their jobs.(4) Still, they turned out by the tens and hundreds of thousands in cities across the country.

Unions did play a supporting role in the events of May 1. In Los Angeles, for example, they put up more than $80,000 and handled much of the logistics. SEIU and AFSCME leaders acted as liaison to the immigrant organizations and the Teamsters provided two 18-wheelers to lead off the march.(5)

Labor support was aided by a dramatic change of policy by the AFL-CIO in 2000, when the federation embraced amnesty for undocumented workers. This in turn had been preceded by a demonstration of 15,000 in Washington, DC called by the National Coalition for Dignity and Amnesty. Indeed, this Coalition had been holding demonstrations on May 1 since 1999.(6) The growing interaction between immigrant groups and unions reached a new level when several unions went on to play a key role in the 2003 “Immigrant Workers’ Freedom Ride,” a caravan that crossed the country and ended in a mass demonstration in New York. This high visibility event helped to build self-confidence in going public with the issue of immigrants rights.(7)

The May 1 actions also revealed the often overlooked strategic position that immigrant workers have in some industries. The Mexican and Central American waterfront truckers in the nation’s largest port, Los Angeles/Long Beach, discussed below, brought 90% of that port’s activities to a standstill on May 1. The meat and poultry processing industry reported that 50% of its operations across the country had been halted on that day. The American Nursery and Landscaping Association said that 90% of its workers struck, as did a similar percentage of workers in garden supply warehouses. Construction was also heavily hit in many areas as immigrant workers, like the California drywall hangers discussed below, walked out for the day.(8)

Thus May 1, 2006 showed not only the willingness and ability of immigrant workers to act on their own despite the high risk of job loss or even deportation, but also the strength of the immigrant workforce in significant parts of the U.S. economy. This fact is key to understanding both the growth of trade union and community-based organization among immigrants.

Workers in the new, post-1970s wave of immigration had been striking and organizing for some time — often on their own. In 1986, a successful strike by Mexican women at Watsonville Canning had become a cause celebre. Though members of the Teamsters, they had drawn on their own resources and support from local officials and other unions to win.(9)

But the strikes and self-organizing efforts of the 1990s and 2000s were different in important ways. Most of them occurred in industries that had once been unionized but had gone through a dramatic restructuring and/or work reorganization in the 1980s. The unions had declined or collapsed, and along with them wages and conditions. It is important to note, as Milkman and Wong show in their study of four such situations in southern California, that the exit of native-born workers came as a result of declining conditions and not as a result of the entrance of immigrant workers.(10) The immigrants filled mostly vacant and usually newly reorganized jobs.

By the 1990s, the new workforce began unionizing, often on its own initiative. If the carefully planned and centrally directed 1990 Justice with Janitors strike was one of the first strikes by nonagricultural immigrant workers to capture public attention, the 1992 strikes by some 4,000 drywall hangers in Southern California pointed to something new: a strike initiated and sustained by immigrant workers themselves.

While they would receive support from the Carpenters and eventually join that union, the immigrant construction workers organized and led the strike on their own terms, closing down the residential construction industry in much of southern California for five months. This was a piece of the residential construction industry that had gone non-union, like that in the rest of the country. In 1992, striking on their own, these drywallers would bring back the union — a union that had given up organizing this industry years before and was at first reluctant to bring the drywallers under contract.

The organization of the strike initially came from immigrants from the town of El Maguey, Mexico several hundred of whom worked in the industry. This pattern would be repeated in countless strikes and organizing drives.(11)

The uniting of workers from the same place in new communities and in the same work had re-established links long broken for many native-born workers. As work and neighborhood became separated in the U.S. economy over the years, Stan Weir noted, “Informal organization in the work process no longer has supplemental aid from informal organization in the neighborhood. Only as racial and ethnic minorities in the central city cores gain more employment in city industry does the advantage return.”(12)

The connection of common origin, shared neighborhood or community, and work provides a source of strength for immigrant organization in many cases. It had been a factor in the 1990s Justice for Janitors campaign.(13) It also helps account for much of the self-organization that has taken place among immigrant workers. A survey of efforts by immigrant workers to organize unions is beyond the scope of this study. But to get at the potential and dynamics of this key sector of the workforce, we will look at a few examples.

Like building services and construction in southern California, waterfront trucking there had gone through a major restructuring in which Teamster members had been replaced by independent owner-operators and declining conditions in the 1980s. Once again, Latino immigrants filled the void.

In 1988 and again in 1993, the Latino truckers had struck with only informal organization. Though further organization was largely initiated by the workers themselves, Communications Workers of America Local 9400 offered to help. As owner-operators and independent contractors, the truckers had no statutory rights to unionize or strike. Together, however, they planned a complex strategy that involved the creation of an “employer” and, in 1996, a strike.

Unlike the drywallers strike, the truckers efforts failed, largely due to the massive efforts of the truck contractors and extensive legal barriers, but the potential of self-organization had shown itself once again.(14) The fight of the waterfront truckers, however, didn’t end in the 1990s. In 2004 and 2005 they would strike again over government harassment and fuel prices. Then on May 1, 2006, the “Day Without Immigrants,” they struck along with millions of others, once again closing the port of Los Angeles/Long Beach.(15)

This transformation from formerly unionized workers to owners or drivers who leased their equipment was common to other areas of transportation as well. Across the country in New York, both the taxi and “Black Car” or limousine services had been reorganized so that the fleet drivers ceased to be employees and became independent contractors who now had to lease their cars. In both cases, the immigrant drivers who filled these new contracted positions organized themselves to resist the near-poverty earnings they made and the long hours they worked to make them.

The reclassification of yellow cab drivers from employees working out of a fleet garage and earning a commission into independent contractors began in the 1970s. The last union, SEIU Local 3036, virtually disappeared in the 1980s and the traditional workforce moved on or retired. The proportion of true taxi owner-operators who owned their medallion, the license required of every cab, dropped from 30% to 15% by the 1990s. The majority who had been employees earning a percentage of “the meter” now had to lease their cab and pay for their own fuel. They literally spent the first few hours of each day working off their daily lease-fee.

In the 1990s, Asian drivers had organized an advocacy group to lobby for better conditions known as the Lease Drivers Coalition. Most of the drivers were now South Asians, mostly Indian or Pakistani, and the Coalition was ethnically based. In 1998, however, the group transformed itself into the New York Taxi Workers Alliance open to all yellow cab drivers. In May 1998, the new organization surprised the city when virtually all 24,000 cab drivers struck for 24 hours. Although as independent contractors they have no collective bargaining rights, they have functioned as a union ever since with about 5,000 actual members. They scored an enormous victory in 2004 when they negotiated a fare increase with the city with 70% of the increase going to the drivers.(16)

The city’s 12,000 “Black Car” drivers work for fleets that serve corporate customers who want the elegant cars for their executives and clients. But like the taxi drivers, they are independent contractors who must lease these cars. After paying their lease fees and other expenses they make between $4 and $6 an hour. Most are South Asians, but there are also East Asians and Central Americans.

In 1995, they began organizing themselves. In this case, through an acquaintance they approached District 15 of the International Association of Machinists. Unlike many unions in this sort of situation, the Machinists allowed the drivers to organize and lead their own local, Machinists’ Lodge 340. In an unusual turn of events that does not seem to have been picked up by other unions, the Machinists won a National Labor Relations Board case in 1997 declaring the drivers employees.

In 1999, Lodge 340 won its first contract with one of the major companies. Resistance from employers was intense and, because many drivers were Muslims, so was harassment by the Federal government after 9/11. Nevertheless, by 2005, Lodge 340 had 1,000 dues-paying members. The effort to organize the whole industry continues.(17)

Unfortunately, unions are not always this attentive to those who try to organize themselves. When the mostly Mexican workers in New York’s green grocery stores began to organize themselves in the 1990s, they were at first helped by UNITE Local 169. In a jurisdictional dispute, however, they were passed on to United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 1500 which, by most accounts, was not particularly attentive to the needs of these immigrant workers. A similar case occurred with UFCW Local 338 in New York with African grocery store delivery workers, who had also organized themselves before approaching the union.(18)

This phenomenon of common origin, community and work doesn’t only occur in big cities. The example of the Guatemalan workers at the Case Farms poultry plant in Morganton, North Carolina shows that it can work in a semi-rural area as well. These workers, Mayas from the same areas of Guatemala, composed the majority of the 500 workers in this plant.

As in most poultry plants, the conditions were horrible and unsafe and in 1993, these workers staged a brief strike. This caused both the UFCW and the Laborers International Union (LIUNA) to look into this plant as a possible target for organizing. Although this was the UFCW’s jurisdiction, the Laborers won the trust of the Mayan workers, helping them through another strike in 1995 and on to union recognition.

What was clear, however, is that the union found an organized group of workers. As one union representative put it, “We didn’t organize anybody. There was a union there before the union got there.” Unfortunately, neither the workers nor the Laborers’ Union were able to force a first contract on the company. Rather than simply abandoning the Case workers, the Laborers agreed to fund the formation of a worker center that would be administered by the National Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice. The center would address the problems of the many Central American workers in that part of North Carolina.(19)

If it is true that union organizing among immigrants is often enabled by the overlap of place of national or ethic origin, shared neighborhood or community, as well as common work, it should come as no surprise that much of the organizing that goes on among immigrants is community based. This includes a very broad range of organizations providing services, advocacy, legal rights, education, political mobilization, and policy development.

As we saw above, hundred of such organizations were involved in the massive mobilization of May 1, 2006. Many of these organizations serve or “do for” immigrants and are run by middle class professionals focusing on broad issues of immigrant rights or social welfare. What concerns us here are those organizations that actually organize immigrant workers with a focus on their work like the LIUNA-sponsored Workers Center in North Carolina.

Worker Centers

Worker centers differ from other community-based organizations in that they focus mainly, though not exclusively, on workplace issues. Most of them engage in a combination of service delivery, advocacy, leadership training and organizing. All four tend to focus on issues related to work: pay and failure to pay, health and safety, immigration status, various employment rights.

It is the organizing function and leadership development, however, that give worker centers the potential to play an important role in the development of unionization and a broader social and political movement. As community-based organizations they are geographically bound. Most of the workplaces or jobs in which their members are employed are within or near the communities. In some cases, like those of day laborers or farm workers where the work itself may be distant, the center focuses on sites where workers obtain jobs (street corners, contractors, or agencies).

In almost all cases it is the employer-employee relationship, the reality of exploitation, that gives the worker center its significance.(20) The worker center phenomenon grows out of many of the changes in work itself that have taken place in the last thirty or so years, some of which were described earlier: subcontracting, sweatshops, exploding food service and hospitality industries, relocated/de-unionized industries, new retailers giant and small, and the growth of “off-the-books” work in the informal economy. All these sources of employment have in common low wages, poor benefits, and workers of color. Increasingly the latter are also immigrants.

By 2005 there were by one count 137 worker centers, 122 of which dealt specifically with immigrant workers. In terms of the regions of origin of those immigrant workers who participate in worker centers about 40% come from Mexico and Central America, another 18% from South America, 15% each from East Asia and the Caribbean, 8% from Africa, 3% from Europe, and 1% from the rest of Asia.(21) In terms of their region of settlement in the U.S., worker centers reflect concentrations of immigration: 41 are in the Northeast; 36 on the West Coast; 34 in the South; 17 in the East North Central region; and the rest scattered around the West.

Almost 80% of the workers involved are immigrants. The relatively large number in the South tells us something about the geographic distribution of reorganized and subcontracted industries such as food processing and automobile parts production.

The rise of worker centers has followed the rhythm of both work reorganization and of immigration and has come in three waves. The first group began in the late 1970s and early 1980s initiated by politically-minded activists with some connection to union organization. One of the first was the Chinese Staff and Workers Association (CSWA) in New York City’s Chinatown.

CSWA was born out of a 1978 drive by HERE Local 69 to organize the city’s Chinese restaurants. Workers joined Local 69 but became disillusioned with the neglect they experienced. In 1979, those at Chinatown’s huge Silver Palace voted to form their own union with the support of what became the CSWA. Others soon followed suit.

CSWA organizers linked the independent unions to the community and went on to help workers not in unions as well and to deal with other neighborhood issues such as housing. One of their organizers explained their view of organizing:

“By organize, we don’t just mean joining the union. We see the union as a means to organize something greater…We organize where we live and work.”(22)

At least two other worker centers were formed around this time. La Mujer Obrera (the Woman Worker) in El Paso, Texas grew out of a garment workers strike at Farah Clothing. Formed in 1981, it focused on women in the small garment shops on the border after the big outfits like Farah folded up or moved across the border and the unions left the area. Not all of these women workers are immigrants; many are citizens where families have been for decades or more and overlap the Rio Grande (or Rio Bravo on the Mexican side).

The Black Workers for Justice based in Rocky Mount, North Carolina came out of a fight against discrimination at K-Mart. This is an African American organization in an industrializing area of the South “Black Belt.” It brought together workers from many of the plants in and around Rocky Mount on a community-wide basis. As a result of this work, BWFJ has also been a pioneer on Non-Majority Unionism, the building of union organization in plants and workplaces where the union hasn’t yet won recognition and collective bargaining status.

In the 1990s BWFJ joined with the United Electrical Workers (UE) to form UE Local 150 at the University of North Carolina. More recently, they joined with the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, which has successfully organized Latino farm workers in North Carolina, to form the Black-Latino Alliance.(23)

Black Workers for Justice, CSWA, and La Mujer Obera set the pattern of community-based worker organization for most of those that came after. Another organization that began as part of the first wave was the Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence (CAAV) in New York City formed in the 1980s to defend Asian women in particular. In addition to that work, the CAAV would spin-off at least two other organizations that would form part of the third wave of worker centers: the Lease Driver Coalition that became the New York Taxi Workers Alliance discussed above and the Domestic Workers Union.(24)

The second wave came from the late 1980s through the mid-1990s. Many of these were driven by the wave of immigration from Central America as people fled the wars, death squads, and counter-revolutions that were largely the result of U.S. foreign policy in the region.(25)

One of the earliest second wave worker centers was the Workplace Project based on suburban Long Island, New York. Founded in 1992, the Workplace Project was a spin-off of a Central American Immigrant service organization. The Workplace Project organized among those working in this suburban areas restaurant, construction, landscaping, and housekeeping jobs. Many of these workers were undocumented and were being paid well below the minimum wage. Often they worked as day laborers, gathering on street corners to be picked up by potential employers.

The Workplace Project began by taking legal cases to gain unpaid wages, a common problem for immigrants. But founder Jennifer Gordon realized this was not increasing the power or security of the workers. So the Project hired Omar Henriquez, a Salvadoran, to help the workers organize to press their claims collectively, learning from CSWA and La Mujer Obrera. In particular, day laborers who gathered on certain street corners organized a demanded a common wage and succeeded in increasing their earnings significantly.(26)

Another second wave worker center is Make The Road By Walking located in Brooklyn’s Bushwick neighborhood, one of New York’s poorest. With new waves of immigrants in the 1980s and 1990s, Bushwick became a predominantly Latino area. Make The Road is a multi-issue organization dealing with housing, education, community development, and even Gay and Lesbian issues as well as workplace problems.(27) The heart of its organizing program is Tabajadores en Acción, which focuses on local garment sweatshops and the area’s retail stores which employ mostly immigrants at notoriously low wages.

Like other workers centers, one of its main activities is recovering unpaid wages. In one year, they recovered $200,000 in back wages.(28) At one store, MiniMax, as organizer Deborah Axt explained:

“We won $65,000 in back wages. More importantly, though, was that the women were organizing to change the conditions of the workers who are there now. We were able to win paid sick days, an FMLA (Family Medical Leave Act — KM) kind of coverage, and public posting of legal and workplace rights.”(29)

Make The Road also worked with the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union to successfully organize a small athletic shoe chain, Footco, winning their first contract in January 2006.(30)

The third wave of worker centers came after 2000. According to Janice Fine, the leading academic expert on worker centers, more of these were connected to unions than in the past.(31) One example is the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC), set up in the wake of 9/11 by workers from the Windows on the World restaurant in the World Trade Center. Under pressure from displaced workers, HERE Local 100, to which the workers belonged, asked former workers to set up the ROC as a self-help effort in 2002.

Soon, however, ROC became an organizing project willing to work with those in restaurants the union hadn’t approached in the past. Like other worker centers it helped non-union workers win back pay, paid days off, lunch breaks and other improvements. ROC has its own Board composed mostly of immigrant workers, but still maintains a relationship with HERE Local 100, which acts as ROC’s fiscal sponsor.(32) In part, ROC sustained itself by acting as a catering cooperative, but in 2005 it set up its own full service restaurant, “Colors.”

Another third wave organization is the Domestic Workers Union, based primarily in Brooklyn among a very broad base of immigrant groups. In 2003, the DWU succeeded in winning a Domestic Workers Bill of Rights from the New York City Council, requiring agencies to spell out terms and condition of employment and the actual employer to sign an agreement to those terms.(33)

While we cannot attempt a total survey of worker centers, no account would be complete without reference to the Coalition of Immokolee Workers (CIW). Founded in 1995, the Coalition of Immokolee Workers is a second wave worker center. CIW differs from most worker centers, however, in that it is rural and based mostly on farm labor, though workers from other low-wage industries also belong.

Immokolee is a dirt poor town in the midst of Florida’s tomato fields. CIW members come mostly from Mexico, Guatemala and Haiti. Although not affiliated with either the United Farm Workers or Farm Labor Organizing Committee and does not regard itself as a union, it has used the same tactic as those unions to make its major gains: the boycott.

In fact, CIW has used a number of tactics in its efforts to get Taco Bell, purchaser of most of the tomatoes they pick, to pay a penny more per pound — enough to double their wages. They have organized three strikes in the area, held a 30-day hunger strike in 2003, and marched 240 miles across Florida to make their point. Some of these actions produced wage increases. It was, however, the boycott that finally won the amazing victory of several hundred farm workers over Taco Bell and its parent, fast food giant Yum Brands, which also owns Kentucky Fried Chicken, Pizza Hut, Long John Silver’s, and A&W.

Like the UFW and FLOC boycotts before it, the CIW’s Taco Bell boycott got widespread support from other organizations, including Jobs with Justice, church groups, and unions. Student “Boot the Bell” campaigns got Taco Bell kicked off of 22 campuses by the time of the victory. Key to going national with their campaign was the network of other worker centers around the country.

This reminds us that worker centers are becoming a nationwide force. What CIW won with this support would effect more than their own members. Yum agreed to double the percentage of the tomatoes’ price going to the workers by a “pass-through” increase in what it pays. Taco Bell agreed to buy only from growers who agree to the “pass-through.”

An enforceable code of conduct for fast food industry suppliers, with the CIW as a monitoring organization, was also part of the agreement. With the victory of the Immokolee workers and others that came before like the Asian Women’s Immigrant Association’s victory Jessica McClintock in the 1990s, worker centers have staked a claim as part of the American labor movement.(34)

Worker centers are an important addition to working class organization in the U.S., but like the unions they have their limits and structural problems. First, they are small. Most of those that are membership groups have 500 or fewer members. Perhaps more important is the matter of social power. Steve Jenkins, who was an organizer for Make the Road, argued that shared injustice does not necessarily mean shared social power.

Unlike unions, the centers cannot stop production. They can exercise social power through rent strikes or civil disobedience, but their power over workplace issues, which is a major focus and purpose, is limited to appealing to governmental units or agencies and other elite institutions. Whether lobbying city hall for housing improvements or going to the courts or state agencies for back pay, there is a strong tendency for the workers to be dependent on professionals — organizers, lawyers, etc.

Most of these centers are also dependent on foundation grants, which means dependency on the priorities of foundation officials and boards and on those who are best at writing grant proposals. Thus, community-based groups tend to be dependent on staffers who are frequently, though not exclusively, drawn from the educated middle class.

Biju Mathew of the Taxi Workers Alliance holds an even harsher critique of these organizations. He writes, “’Communities’ in the CBO (community-based organization) world are not organized communities, but at worst tokens for the self-perpetuation of the activist class, and at best occasionally mobilized groups of people.”(35) While this seems overly negative, it points to the problem of who really directs these organizations when skill often substitutes for mass social power.

Viewed only in the terms in which worker centers and similar community-based groups define themselves and act today, these limitations are real. But it is possible that in a period of more general social upsurge they can become a source of broader mobilization. The power of the poor, as most past upheavals show, lies in three areas: the disruption of business as usual; organization into and/or alliance with other working class organizations, notably unions; and in political action by virtue of numbers.

The first of these, analyzed by Piven and Cloward, is the traditional recourse of the poor whether in the form of urban disorder, concerted civil disobedience, rent strikes, even mass workplace strikes. The 1960s provided many examples of this.(36) The second, unionization or alliances with unions, is trickier. There is a history of tension between many workers centers and unions they have tried to work with. As one ROC leader put it in terms of the HERE, the union “seems to have trouble letting go.”(37)

Unions as bureaucratic institutions don’t like sharing power with risky or unfamiliar groups. Yet there are also many examples of cooperation between the two. And while many unions prefer to ignore low-wage workers, many of the recent gains have in fact been among low-wage workers with no central workplace, such as home health care workers in New York as well as in California. Once again, the context is crucial and periods of more general resistance and upsurge offer greater possibilities, as do changes in union practices and perspectives. Jenkins, despite his criticisms, also notes:

“Workers centers are an oasis of support and useful services for workers facing inhumane working conditions and have few other resources available to them. Many are playing a central role in developing linkages between progressive unions and community-based organizing efforts that have the potential to strengthen both organizing arenas. It is possible that this will open up new strategies for organizing workers that improve upon traditional union-organizing models by broadening workplace struggles to involve the working class communities.”(38)

A good example of just that was the successful campaign to organize four big meatpacking plants in Omaha, Nebraska. The meatpacking industry had been drastically reorganized, the unions broken, and its new plants filled by recent immigrants from Mexico and Central America. It was the Omaha Together One Community (OTOC), a faith-based community organization affiliated with the Alinsky-inspired Industrial Areas Foundation, that first took notice of the plight of the packinghouse workers. In 1999 they held a mass demonstration of 1,200 people to protest these conditions.

The OTOC, as a worker center, could spread the word and protest, but by itself it lacked the power to change things. Eventually, they decided that a union was needed and a joint plan to organize 4,000 workers was announced in June 2000. With OTOC mobilizing the community as well as recruiting workers, the campaign was a success. This was a huge boost for the UFCW and a demonstration that this sort of alliance can bear fruit.

There were, however, problems once the union began negotiating the contract. Basically, as we have seen before, the union officials didn’t really listen to the workers. The contract they negotiated neglected many of the workers most heart-felt workplace issues or the question of immigration status.(39) There is a gap between the cultures of most unions and many worker centers that needs to be addressed. In particular, union officials and staff need to see worker centers as part of the same movement, but with unique functions.

Perhaps the UFCW leaders have learned something from this. In 2003, they set up a worker center in North Carolina as part of their long-term effort to organize the 5,500-worker Smithfield hog-processing plant in Tar Heel, North Carolina. About 60% of the workforce are Latino immigrants, and the UFCW has made a long term commitment. Drawing on community leaders and activists, the union called a May 1, 2006 (“A Day Without Immigrants”) rally and 5,000 people from many plants and communities showed up. Most plants had to shut down production for the day. In June, rallies were held in seven cities around the country. Here is where the union, the worker center, other community-based groups, and the national upsurge of immigrant workers came together.(40)

Worker centers, in other words, are best understood in the context of a broader labor movement of which they are one piece. Like unions trying new ways to organize and still not making huge breakthroughs, they need to be seen for their potential as much as for their current achievements and limitations. They are a potential training ground for groups of workers who are finding their own leaders and voicing their own demands and concerns.

The role of worker centers lies not so much in the direct exercise of power as in gathering  troops to highlight issues, train leaders, and aid in further organizing. One measure of their potential is their survival rate as organizations. In a political atmosphere where most of the mass social movements have faded, and where politics has been largely unfavorable to working class people in general and immigrants in particular, even the oldest of the worker centers have survived and thrived — while new ones have arisen to challenge this atmosphere.


  1. Migration Policy Institute, “Immigrant Union Members: Numbers and Trends,” Immigration Facts, No. 7, May 2004, 4.
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  2. Ruth Milkman (ed.) Organizing Immigrants: The Challenge for Unions in Contemporary California, Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 2000, 13.
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  3. New York Times, April 12, 2006, www.nytimes.com.
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  4. New York Times, May 2, 2006, www.nytimes.com; Brian Grow, “May Day: The Fight Behind the Protest,” Business Week online, April 28, 2006, www.businessweek.com.
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  5. Los Angeles Times, May 3, 2006, www.latimes.com.
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  6. Labor Notes, #253, April 2000, 1, 14; #273, December 2001, 15, 16.
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  7. Immanuel Ness, Immigrants, Unions, and the New U.S. Labor Market, Philsdelphia, Temple University Press, 2005, 43.
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  8. Labor Notes, #332, November 2006, 13.
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  9. Moody, 1988, 327-330.
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  10. Ruth Milkman and Kent Wong, “Organizing Immigrant Workers: Case Studies from Southern California,” in Turner, Katz, and Hurd (eds.), 104-107.
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  11. Ruth Milkman and Kent Wong, “Organizing the Wicked City: the 1992 Southern California Drywall Strike,” in Milkman, 2000, 169-188.
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  12. Cited in Hector Delgado, “the Los Angeles Manufacturing Action Project: An Opportunity Squandered?” in Milkman, 2000, 228-229.
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  13. Milkman and Wong, in Turner et al, 111.
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  14. Milkman and Wong, in Turner et al, 122-126.
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  15. Labor Notes, #327, June 2006, 1, 6.
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  16. Biju Mathew, Taxi! Cabs and Capitalism in New York City, New York, The New Press, 2005, 1-7, 68-69, 196-197.
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  17. Ness, 150-161.
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  18. Ness, 58-129.
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  19. Leon Fink, The Maya of Morganton: Work and Community in the Nuevo New South, Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 2003, 2-6, 54-78, 96-97.
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  20. Fine, 2-3, 11-14.
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  21. Fine, 7-21.
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  22. Vanessa Tait, Poor Workers Unions: Rebuilding Labor From Below, Cambridge, South End Press, 2005, 165-169, 173-174; Fine, 9.
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  23. Tait, 188-192; Fine, 9.
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  24. Fine, 137-138, 174.
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  25. Fine, 10-11.
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  26. Tait, 178-181.
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  27. Make The Road By Walking, “Building Power in Brooklyn & Beyond,” 2005 Annual  Report, Brooklyn, NY, 1-20.
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  28. Steve Jenkins, “Organizing, Advocacy, and Member Power,” Working USA: The Journal of Labor and Society, Vol. 6, No. 2, Fall 2002, 65-68.
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  29. Slaughter, TMH2, 262-263.
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  30. Make The Road, 2005 Annual Report, 12.
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  31. Fine, 11.
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  32. Saru Jayaraman, “In the Wake of 9/11: New York Restaurant Workers Explore New Strategies,” August 2004, www.labornotes.org; Fine, 17.
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  33. Fine, 174-175.
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  34. Labor Notes, #289, April 2003, p. 5; #313, April 2005, pp. 1, 14; Slaughter, TMH2, 148-152; Fine, 104-107.
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  35. Jenkins, 77-82; Mathew, 193-196.
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  36. Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward, Poor People’s Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Fail, New York, Vintage Books, 1979, passim.
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  37. Jayaraman, August 2003, www.labornotes.com.
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  38. Jenkins, 72.
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  39. Fine, 120-125; Slaughter, TMH2, 251-254.
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  40. Labor Notes, #329, August 2006, 10-11.
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ATC 128, May-June 2007