What's the Best Way Forward for Immigrant Workers? the Dynamics & Efficacy of Building Unions and Building Social Movements

Tuesday, July 15, 2014: 11:30 AM
Room: Booth 41
Oral Presentation
Kim VOSS , Sociology, University of California, Berkeley
In 2000, the peak association of the U.S. labor movement, the AFL-CIO, reversed its longstanding opposition to the legalization of undocumented immigrants and committed itself to organizing immigrant workers. Only a handful of its 57 affliated unions actually heeded the call, but those that did successfully unionized immigrant workers in some key cities and states. 

Yet, the number of immigrant workers involved in these unionization drives pales in comparison to the millions of immigrant workers involved in a very different kind of action: the massive nation-wide rallies for immigrant rights that took place in the United States in the spring of 2006.  Here, too, a couple of labor unions played a critical role, both in the immediate lead-up to the rallies and 3 years earlier in a campaign to help build a social movement for immigrant rights. Two unions (SEIU and UNITE HERE) sponsored the Immigrant Worker Freedom Rides (IWFR). Bus rides of immigrant workers and activists were used to bring publicity to the plight of undocumented workers in the U.S. and also to foster relationships among local labor unions, community-based organizations, and religious, student and immigrant-rights groups in the cities and towns where the buses stopped.  Recent research shows that the IWFR laid much of the institutional foundations for the 2006 rallies, especially in new destination communities (Voss and Bloemraad 2011).

In this paper, I examine these very different types of campaigns—those focused on unionization and those focused on building alliances and a social movement—comparing their dynamics and effectiveness. This assessment is far from straightforward; as one has to take into account not only immediate impacts but also longer-term effects, including the backlash against immigrants in some of the new-destination communities that had rallies in 2006.  Moreover, this backlash continues to be conditioned on state and local political climates.