Organizing Intersecting Identities: Trade Unions and Precarious Migrant Workers Across the Atlantic

Tuesday, July 15, 2014: 11:10 AM
Room: Booth 41
Oral Presentation
Gabriella ALBERTI , Work and Employment Relations Division, Leeds University Business School, Leeds, United Kingdom
A key challenge for trade unions in this period of globalization is not only the need to rebuild power and survive as organizations, but also to overcome workforce divisions in fragmented labor markets where migrants tend to be employed under poor and precarious conditions (Alberti et al. forthcoming; Standing 2011; Wills et al. 2009). This paper draws from a comparative study on union strategies towards immigrant workers across four countries: Germany, France, the United Kingdom and United States conducted between 2008 and 2011 (Adler et al. 2014). It explores the ways in which migrants workers’ identities are mobilised and become ‘strategic’ in labour organising campaigns. Three campaigns where unions collaborated with community groups to advance the working lives of low-paid migrants have been selected, namely: the ‘CLEAN’ Carwash campaign in Los Angeles and the ‘Justice for Cleaners’ and the ‘Hotel Workers’ campaigns in London. The findings point to the persistence of barriers to migrants’ involvement in unions with a strong industrial tradition, i.e. those that target industrial sectors in which immigrants ‘happen’ to be found rather than identifying their specific issues (e.g. language, legal advice, immigration problems, temporary contracts). In contrast positive examples emerged where unions engaged with workers while taking account of their migrant background through a mix of individual case-work and collective mobilisation; where a clear choice was made to collaborate with migrant-based organizations such as worker centres; and where unions’ receptivity of the organizing tools and cultures that diasporas bring with them was higher. The main argument highlights the need for unions to make their structures more porous and develop forms of ‘contingent membership’ able to accommodate the specific demands of precarious migrants and diasporas that are still ‘in transit’, while valorising the political and educational baggage held by those who are part of already organized communities.