Critical Mass: Latino Labor and Politics in California

April 10, 2008

Last year’s massive immigrant rights marches heralded the emergence of a new civil rights movement in the United States. But while this wave of popular protest heartened the progressive community, it also sparked a considerable backlash. The U.S. Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has stepped up its workplace raids and deportations of undocumented immigrants in recent months, while also intensifying its efforts to police the border. Carefully orchestrated to maximize media exposure, these selective enforcement initiatives carry enormous symbolic weight, even if they have virtually no practical effect on reducing the numbers of unauthorized immigrants—as many as 12 million, according to some estimates—who live and work in the United States today. ICE’s displays of force, along with growing locally based efforts to intimidate and expel foreign-born residents from some communities, seem calculated both to terrorize undocumented immigrants and their families, and to placate the right-wing anti-immigrant political camp that is such an important Republican constituency.

But immigrant communities, composed of both documented and undocumented immigrants (often in the same families and households), are themselves now deeply politicized, as last year’s marches made plain. Naturalization applications have soared in the last year, along with new voter registrations among eligible immigrants, although these developments have received far less media attention than the ICE raids and the ongoing mobilization of xenophobic forces. And whatever the short-term prospects of immigration-reform legislation in the new Congress, it is clearly impossible to put the immigrant rights genie back in the bottle. The nation’s political landscape is now permanently transformed, as the role of the growing Latino vote in last November’s elections showed. And the underlying dynamics of this shift will only intensify in the years to come, as new immigrants continue to arrive and as birth rates among the foreign-born outpace those of the native-born. Not only immigrants and their advocates, but also organized labor and a growing number of employers (strange bedfellows indeed) now actively support some form of legalization for the undocumented. The question is no longer whether this will happen, but only how and when.

These political developments have long been evident on the West Coast. On the national level, however, they were mostly under the radar until the groundswell of immigrant rights demonstrations exploded in the spring of 2006, when they instantly captured public attention. On the surface, the marches directly responded to the U.S. House of Representatives’ passage in late 2005 of the Border Protection, Anti-Terrorism, and Illegal Immigration Act (H.R. 4437), popularly known as the Sensenbrenner bill. Although it had little chance of becoming law (despite considerable popular support), that bill would have made it a felony for undocumented immigrants to simply be present in the United States and would have mandated the “expedited removal” of those apprehended by the authorities. The bill also would have criminalized anyone (or any organization) who “assisted” an undocumented individual, with penalties of up to five years in prison. Alarmed by this draconian proposal, millions of immigrants, documented and undocumented alike, poured into the streets in cities and towns all over the country.

The mass protest against H.R. 4437 took many observers by surprise, but it did not come out of nowhere. The groundwork had been laid for more than a decade by a surge of immigrant labor organizing—not only by traditional unions but also by the innovative worker centers that have sprung up in recent years. Although unions remain divided over some aspects of immigration reform, the spring 2006 marches made it obvious to all factions that immigrant organizing has enormous potential to revitalize the ailing labor movement.

Events in California more than a decade ago foreshadowed key national developments before and after the 2006 marches. California not only has the nation’s largest concentration of undocumented immigrants, but has also been on the leading edge of immigrant-worker organizing since the late 1980s. In 1994, the state’s voters passed Proposition 187, an anti-immigrant ballot measure that would have denied public services (including schooling) to undocumented immigrants, had it not been struck down by the courts as unconstitutional. Like the 2005 Sensenbrenner bill, Prop. 187 deeply alarmed both authorized and unauthorized immigrants and sparked massive popular protest. In Los Angeles, the 1994 demonstrations were the largest the city had seen since the Vietnam War. Prop. 187 also stimulated a wave of naturalizations among legal immigrants in California. The L.A. labor movement immediately seized the opportunity to expand its influence in the electoral arena by registering and mobilizing these newly eligible voters.

The striking parallels between the grassroots reaction to Prop. 187 and that to H.R. 4437 12 years later suggest that the political incorporation of California’s immigrants over the past decade might now be replicated on the national stage. Acutely aware of that possibility, many of the May 1, 2006, demonstrators carried signs declaring, “Hoy Marchamos, Mañana Votamos” (Today We March, Tomorrow We Vote). And soon after the marches, the We Are America Alliance and many other organizations launched naturalization and voter registration drives. These efforts had already begun to yield fruit by the November 2006 elections.


The ongoing debate over immigration reform has deepened internal divisions within the organized labor movement. While no one in the labor camp supported the repressive Sensenbrenner bill, the proposal for a guest-worker program in the 2006 Senate bill, which enjoyed support from many business groups and from the Bush administration, has become a key point of contention. Some unions, notably the giant Service Employees International Union (SEIU), lent their support to a guest-worker program on the condition that it would be accompanied by key protective measures (such as freedom for guest workers to change employers) as part of a package that also provided a path to legalization for the millions of undocumented immigrants already in the country. Others in organized labor, however, including the national AFL-CIO, staunchly oppose any guest-worker provisions, citing the bracero program of the 1940s and other historical examples to argue that such arrangements inevitably make workers vulnerable to extreme forms of employer exploitation.

This division, still present as the new Democratic Congress prepares to reconsider immigration reform, mirrors the labor movement’s dramatic 2005 split, in which seven unions, led by SEIU, disaffiliated from the AFL-CIO and formed their own rival federation, Change to Win (CTW). Although not all the CTW affiliates agree with SEIU’s position on guest workers, the lines of disagreement within labor reflect a structural difference between CTW unions and those in the AFL-CIO. The unions that have been most active in organizing new immigrants in recent years are concentrated in the CTW camp: SEIU is the leader here, followed closely by UNITE HERE (which represents textile, garment, and hotel workers), the Laborers, and the Carpenters—and of course the tiny United Farm Workers. The other two CTW unions, the Teamsters and the United Food and Commercial Unions, have also recruited some immigrants, although to a much lesser degree. By contrast, most AFL-CIO affiliates, rooted mainly in the public sector, old-line manufacturing, transportation, communication, and the building trades, represent an overwhelmingly native-born constituency—one whose rank-and-file support for undocumented immigrants’ rights is lukewarm at best.

In short, because the CTW affiliates have so many foreign-born members, an unknown but by all accounts substantial proportion of whom are undocumented, these unions have a strong pragmatic interest in helping to secure a legislative compromise that includes a path to legalization—even if it means holding their noses over the guest-worker provision, which many believe is an essential feature of any politically feasible legislative package. The AFL-CIO, on the other hand, can take a stand against guest workers on the basis of abstract principle, since few of its overwhelmingly U.S.-born members see legalization as an urgent need. In the end, there may be less to this dispute than meets the eye: Both sides support immigrant rights but disagree about short-term versus long-term priorities.

At the grassroots level, the vibrant worker centers that developed in the 1990s have played a pivotal role in politically mobilizing immigrants. As Janice Fine and Jennifer Gordon have documented in detail, the centers are not conventional membership-based unions but rather community-based organizations that advocate for, provide services to, and organize low-wage immigrant workers.1 The congruence between the geography of the spring 2006 marches and that of the worker centers themselves is striking.2

Although there are some tensions between unions and worker centers, they are cooperating and forging coalitions more and more. Since last year’s marches, both the laborers’ union (a CTW affiliate) and the AFL-CIO have built formal ties to the National Day Laborers’ Organizing Network. And labor leaders across the spectrum now appreciate the significance of the fact that the U.S. working class now has a huge foreign-born component. (Of course, this has been the case throughout most of the nation’s history—excepting, ironically, the peak years of labor’s strength from the 1930s to the 1960s, when restrictive legislation barred most immigrants from entering the country.) As labor struggles to build new ties to today’s foreign-born workforce, the central role of the West Coast, and especially Southern California, has commanded growing attention.


As a massive stream of immigrants began to arrive into California in the 1970s and 1980s, most observers presumed that the newcomers would have little or no impact on the labor or political scene. Least of all did anyone expect the burgeoning population of undocumented workers from Mexico and Central America—most of whom had minimal formal education and few economic resources—to become a significant political force. And with union density in a free fall both nationally and in California, organized labor’s obituary had been written many times over.

Yet, by 2000, the labor movement had transformed itself in the nation’s most populous state, with union density inching upward there even as it continued to decline relentlessly in the United States as a whole. Pathbreaking Latino immigrant unionization campaigns in Southern California in the 1990s, accompanied by innovative grassroots organizing efforts among the region’s low-wage workers (already largely foreign-born and Latino), were key ingredients in this unexpected shift. These early successes soon had political repercussions, laying the groundwork for an alliance between labor and the Latino community that became a political powerhouse both in Los Angeles and in the rest of the state.

Although the momentum propelling that alliance stalled after September 11, 2001, and in the 2003 recall election that thrust Arnold Schwarzenegger into the governorship, the infrastructure established in the 1990s remains intact. And while the conditions that fostered Latino immigrant organizing in California reflect the particularities of the state and its largest metropolis, they may prefigure shifts in the national political landscape.

In California, the process began in the late 1980s with a series of successful union drives among low-wage immigrant workers, many of them undocumented. The most famous example is SEIU’s Justice for Janitors campaign, which made a key breakthrough in Los Angeles in 1990 and went on to consolidate its gains thereafter. Meanwhile, the worker center movement exploded in the region, with an explicit focus on immigrant rights yet with an approach that eschewed conventional unionism. The worker centers systematically engaged unauthorized immigrants in various forms of civic and political participation, despite their lack of official citizenship rights.

All this activity initially came as a surprise both to labor activists and to most outside observers, who at the time viewed immigrants, and especially the undocumented, as “unorganizable.” The newcomers were presumed vulnerable, docile, and fearful of authority, and thus poor prospects for recruitment into labor organizations. But this once-conventional wisdom was overturned in the course of the 1990s, as foreign-born Latinos emerged as protagonists in one union drive after the next, and as the labor movement increasingly engaged them in grassroots political activism. Evidence rapidly accumulated to suggest that immigrants generally, and Latinos in particular, were actually more pro-union than native-born whites. By century’s end, the view of immigrants as unorganizable had largely been turned on its head: Now many claimed that immigrants were more receptive than natives to union organizing campaigns.

Several factors helped foster that receptivity. One was the strength of working-class immigrants’ social networks, which are essential to basic survival for foreign-born newcomers and which can facilitate both unionization and political mobilization. In Southern California, with its relatively homogenous immigrant population, largely Mexican and Central American, these networks are especially tight. In addition, class-based, collective organizations like unions are highly compatible with Latino immigrants’ past lived experience and worldviews, whereas native-born workers tend to have a more individualistic orientation. And crucially, the shared experience of stigmatization among immigrants, both during migration and continuing after many years of settlement, means that when unions or worker centers reach out, they are often received with enthusiasm.

Indeed, the experience of stigmatization and of hostility from natives, rather than generating passivity and fear as many commentators once presumed, can instead foster solidarity and organizing. Prop. 187, for example, galvanized even the previously apolitical Mexican hometown associations. But above all it was organized labor, fresh from the success of the Justice for Janitors campaign and others in the years preceding the Prop. 187 referendum, that seized the moment of opportunity. The weakness of traditional political machines in Los Angeles (thanks to an earlier period of political reform a century ago), as well as the relatively small number of political offices and the high costs of mounting electoral campaigns, created a vacuum that the city’s newly strengthened labor movement was destined to fill.

Starting in the early 1990s, the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor (the local AFL-CIO body) was transformed from a junior partner of the local Democratic Party establishment into a force with its own capacity for grassroots mobilization. Labor now devoted extensive resources to helping immigrants eligible for naturalization become citizens and then mobilizing them at the polls. The legendary Miguel Contreras, a labor organizer who became the County Fed’s secretary-treasurer in 1996, was the leading architect of the city’s labor-Latino alliance, which built on SEIU’s base and on that of the hotel workers’ union (now part of UNITE HERE), where Contreras had previously worked. Under his leadership, the County Fed deployed its massive economic and human resources into organizing direct-mail campaigns, phone banks, precinct walks, and worksite outreach targeting both union members and new immigrant voters.

Candidates supported by the County Fed, mostly Latinos, began to win contest after contest in congressional, legislative, and City Council races, rapidly displacing the old-line political insiders. An early example was the 1994 election of union organizer Antonio Villaraigosa to a State Assembly seat representing northeast Los Angeles. Two years later, the County Fed helped Democrats regain control of the Assembly; then in 1999, Villaraigosa became the Assembly speaker, going on to become mayor of the nation’s second-largest metropolis in 2005.

In these years, the relationship between labor’s growing political clout and its ongoing efforts to unionize unorganized workers took the form of a virtuous circle. In one stunning example, SEIU added 74,000 Los Angeles home care workers to its ranks after winning its long political campaign to change state law to create an “employer of record” for this growing occupational group. And labor repeatedly used its clout to foster high-road community development, for example by making city subsidies for new hotels and other major development projects contingent on “community benefits agreements” under which employers agreed to pay a living wage and/or to be neutral in union organizing campaigns among the workers who would later be employed on the sites.

Although unauthorized immigrants can participate in street demonstrations and other forms of “noncitizen citizenship,” as Jennifer Gordon calls it, acquiring formal citizenship is the key hurdle they must overcome in a society where the meaning of political participation is largely restricted to voting.3 A century ago, naturalized citizens were more likely to vote than their native-born counterparts; today the opposite is true. National voting rates among Asians and Latinos (regardless of citizenship status) are lower than those of other ethnic groups.4

However, thanks in large part to the efforts of the labor movement to naturalize those eligible and to increase electoral participation, the gap between California Latinos and whites in voting rates virtually disappeared in the post–Prop. 187 years. If one controls for age, citizenship, and socioeconomic status, Latino turnout rates in the state were only one percentage point lower than those of comparable whites from 1994 to 2000, and in the 1998 election, when labor mobilized especially energetically against an anti-union referendum item on the state ballot, Latino turnout was four percentage points higher.5

Latinos in California not only vote in large numbers; they vote mostly for Democrats. Some did cast their ballots for Schwarzenegger in the 2003 recall election, but when he launched a broad anti-union attack in a series of referendums on the November 2005 ballot, the tide turned against him, in yet another California election in which labor’s political mobilization played a critical role.6

California’s union leaders spearheaded the national effort to change organized labor’s policy on immigration in the late 1990s, winning passage in 2000 of an AFL-CIO Executive Council resolution that officially reversed labor’s previous support for employer sanctions and called for a new amnesty program. In the months that followed, organized labor launched a national campaign for immigration reform, an effort that was rapidly gaining ground until the September 11 attacks suddenly paralyzed it. One attempt to revive the lost momentum was the 2003 Immigrant Worker Freedom Ride, an initiative led by Maria Elena Durazo of the L.A. hotel workers’ union (she is also Contreras’s widow and now heads the County Fed), in coalition with immigrant rights organizations.

In California, then, and especially in Los Angeles, the labor movement has been a potent vehicle of Latino immigrant mobilization, both in the workplace and at the voting booth. That is why Los Angeles is the epicenter of the national immigrant rights movement, with a reported 500,000 marchers in the city’s streets on March 25, 2006, and even more on May 1, when mass protest engulfed cities across the nation. The labor-Latino coalition that developed in California in the aftermath of Prop. 187 has flourished ever since, stacking up huge electoral successes, winning more and more immigrants’ hearts and minds, and building lasting organizational capacity.


Labor cannot claim sole credit for the massive outpouring of activism manifested in spring 2006. The Catholic Church, immigrant hometown associations, a variety of advocacy groups, student organizations, and perhaps most unexpected, the Spanish-language media, all played critical roles. Even some employers lent their support. And the vast geographical scope of the demonstrations—the largest were in Southern California but turnout was also substantial in places like Nebraska and South Carolina—reflects the many recent changes in the immigrant landscape.

Not only has the overall size of the nation’s undocumented population grown dramatically since the early 1990s, but both authorized and unauthorized immigrants have become much more widely geographically dispersed, for reasons Douglas Massey and his colleagues have documented.7 Once highly concentrated in Southern California, as well as other traditional destinations like Texas, Illinois, and Florida, immigrants have increasingly settled in communities across the nation. Similarly, immigrant-focused labor organizing has begun to sprout up in many parts of the country where it was once unimaginable.

Like Prop. 187 in the mid-1990s, the Sensenbrenner bill seems to have stimulated a new wave of naturalization among eligible immigrants. By December 2006, applications for naturalization had increased by 54% over the previous year, according to the U.S. government.8 The spate of ICE workplace raids and deportations—although this is surely not the Bush administration’s intent—will likely accelerate this trend among the estimated 8 million legal residents eligible for naturalization.

Just as the post-1986 militarization of the border led to more rather than less immigration (since those who once moved back and forth across the border now simply remained in the U.S., often followed by family members), continuing political mobilization among foreign-born citizens is another unintended consequence of the new anti-immigrant backlash. Indeed, the immigrant vote was arguably a key factor in ending Republican control of Congress last November. According to exit polls, Latinos (not all of them foreign-born) made up a record 8% of all voters in the midterm elections, and almost 70% of Latino voters cast their ballots for Democratic congressional candidates (compared to less than half of white voters).9

Thus there is good reason to expect that California’s 1990s political dynamic could now be replicated on a national scale. If that occurs, it will eventually lead to major immigration reform (on the federal level, since states have no legal jurisdiction in this area), including some sort of path to citizenship for the undocumented. This could take some time, given the political advantages for the Democrats of preserving the image of the Republican Party as deeply hostile to immigrant rights—an image the Sensenbrenner bill indelibly impressed on the immigrant community.

The temptation of postponing any serious action on immigration reform as long as Bush remains in the White House should not be underestimated. But in the meantime, the labor movement could once again become a key agent of social transformation, as it was for southern and eastern European immigrants in the 1930s and 1940s, when a surge of unionization helped narrow the inequalities between the haves and the have-nots, propelling many first- and second-generation immigrants into the middle class.

  1. Janice Fine, Worker Centers: Organizing Communities at the Edge of the Dream (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2006); Jennifer Gordon, Suburban Sweatshops: The Fight for Immigrant Rights (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005).
  2. Compare Fine’s national mapping of the worker centers at with the geography of the marches shown at, p. 2.
  3. Gordon, Suburban Sweatshops, pp. 275–78.
  4. Louis DeSipio, “Building America, One Person at a Time: Naturalization and Political Behavior of the Naturalized in Contemporary American Politics,” in Gary Gerstle and John Mollenkopf, eds., E Pluribus Unum? Contemporary and Historical Perspectives on Immigrant Political Incorporation (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2001), pp. 80–86.
  5. Jack Citron and Benjamin Highton, How Race, Ethnicity and Immigration Shape the California Electorate (San Francisco: Public Policy Institute of California, 2002), pp. 28–29.
  6. The standard comparison is to Texas, where Republicans still capture much of the Latino vote. The difference is partly a product of former Republican governor Pete Wilson’s having sponsored Prop. 187, as well as the weakness of organized labor in Texas.
  7. Douglas S. Massey, Jorge Durand, and Nolan J. Malone, Beyond Smoke and Mirrors: Mexican Immigration in an Era of Economic Integration (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2002).
  8. U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services, “N-400 Naturalization Benefits: Monthly Statistical Report for December 2006,” 20NATURALIZATION%20BENEFITS_Dec06.pdf.
  9. David R. Ayón, “Immigration and the 2006 Elections,” U.S.-Mexico Policy Bulletin, no. 8 (December 2006), Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Mexico Institute.

Ruth Milkman is a professor of sociology and director of the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment at UCLA. Her most recent book is L.A. Story: Immigrant Workers and the Future of the U.S. Labor Movement (Russell Sage Foundation, 2006). This article includes portions of an essay posted on the Social Science Research Council’s Border Battles Web site

Tags: US immigration, latinos, California, politics, labor rights, unions

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