Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

Reviving labour’s fortunes by centring the margins

Labour movements in Europe and the US should draw inspiration from migrant organising.

Sanjay Pinto
25 October 2019, 7.00am
Protest by the Fair Food Campaign.
Felton Davis/Flickr. Creative Commons (by)

How can workers from Africa, Asia, and Latin America organise collectively to advance labour rights and strengthen democracy? Labour movements in the Global South have clearly been grappling with this question for a long time, including the crucial issue of how to gain traction in the vast, informal economy where workers lack basic legal and social protections. Amidst a surge in exclusionary nationalism, labour movements in the North also need to take up this question with added energy. How workers with origins in the Global South organise in the Global North and how labour movements from different regions pursue joint action will be hugely consequential for the future of labour rights and democracy worldwide.

Migration from South to North is neither new nor limited to any particular group or social class. However, immigrants from the South make up an outsized share of the North’s labour ‘periphery’, where precarious livelihoods and informal work are widespread. The American janitorial sector is a good example. In California and elsewhere, accelerated subcontracting of janitorial services in the 1980s led to de-unionisation and an erosion of hard-won gains. Many native-born workers subsequently exited the industry and were replaced by new immigrants from Latin America and elsewhere in the Global South.

The US lags behind its European peers in the strength and reach of its labour movement. Somewhat counterintuitively, this seems to have created more space for experimentation in the margins of the American labour market. In the case of the janitorial sector, the Justice for Janitors campaign developed a strategy for unionising subcontracted workers that applies direct pressure to companies at the top of contracting chains. Highly visible worker protests have been a key movement tactic, belying the notion that new immigrants are timid and ‘unorganisable’.

The National Domestic Workers Alliance has pushed through domestic worker bills of rights in several states, have a federal bill in the works, and recently launched a benefits platform for house cleaners.

There have also been innovations in areas of informal employment where traditional unionisation is not currently a viable option. Due to a history of racialised exclusion consolidated during the New Deal era, domestic workers in the United States lack many labour and employment protections. Mostly women and disproportionately black and brown immigrants, nannies, home care workers, and housecleaners continue to confront problems such as wage theft and harassment, often without recourse. A movement of worker centres has emerged in this context and others like it to address such abuses. In addition to their grassroots organising work, the National Domestic Workers Alliance and its local partners have pushed through domestic worker bills of rights in several states, have a federal bill in the works, and recently launched a benefits platform for house cleaners.

Immigrant workers also have a large presence in the US worker cooperative movement. The Bronx-based Cooperative Home Care Associates (CHCA) is the nation’s largest worker co-op by far with a workforce of around 2,400 mostly black and brown immigrant women. Even in the part of the home care industry that receives government funding, the workforce is exploited and undervalued due in large measure to the race and gender of those doing the work. CHCA, which unionised in 2003, has developed a number of innovative policies to address some of the issues facing this workforce. These include a system that guarantees a minimum number of paid hours each week, reducing the income volatility that is a key source of stress and uncertainty.

There are certainly challenges and limitations to these models. A number of unions have grown their membership rolls by organising immigrant workers, but they’ve found this quite difficult to do outside of a few select cities and states where the politics have proven amenable. For worker centres, developing durable membership structures and achieving financial independence has been an ongoing challenge. Many worker cooperatives have also struggled to become self-sustaining, and the kind of scale achieved by CHCA remains a rarity. All of these models frequently face questions around how well the composition of their leaders and those with ultimate control over resources reflect member demographics.

Still, there are important takeaways. Replicating different features of these models may help to provide a foothold for others facing extreme marginalisation. They may also offer a set of tools for grappling with dynamics affecting large and growing numbers of working people across advanced democracies. An expanded repertoire of social movement tactics could prove useful for unions that are confronting increasingly hostile employers even in areas of traditional strength. Approaches developed by worker centres may help to support a widening spectrum of working people finding themselves in precarious and non-standard work arrangements. With a bigger footprint, co-ops and other forms of mutualism could be a potent antidote to the winner-take-all individualism that drives our governing economic logic.

An expanded repertoire of social movement tactics could prove useful for unions that are confronting increasingly hostile employers even in areas of traditional strength.

The right path for labour?

Unfortunately, inspiring stories of immigrant organising must compete with a right-wing populist narrative that has recently yielded electoral gains in the US, Europe, and other parts of the world. Xenophobia is hardly a new phenomenon within advanced democracies, and immigrants from the Global South whose skin colour or religion marks them as visibly different have often come in for particularly intense forms of exclusion and mistreatment. Today’s right wing-populists travel a well-trodden path when they demonise immigrants as a drain on resources, a threat to cultural integrity, and a risk to national security.

Labour movements in the Global North are at a crossroads in this environment. In recent decades, a number of unions and union federations have recognised the importance of extending their reach into growing immigrant populations. Many have adopted a more solidaristic stance towards immigrant workers and have helped to support the kinds of developments sketched above. But these changes have not been embraced by all segments of organised labour. And, recently we’ve seen evidence of that at the ballot box in Germany, the US, and other countries where right-wing populists have made inroads among union members.

Northern labour movements can choose to go with the flow of right-wing populism in this environment, following the currents of exclusionary nationalism that are a sad part of their legacy. This could come in the form of soft acquiescence – quietly retracting support for efforts to build power and voice in immigrant communities, shrinking from an approach that boldly fosters multiracial and cross-national solidarity among working people, and centring the white, male industrial worker as the emblem of working class striving.

It will be a shame if this is the story written years from now. Despite all their difficulties, labour movements are uniquely positioned to cultivate broad-based solidarity and reorient left and centre-left parties around an agenda that speaks to the needs of ordinary working people. On the home front, taking up this challenge should include supporting and drawing inspiration from new immigrant organising and linking it to broader struggles for labour rights and social equality. Globally, it should include expanding cross-border solidarity work that deepens connections between labour activists in the South and North.

Northern labour movements need to go all in on solidarity. By doing so, they can help restore the promise of pluralist democracy and usher in a new era of organising and experimentation that builds power for all working people.

These articles are based on earlier discussion papers produced as part of the Open Society Foundations’ Just Future for Workers initiative, which advances strategies to build strong and inclusive labor movements.

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