Organizing immigrants

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Ruth Milkman, City University of New York sociologist and an expert on labor and labor movements

Ruth Milkman, City University of New York sociologist and an expert on labor and labor movements.

Ruth Milkman, City University of New York sociologist and an expert on labor and labor movements, presented on organizing immigrant workers at St. Cloud State’s Third Annual Global Goes Local symposium.

Titled “Issues in Organizing Immigrant Workers on the East and West Coasts,” she discussed the issues arising from the workplace conditions that migrant workers faced and the challenges surrounding current employment trends in relation to immigration and employment. The focus of the presentation was on unionization and organizing migrant workers to protect them from unfair practices such as wage theft, an increasingly prevalent practice by employers of migrant as well as local workers.

As formal employment gets more tenuous, it is especially a problem for migrant workers. “Immigrants are disproportionately affected´┐Ż especially unauthorized immigrants,” Milkman said. In a study conducted by Milkman and her colleagues of more than 4000 workers, it was found that more than half of them were not paid even the minimum wage nor were they paid overtime wages. 25.9% of the participants of her study were paid less and often worked off the clock for no pay. They were also victims of meal break violations, where they had to work during authorized breaks. The violations were more aimed at female workers than male workers.

Organizing undocumented immigrant workers was always thought of as an impossible task due to the assumption that they wouldn’t want to organize for fear of getting caught and being deported. Another misconception related to immigrant organizing was so-called “sojourner status” where workers collected money while working and then chose to go back to their countries to settle down. However, Milkman and her colleagues found that undocumented workers are open to organizing. The challenge is to organize them without official papers. Milkman said, “if you ask a union organizer they’ll say, 'Oh, we can organize immigrants, the problem is everybody else.' The conventional wisdom has been completely reversed´┐Ż today, when the opportunity presents itself to organize, immigrant workers respond favorably, probably more-so than US born workers.”

Today, steel workers, car washers and other migrant worker-staffed professions are organizing in Los Angeles and New York. The establishment of “worker centers,” small non-governmental organizations that advocate for migrant workers in precarious and low wage jobs provide them assistance such as English as a Second Language (ESL) classes and ensure that workers’ rights are not infringed upon. At present, there are approximately 200 in the nation.

Milkman ended her presentation with the following three points:

  • Immigration and the transformation of the workplace and the widening of inequality are tightly entwined and related.
  • Organization is underway, but much more is needed.
  • Immigration reform and improved labor standards must go hand in hand. Both need to be focused on equally.

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