Summer Program: “Roots of Resistance: Organizing Undocumented Workers in Los Angeles, 1965-1994”

Toby Higbie, Department of History, and Gaspar Rivera-Salgado, Labor Studies and UCLA Labor Center
Commentator: Chris Zepeda-Millan, Departments of Public Policy and Chicano/a and Central American Studies

The 1990s was a turning point for the local labor movement, but union organizers had been defending the rights of undocumented workers in Los Angeles for at least two decades before the fight over Proposition 187. To understand why this fight became the pivot of modern California political history, we need to turn the clock back another quarter century to when the liberation movements of African Americans, Chicanos, and women drove an upsurge in militancy among rank-and-file workers across the country. Like other workers excluded from the mainstream of American prosperity, the undocumented often saw unions as a potential vehicle for their economic aspirations. And just as hostile employers and courts slammed that door on the aspirations of African American and women workers in the 1980s, so too did they come down hard on immigrant organizers. In the early 1970s, progressive lawyers and immigrant community activists challenged the neighborhood and factory raids of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). In time a handful of local union staff organizers who found their organizing drives disrupted by factory raids joined this network. By trial and error, they mapped out viable organizing strategies and convinced an important set of union leadership of the need to organize regardless of immigration status. Immigrant workers joined other rank-and-file union members to challenge what they considered corruption and complacency within their own unions, contest layoffs and plant closures, and launch strikes that union officials thought unwise. Meanwhile, all sections of organized labor confronted an increasingly hostile federal government and a National Labor Relations Board that was too often unwilling to hold employers accountable for their law-breaking. Seeking allies beyond their own neighborhood and industrial networks, union leadership and insurgents made common cause with clergy, university-based researchers, and free-lance radicals to indict the limitations of American trade unionism, capitalism, and citizenship policy.

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Published: Friday, August 21, 2020

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