Labor Control and Resistance of Mexican Immigrant Janitors in Silicon Valley

By Zlolniski, Christian | Human Organization, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview

Labor Control and Resistance of Mexican Immigrant Janitors in Silicon Valley


Zlolniski, Christian, Human Organization


Since the 1980s, the forces of national and global restructuring have led to the proliferation of labor subcontracting arrangements in the United States that use immigrant workers to increase labor flexibility and reduce labor costs, particularly in the service sector. A case in point is the building-cleaning industry in Silicon Valley in northern California, which relies on Mexican and other Latino immigrants to clean the offices of major high-tech corporations. In turn, the subcontracting of immigrant workers for low-skilled occupations has opened new opportunities and challenges for management and organized labor. Based on a case study of one of the largest electronics companies in Silicon Valley, this article examines the varied forms of managerial control employed with immigrant workers to increase flexibility in the workplace and the ways janitors resist them. Rather than taking immigrants' labor flexibility for granted, I argue that we need to examine it as a fluid process that is continuously constructed, negotiated, and contested in the workplace.

Key words: immigrant labor, labor control and resistance, janitors, Mexican workers, Silicon Valley

Anthropologists interested in the effects of globalization on labor relations have used ethnographic studies of the workplace to examine the interrelation between changes in the organization of production, forms of labor control, and local expressions of resistance (Blim 1992; Ong 1987; Kingsolver 1998). Part of this research has focused on the experience of recent immigrants employed in low-skilled industries in the United States, and the workplace is seen as an arena where new immigrants and management meet (Lamphere, Grenier, and Stepick 1994). Underlying this interest is the assumption that immigrants represent a new category of workers for flexible capitalism in advanced industrialized countries (Wells 1996; Heyman 1998; Lamphere 1992; Lamphere, Grenier, and Stepick 1994).

Building upon these studies, this paper addresses the issue of how labor subcontracting-a central dimension of economic restructuring-affects labor flexibility for lowskilled immigrants. How does the system of labor subcontracting affect labor flexibility in the workplace? What management methods are used to enhance labor flexibility? And how do immigrant workers respond? To address these questions I use a case study of Mexican immigrants employed as subcontracted janitorial workers in Silicon Valley in northern California. Silicon Valley is an ideal place to study issues of labor control and resistance by immigrant workers in the new U.S. economy.

At the forefront of the management control methods that emphasize labor flexibility, Silicon Valley's high-tech industry offers a privileged window through which to view the intersection between sophisticated technologies and unskilled immigrant labor. Rather than taking immigrant workers' labor flexibility for granted, I examine how this is constructed in the workplace, the specific mechanisms management uses to optimize the use of immigrant labor, and how immigrants themselves respond to management control. An ethnographic approach allows us to understand the specifics of labor control and discipline and reveals the social agency of workers, thus overcoming structural determinism and generalizations that take immigrant workers' flexibility for granted.

Labor flexibility is not an essential attribute of immigrant workers per se, but rather an outcome of the power relations between management and labor in the workplace, the ultimate site where immigrants' labor is deployed and transformed into profit.1 Management seeks to increase workers flexibility with a variety of approaches, including simple control and scientific methods, and it tries to counteract workers' ability to respond or resist them. I thus conceptualize labor flexibility as a fluid and dynamic process that is continuously constructed, negotiated, and contested in the workplace. …

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