Hegemony and Hamburger: Migration Narratives and Democratic Unionism among Mexican Meatpackers in the U.S. West

Article excerpt

This essay considers how the narrated experiences of immigrant workers in the United States could help promote organized labor's participation in a transnational movement to democratize globalization processes. I draw on interviews with immigrant meatpackers working for the Tyson Corporation, who since the late 1990s have mounted an impressive and unusual effort to democratize their workplace and union as well as to improve worker safety and dignity. Although the union has elaborated an effective discourse concerning injustice in the workplace and the need for action to remedy these problems, it has not developed any comparable interpretation of workers' migration experiences. Workers' migration narratives often reinforce the liberal assumptions guiding the union's campaigns as well as the U.S. labor movement in general. They occasionally intimate, however, how migration processes can aid in the formation of counter-hegemonic subjectivities, developing these workers' practical orientations toward resisting mistreatment both individually and in solidarity with others. Thus, creating more institutionalized spaces for workers to communicate about their migration experiences not only could help unions achieve their organizational goals-it also could help shift the political orientation of the labor movement toward a more transnational, social-democratic approach to regulating immigration and capitalist production alike.


Organized labor in the United States is in the midst of an epochal transformation. Several decades ago, it was already apparent that major corporations were withdrawing from participation in the postwar "compact" between labor and capital administrated by the Keynesian state primarily under the leadership of New Deal and post-New Deal Democrats. The Democratic party itself soon followed suit, leaving the labor movement bereft of progressive political leadership and mired in a losing battle to staunch ebbing union membership while accommodating intransigent demands for wage givebacks and benefit cuts. Meanwhile, the decline and off-shore relocation of manufacturing industries, the movement of more and more women into the paid labor force, and leaps in immigration rates have literally changed the face of the labor movement. In their rhetoric, at least, national labor leaders such as AFL-CIO President John Sweeney have recently acknowledged that the future of the labor movement depends on organizing and activating these new workers, rather than trying to revive antiquated strategies for cooperation with business that traded organizing and an expansive, confrontational political agenda for regular wage increases, stable benefits, and closed shops in selected industries (a partnership in which, in any case, most companies are no longer interested). Yet despite these promising signals, labor still seems largely focused on trying to hang on to its dwindling resources as an interest group rather than genuinely reinvesting itself in a new, movement-oriented praxis.

This essay considers certain aspects of contemporary factory workers' experiences in the United States that may offer prospects for labor's intensified participation in a broader democratic movement to confront the neoliberal institutions that are currently guiding the process of globalization. Despite the general conservatism, in practice, of the AFLCIO and most major unions in the United States, there have been important signs of discontent with the accommodationist approach and interest in a new kind of labor activism over the past decade among leaders and rank-and-file participants alike. Unions waged an impressive, if unsuccessful, campaign of opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), came out in force to protest the World Trade Organization (WTO) in Seattle in 1999, and have more recently taken the highly unusual step of officially opposing an increasingly popular war promoted by the president. …


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