Ghosts in the Global Machine: New Immigrants and the Redefinition of Work

By Ciscel, David H.; Smith, Barbara Ellen et al. | Journal of Economic Issues, June 2003 | Go to article overview

Ghosts in the Global Machine: New Immigrants and the Redefinition of Work


Ciscel, David H., Smith, Barbara Ellen, Mendoza, Marcela, Journal of Economic Issues


Latinos are like ghosts; they come to work and then they go home.

--Temporary Staffing Agency Manager

The incorporation of new immigrant workers into the lower reaches of the U.S. labor market has been a very significant employment trend. Debates over the implications of this trend--in particular whether immigrants displace and/or lower wages for native workers--abound (Borjas 1995; Borjas, Freeman and Katz 1997; Camarota 2001; Cornelius 1998; Hamermesh and Bean 1998; Smith and Edmonston 1997). In the U.S. South, the rapid incorporation of large numbers of Latino immigrants into the labor market is a development of historical significance. This region's economy has long been racially segmented as a bipolar black-white construct, though with substantial internal variation by time and place. Since World War II, a combination of factors including agricultural mechanization, wartime labor demand, and the modern civil rights movement undermining legal and economic constraints on black workers' mobility, changed the region's labor markets significantly. Today, the growing Latino presence in labor markets throughout the South (a phenomenon that was heretofore largely confined to only two states in the region, Texas and Florida) signals additional changes in working conditions in regional logistics employment systems.

This case study of Latino immigrant workers in the Memphis economy examines the confluence of three trends in the use of labor power. First, regional immigration to Memphis for employment, particularly Latino immigration, was negligible until recent years. Memphis has a tradition of weak labor markets and sub-prime working conditions. The city was a Southern manufacturing center after World War II with an economy based on service to the regional agricultural plantations. Memphis was always on the periphery of the post-World War II labor/management social contract. Non-union, low wage employment conditions, sustained by the region's endemic racist employment policies, seemed destined to disappear after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King in the Memphis garbage workers strike. Instead, the example of "spot" or "day" labor from earlier times of racialized employment standards was updated and became the driving force of the regional economic growth in the logistics (transportation and distribution) secto r.

Second, Memphis is the home of Federal Express, a logistics company with a global business base. As with Microsoft, Dell, WorldCom, and a few other corporations, FedEx represents the essence of the new global economy. Moving products anywhere, anytime from everywhere is the key to the company's production system. While FedEx globalism brings domestic advertisements of employment of educated specialists and instant consumer gratification of desires, the logistics sector is integrally connected to the products of sweatshops in the marginal economies of the third world. But little is said about the domestic workers in logistics who make the global economy work for these corporations.

Third, immigrants provide the flexible workforce required for changing terms of employment in the logistics sector. Warehouse work, historically bifurcated between white sales and managerial personnel and black warehouse laborers, has begun to change as logistics has become globalized. Latino immigrants in Memphis point to the importance of immigrant labor in the transformation of terms of employment.

Flexible Employment

Employers in the logistics sector are redefining the terms of employment for Latino workers. For complex reasons, warehouse employers are more readily able to utilize new immigrants as completely flexible labor, and they are exploiting the social (and often legal) limbo of immigrants as a spearhead to minimize their obligations to employees and to transform the terms and conditions of work.

Employers' drive to break down the social obligations of their employment relationships, enforced historically through federal law and/or collective bargaining, has been evident in the United States for at least thirty years (Gordon 1996; Harrison and Bluestone 1988; Harvey 1989). …

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