The Intersections of the Economic and Cultural in U.S. Labor's Pro-Migrant Politics

By Basok, Tanya | Social Justice, Winter 2008 | Go to article overview

The Intersections of the Economic and Cultural in U.S. Labor's Pro-Migrant Politics


Basok, Tanya, Social Justice


THE GLOBAL EXPANSION OF CAPITAL HAS BEEN ACCOMPANIED BY THE MOVEMENT of transnational labor of an unprecedented scale (Robinson, 2006). The worldwide labor migration has profoundly challenged the way policymakers, business representatives, and social activists think about the relationship between citizenship and human rights. Using the human rights framework, many social activists have advocated for the freedom of movement across national borders and the right of noncitizens--such as labor migrants--to claim economic and social rights in host societies. Some activists have also called for status regularization programs. Trade unions have recently joined forces with other grass-roots organizations in their efforts to advance the rights of migrants. This activism stands in contrast to the protectionism and hostility toward immigrants that characterized union attitudes in earlier decades. Some researchers have reflected on this transformation (see Avci and McDonald, 2000; Haus, 1999; Nissen and Grenier, 2001a and b; Renault, 2004a; Watts, 1998a and b; Wells, 2000; and Wets, 2000). For the most part, explanations of new unions' political platforms on immigration emphasize economic class interests of unions in host countries. In particular, it has been suggested that unions have supported various status regularization and moderate immigration programs in order to boost union membership and protect national labor standards from the downward pressure resulting from the employment of undocumented migrants (Avci and McDonald, 2000; Haus, 1999; Watts, 1998a and b). However, by overemphasizing the importance of economic explanations, these studies leave out of the discussion the role of culture and identities in shaping today's class politics. In this article, I attempt to address this limitation. I analyze migrant rights activism by organized labor in the United States and argue that, similar to other struggles for social justice (Young, 1997; Fraser, 1998; Buechler, 2000), this advocacy should be seen as a combination of economic goals and cultural expressions.

First, I discuss how economic interests--the need to recruit new union members, particularly among migrants, and to protect labor standards--shape the new labor platform on immigration policies in the U.S. Then I draw attention to the importance of cultural explanations, focusing on values, identities, and sentiments. I explore social values associated with social movement unionism and its impact on pro-migrant advocacy. Furthermore, recognizing that today's labor organizers and activists, including those holding leadership positions within unions, are first, second, or third-generation migrants, I argue that their memories of migration (their own or those shared by their family members) constitute an important framework of meaning that shapes their views and attitudes toward present-day migrants and consequently, the attitudes of the unions they represent. These memories of migration might include stories of deprivation, racism, marginalization, rejection, and exploitation. I argue that identities forged through such memories of migration evoke empathy toward the plight of current-day migrants and stimulate activism on migrant rights.

The article is built on research carried out between 2003 and 2006 that examined public statements on migrant workers rights published in printed and electronic media and made by labor activists as well as representatives of grass-roots organizations. (1) Close to 2,000 pages of articles were assembled and analyzed. The main issues of interest were: specific demands, the "framing" of migrants rights in relation to such notions as "human rights," "international labor solidarity," "universal rights," "citizenship" or other rights-related frames, and the types of strategies and tactics employed. Attention was also paid to the leaders and their reasons for engaging in this type of activism.

In addition, interviews were conducted with representatives of 27 labor and 11 grass-roots organizations (Canadians among them are not analyzed in this article). …

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