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Could Immigrant-Labor Partnerships Be the Key to Socio-Economic Justice?

As cities nationwide become more diverse and home to more immigrants, the U.S. labor movement has increased its support for immigrant rights. A study in the Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies co-authored by Professor Els de Graauw (Baruch College) analyzed the impact of local context on immigrant-labor partnership strategies in three cities: San Francisco, Chicago, and Houston.

Of the three cities, San Francisco’s immigrant-labor partnerships have been the boldest in advancing “socio-economic justice for immigrants.” Activists there benefit from politically progressive city and state governments and strong state labor laws. And while immigrant groups rely on unions for political leverage, unions rely on immigrant groups for legitimacy and community outreach. San Francisco also has fewer Latino and undocumented immigrants than Chicago and Houston, along with a shrinking African-American population, and a large Asian population that often aligns politically with more conservative native-born whites. As a result, immigrant-labor coalitions in San Francisco have not had to grapple with racial tensions in the same way they have had to elsewhere.

In contrast, immigrant-labor coalitions in Chicago have had to navigate the demands of both the city’s growing Latino population and its black community, which has long suffered from inequities in housing, education, health care, job opportunities, and other areas. And while Chicago is a Democratic stronghold, its entrenched party machine is not always at the forefront of progressive politics. Unions must also focus much of their advocacy efforts on Republicans who dominate policy-making at the state level. Nonetheless, immigrant-labor coalitions benefit from a pro-union, statewide immigrant rights coalition, and from the presence of well-networked Mexican “hometown associations.”

Houston, a sprawling metropolis in a right-to-work, conservative Republican state, has the most challenging environment for immigrant-labor coalitions. Houston has more undocumented and noncitizen immigrants (who have less political clout and enjoy less public support) than the other cities. Unions here have so few resources and so “little political and policy influence” that they’ve mostly “opted out of immigrant rights advocacy efforts.” Occasionally, though, they’ve partnered with faith or business leaders on specific campaigns that highlight “the positive impact of immigrant workers on city businesses.”

The authors say their analysis underscores the localized role that “unions play in advancing a broader social justice agenda” in an increasingly immigrant and non-unionized workforce.

Beyond SUM

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Els de Graauw (Associate Professor, Political Science) | Profile 1

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Baruch College