L.A. Story

L.A. Story: Immigrant Workers and the Future of the U.S. Labor Movement

Copyright Date: 2006
Published by: Russell Sage Foundation
Pages: 264
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    L.A. Story
    Book Description:

    Sharp decreases in union membership over the last fifty years have caused many to dismiss organized labor as irrelevant in today’s labor market. In the private sector, only 8 percent of workers today are union members, down from 24 percent as recently as 1973. Yet developments in Southern California—including the successful Justice for Janitors campaign—suggest that reports of organized labor’s demise may have been exaggerated. In L.A. Story, sociologist and labor expert Ruth Milkman explains how Los Angeles, once known as a company town hostile to labor, became a hotbed for unionism, and how immigrant service workers emerged as the unlikely leaders in the battle for workers’ rights. L.A. Story shatters many of the myths of modern labor with a close look at workers in four industries in Los Angeles: building maintenance, trucking, construction, and garment production. Though many blame deunionization and deteriorating working conditions on immigrants, Milkman shows that this conventional wisdom is wrong. Her analysis reveals that worsening work environments preceded the influx of foreign-born workers, who filled the positions only after native-born workers fled these suddenly undesirable jobs. Ironically, L.A. Story shows that immigrant workers, who many union leaders feared were incapable of being organized because of language constraints and fear of deportation, instead proved highly responsive to organizing efforts. As Milkman demonstrates, these mostly Latino workers came to their service jobs in the United States with a more group-oriented mentality than the American workers they replaced. Some also drew on experience in their native countries with labor and political struggles. This stock of fresh minds and new ideas, along with a physical distance from the east-coast centers of labor’s old guard, made Los Angeles the center of a burgeoning workers’ rights movement. Los Angeles’ recent labor history highlights some of the key ingredients of the labor movement’s resurgence—new leadership, latitude to experiment with organizing techniques, and a willingness to embrace both top-down and bottom-up strategies. L.A. Story’s clear and thorough assessment of these developments points to an alternative, high-road national economic agenda that could provide workers with a way out of poverty and into the middle class.

    eISBN: 978-1-61044-396-8
    Subjects: Sociology, Business

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. About the Authors
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Preface and Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  5. Union Acronyms
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  6. Introduction
    (pp. 1-25)

    Hardly anyone expected them to succeed. But in 1990, after a few years of intensive organizing, a group of immigrant janitors in Los Angeles went on strike, endured a brutal police beating, and then won union recognition. Previously all but invisible to the public, these workers cleaned up after hours for the well-paid lawyers and other professionals who inhabit the glitzy office towers of Century City, an upscale section of Los Angeles. Most were immigrants from Mexico and Central America, many of them undocumented. Like countless other foreignborn workers who populate the lower echelons of southern California’s vast blue-collar labor...

  7. Chapter 1 The “Wicked City”: Labor and Los Angeles Exceptionalism
    (pp. 26-76)

    The first wave of significant union growth in Los Angeles took place in the 1930s and 1940s, and it must have been every bit as surprising to contemporaries as the 1990s labor resurgence. In the early years of the twentieth century, the city had hardly seemed fertile territory for union organizing. It was dominated by conservative, white, native-born residents and was notorious as a “company town” where employers were intransigently opposed to organized labor. Eager to attract investment, civic and business leaders actively promoted their city as “the Citadel of the Open Shop,” as the president of the L.A. Chamber...

  8. Chapter 2 Turning The Clock Back: Anti-Union Reaction, the Return of The Sweatshop, and the New Immigration
    (pp. 77-113)

    By the 1950s the labor movement in Los Angeles had expanded to the point that the city’s historic reputation as a bulwark of the open shop had become anachronistic. “It is a prosperous movement,” one contemporary noted, “one that has risen from the dead and today controls a substantial part of the workforce” (Greer 1959, 23). Union density in the L.A. metropolitan area reached a postwar peak of 37 percent of the nonagricultural labor force in 1955, still somewhat below the figure for the state of California that year, but comfortably above the national level of 33 percent (see appendix...

  9. Chapter 3 Organizing the “Unorganizable”: Immigrant Unionization and Labor Revitalization in the 1990s
    (pp. 114-144)

    "Next to the abundant economic opportunities available to wage earners in this country, immigration has been the factor most guilty of the incohesiveness of American labor,” Selig Perlman (1928, 168) wrote in his classic 1928 treatise on the labor movement, adding:

    To workers employed in a given industry, a new wave of immigrants, generally of a new nationality, meant a competitive menace to be fought off. . . . For, by the worker’s job consciousness, the strongest animosity was felt not for the employer who had initiated or stimulated the new immigrant wave, but for the immigrants who came and...

  10. Chapter 4 “Sí, Se Puede”: Union Organizing Strategies and Immigrant Workers
    (pp. 145-186)
    Kent Wong

    Unions in southern California have launched numerous organizing drives among low-wage Latino immigrant workers in recent years, some of which were spectacularly successful.¹ This chapter compares two of the best-known success stories with two high-profile campaigns that did not achieve their goals, with the aim of developing a deeper understanding of the elements that generate effective union strategies. The two successful cases we examine are: the L.A. Justice for Janitors campaign that began in the late 1980s, achieved an initial victory in 1990, and was consolidated and expanded over the course of the next decade; and the five-month 1992 strike...

  11. Epilogue and Conclusion
    (pp. 187-194)

    The dynamism of the southern California labor movement in the late twentieth century was the product of a combustible mix of ingredients—a vast immigrant working class strongly predisposed toward collective action; an imaginative and committed cadre of union leaders buoyed by the comparative advantages that flowed from the region’s exceptional labor history; and just enough geographical distance from organized labor’s old guard to open up a political space for organizational innovation. Nowhere in the United States is there more palpable evidence of the potential for today’s working-class immigrants to reenact the drama of union upsurge that brought earlier generations...

  12. Appendix A Labor Union Membership in Los Angeles and Union Density in Los Angeles, California, and the United States, 1933 to 2004
    (pp. 195-197)
  13. Appendix B Adjusting for Changes in the U.S. Decennial Census Industry and Occupation Classifications, 1970 to 2000
    (pp. 198-200)
  14. Notes
    (pp. 201-212)
  15. References
    (pp. 213-230)
  16. Index
    (pp. 231-250)