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SOCSI Seminar Series Spring 2008: Ruth Milkman - Workers and the Labor Movement in California: Problems and Prospects

Starts: 13 March 2008

Professor Ruth Milkman

Professor Ruth Milkman


13th March – 4:10pm in Committee Room 1

Speaker – Ruth Milkman, UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles)

Immigrant Workers and the Labour Movement in California: Problems and Prospects

Chair:  Peter Fairbrother


As part of the Seminar Series of Spring 2008, ‘Debating Mobility: Race, Migration and Labour’, Ruth Milkman presented a paper on ‘Immigrant Workers and the Labour Movement in California: Problems and Perspectives’ in the Glamorgan Building on 13th March 2008. The seminar was well attended with cross school interest from CARBS, EUROS and SOCSI, including postgraduates as well as academic staff.

Professor Ruth Milkman speaking at the SOCSI Seminar Series

The  dramatic decline of the labour movement in the United States since the 1970s is well-documented.  Milkman highlighted the contributions to this decline of deindustrialisation; deregulation and the New Deal devolution; and de-unionisation. Her seminar focused however on the uneven impact of these trends thereby making a case for Californian exceptionalism.  In that state, union density significantly exceeds the national trend and innovative labour organising is evident.

To account for the distinctiveness of the labour movement in California, Milkman points to four contributory factors: a comparative advantage found in what was once viewed as the historical backwardness of the labour movement in California; specific political structures and synergies; distance from the old guard of the labour movement; and California’s status as the gateway for new immigration

Backwardness through late development is a factor in explaining the revival of the labour movement in California. The history of the labour movement in California is characterised by the infamous comment in the early 20th century that LA is the ‘citadel of the Open Shop’. This weakness  resulted from rapid population growth attributable to migration from the rural Midwest rather than immigration from abroad. This resulted in late labour movement development.

The case for California’s comparative advantage also rests on the fact that the craft and occupational unions affiliated with the old American Federation of Labor (AFL) were always stronger in the Western U.S. than were the industrial unions of the Congress of Industrial Organziations (CIO).  (The AFL and CIO merged in 1955.)   Significantly, the process of de-unionisation, whereby the NLRB became increasingly dysfunctional, as well as deindustrialization, impacted more severely on the CIO industrial unions than on  the AFL affiliates, always strong in California, giving them – and the region - a comparative advantage in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

Professor Ruth Milkman speaking at the SOCSI Seminar Series

The third factor of importance here in considering the uniqueness of California in terms of the revival of the labour movement is the significance of political structures and their influence. Progressive era reforms resulted in relatively few political offices, costly campaigns and  weakened traditional political machines. Business dominated until the 1990s but  then labour became a major player. Proposition 187 (a referendum in which voters mandated sharp restrictions on immigrant access to public services) and the wave of reactive naturalisation that followed gave birth to a new Labour-Latino coalition. Moreover there was a considerable public sector union presence  which also contributed to labour’s political clout.

The further factor rests on the distance from the Old Guard of the Californian labour movement. This opened up a political space for exceptionalism, and in itself constitutes another comparative advantage the region enjoyed. The unions  in California were more open than elsewhere to including activists from other social movements,  and began to work in experimental ways, in establishing worker centres for example.

The final factor considered by Milkman is that immigrant mobilisation was key in the revival of the labour movement in California.  California and Los Angeles in particular, is a gateway for recent immigration, which together with a growing demand for low wage labour by low road employers resulted in a specific kind of economic growth and a revival in labour mobilisation. Milkman directly refuted the ‘immigrant unorganizability’ hypothesis which asserts that several factors, including (a) the sojourner  orientation, (b) the favourable comparison with pay and working conditions in the home country, and (c) an unwillingness to take the risks involved in union organising and the fear of deportation combine to prevent immigrant mobilisation,. Milkman points instead to the Justice for Janitors campaign in which immigrants’ status facilitated their organisation. Factors such as the reliance of immigrants on social networks comprised of other immigrants, a more collective world view than is typical of U.S.-born workers,  a shared stigmatisation as outsiders, and in fact the relatively modest risks of union organising, all contributed to immigrant mobilisation seen in California in recent years.

Professor Ruth Milkman speaking at the SOCSI Seminar Series

California exceptionalism can then be seen through the comparative advantage of backwardness resulting from the dominance of the  AFL, whose power was not as severely impacted by the 3 Ds as the CIO, the dynamics of new immigration, the political structures and influence and finally the geographical distance from the Old Guard enjoyed in California.

In conclusion Milkman considered whether the revival of the labour movement in California can be seen as prefigurative for the U.S. as a whole. Many of what might be termed the enabling factors identified in California are now emerging across the United States: high and growing social inequality, more geographical dispersed immigration, and ‘low road’ employment practices.

The discussion that followed was wide ranging and stimulating. Points of debate included the apparent discontinuity between low road work force casualisation and union revitalisation. A further element of the discussion considered whether organising through the labour movement is in itself desirable for immigrants. Can it be argued that in fact the process of unionisation does not necessarily protect all immigrants?  The discussion also considered  the recent supermarket workers strike in Los Angeles which resulted in union capitulation suggesting that in fact union membership benefits can be limited in the absence of ongoing organizing and worker education.


Helen Blakely, PhD student

Global Political Economy Research Group


Other information

Open To: Staff and Students