During the eras when American labor unions were most powerful, the majority of immigrants to the United States were members of the working class, and many immigrants played major roles in labor organizations. Many immigrants have joined national, industry-based unions; others have created race-specific labor unions. Historically, the racial heterogeneity of the American labor force has been a source of both conflict and solidarity.
Since the end of the U.S. Civil War in 1865, an incredibly diverse mix of races has taken part in the labor movement that has helped to shape the United States. During the Reconstruction era after the war, emancipated African American slaves and their descendants joined the ranks of agricultural and industrial laborers. Meanwhile, the numbers of immigrants flooding into the United States was rising to unprecedented levels. From the last decades of the nineteenth century until 1924, more than 25 million new immigrants, primarily from Asia and Europe, poured into the nation in response to the call for laborers to fill positions in expanding factories, mines, and mills. The later decades of the twentieth century saw even more immigrant laborers join those previous arrivals, but most of these immigrants were from other parts of the world, primarily Mexico, the West Indies, Central and South America, Pacific Rim nations, and South Asia.
Cultural and racial heterogeneity has long been the unique hallmark of laborers in the United States, but this very diversity has had both negative and positive consequences for the American labor movement as a whole. Individual immigrant groups have sometimes asserted their racial identities in their struggles for recognition in the American working class. This tendency has generated conflicts among workers from different immigrant groups. Many employers, seeking to marginalize their employees to keep wages down, have inflamed those racial tensions to reduce their employees’ ability to organize.
At the same time, however, racial and ethnic identification can be a powerful mobilizing force. Immigrant laborers have sometimes realized that their commonality of work experience can bridge their unique cultural understandings, creating points of mobilization for protection and advancement. Both the tendency toward interracial conflict and the tendency toward racial solidarity have coexisted within some of the key national American labor unions, and the ebb and flow of those tendencies have affected their immigrant membership even into the early twenty-first century.
Through the 1870’s and 1880’s, KOL leader
Formed in 1886 to organize craft unions encompassing laborers in specific trades, the
The AFL’s “aristocracy of labor” continued to deny membership to unskilled and semiskilled immigrant labor through the 1930’s. Persistent racist and nativist ideologies led many AFL leaders to see immigrant groups as individual nationalities whose differences were potentially subversive to the American labor movement, rather than as potentially valuable allies in the advancement of labor’s interests.
Even before the CIO split from the AFL in 1935, labor organizer
Cover of an 1886 magazine depicting a convention of the Knights of Labor in Richmond, Virginia.
During the 1960’s, African Americans began working to extend connections between labor activism and civil rights. They began at the local level with strikes by sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee, and hospital workers in Charleston, South Carolina. Undertaken by previously unorganized, heavily exploited, poverty-wage workers, these actions for higher wages and safer working conditions gained the attention and support of larger national industrial unions, including the
Responding to the demand for manual laborers after the United States entered World War II, the United States and Mexico instituted the
The son of migrant farmworkers, Chávez helped to raise awareness of the plight of braceros and other agricultural workers, and became the head of the
The majority of farmworkers who have benefitted from UFW labor organizing have been Mexican Americans and Mexicans. Workers from other Hispanic groups, particularly Puerto Ricans and Cubans, have found representation in another major union that protects such service employees as janitors, nursing home aides, hospital aides, security guards, and building service maintenance. Although the membership of the
To an extent that may have been greater than that experienced by any other ethnic group, Asian immigrants have historically been excluded from American labor organizations. This has been true even though Asian immigrants have worked in some of the most dangerous occupations that laborers have faced. For example, the early mining industry in the Far West was one of the first to employ the Chinese, who dug for gold, hauled coal, and worked with explosives. Chinese immigrants also helped to build the railroad lines that connected the West to eastern markets and did some of the most dangerous work with explosives to excavate tunnels. Japanese immigrants also worked on the railroads, first in construction, and later as porters and foremen.
Despite the difficult and often dangerous work that Chinese and Japanese laborers performed, these immigrants were resented and badly treated by native-born American workers and employers. State laws were passed to limit their rights, and federal laws were enacted to limit further Asian immigration. Asian workers responded by organizing at the community level and embracing wider cultural and racial demands for justice and dignity. They also formed their own race-based unions.
Since the early 1990’s, one of the most active Asian unions has been the
The successful creation of race-specific labor unions and the inclusion of immigrant groups in the larger project that is the American labor movement have not resolved the debate about the role of immigrant and minority workers in American labor. However, these developments have helped ensure a continuing discussion about issues that have captured the attention of labor organizers since the late nineteenth century–higher wages, safer working conditions, increased respect–and have raised awareness of the importance of immigrant groups toward realizing those goals for all workers.
Asher, Robert, and Charles Stephenson, eds. Labor Divided: Race and Ethnicity in United States Labor Struggles, 1835-1960. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990. Collection of case studies exploring how racial heterogeneity in the American labor movement has created the potential for both divisiveness and unity. Briggs, Vernon M. Immigration and American Unionism. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2001. Evaluates the effects that immigration has had on union membership throughout American history and adds to the current debate about how industries should deal with documented and undocumented immigrant workers. Milkman, Ruth. Organizing Immigrants: The Challenge for Unions in Contemporary California. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2000. Analyzes recent California labor history and evaluates prospects for organizing among immigrant labor in America’s most populous state. Ness, Immanuel, ed. Immigrants, Unions, and the New U.S. Labor Market. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2005. Collection of case studies of worker collective action that explains why and how immigrant workers organize. Walker, Thomas J. Edward. Pluralistic Fraternity: The History of the International Worker’s Order. New York: Garland Press, 1991. Examines the seemingly unique ability of communist-backed labor organizations to create worker solidarity across racial and national lines.
Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance
Economic consequences of immigration
Industrial Workers of the World
International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union
United Farm Workers