I dreamed I saw Jos

Borders can't stop immigration, so why should they stop unions?

Published January 22, 2007 11:01PM (EST)

If one were to judge Jennifer Gordon's paper "Transnational Labor Citizenship" solely for how well it recounted the strained history between organized labor and illegal immigrants in the United States, that alone would vault the 80-page article (forthcoming in the Southern California Law Review) to the top of the syllabus for readers interested in immigration and the American workplace. The United Farm Workers, the UAW, the Wobblies -- and most recently, the split dividing the current American labor movement over whether to organize undocumented laborers in the U.S. -- it's all here, and it's all fascinating.

But Gordon is aiming for much bigger game, addressing head-on "the dilemmas of decent work in a globalizing world." She wants nothing less than to define a new form of labor organization that transcends national borders and diffuses the traditional zero-sum enmity with which organized labor has often viewed immigrant labor (legal or illegal). The changes necessary to make her vision a reality are, as she readily admits, "vast" and "not currently feasible." But they are also in some way inevitable. In today's age of globalization, capital has broken free of national borders. Labor must do the same. And as Gordon points out, "The project of concretely imagining how a more just system would operate is critically important, especially when, as now, the changes necessary to get there seem impossibly distant."

A graduate of both Harvard and Harvard Law School, Gordon is an associate professor at Fordham Law School who teaches immigration and labor law. She is also an extraodinarily crisp writer who is coming from a clear point of advocacy:

Over a million new immigrants arrive in the United States each year. This spring, Americans saw ten times that number pour into the streets, protesting proposed changes in U.S. immigration and guest work policy. As the signs they carried indicated, most migrants come to work, and it is in the workplace that the impact of large numbers of newcomers is most keenly felt. For those who see both the free movement of people and the preservation of decent working conditions as essential to social justice, this presents a seemingly unresolvable dilemma. In a situation of massive inequality between countries, to prevent people from moving in search of work is to curtail their chance to build a decent life for themselves and their families. But from the perspective of workers in the country that receives them, the more immigrants, the more competition, the worse work becomes.

Here is one key contradiction that arises:

On the one hand, labor's motto is solidarity; division among workers its downfall... On the other, job competition from "outsiders" is the primary threat to labor citizenship. Unions fear being undermined by workers willing to take wages and benefits lower than those they have negotiated... To defend labor citzenship, unions have sought to keep would-be immigrant competitors out of the country or, where that has failed, to bar them from the workplace. The restrictionist policies they have pursued to this end have alienated immigrants and created divisions among workers -- the antithesis of solidarity.

As an example of how union strategies have backfired in the past, Gordon recounts how the push to create sanctions programs that imposed penalties on employers for hiring undocumented workers has been self-defeating.

Employers used sanctions as an excuse to fire undocumented workers who tried to organize... Thus, sanctions rendered undocumented immigrants more vulnerable, less likely to report violations of minimum wage and other workplace standards, cheaper, and increasingly resistant to organizing efforts: in other words, they increased the appeal of undocumented workers to unscrupulous employers and gave employers a way to derail organizing campaigns in immigrant-heavy workplaces.

To imagine that we can roll back the status quo to some yesteryear where the border between the U.S. and Mexico stands firm is, argues Gordon, "pure fantasy." It denies the very nature of an ever more globalized world, in which the movement of capital, information and people only becomes more fluid, not less. So we must go forward, not back. Gordon's proposal, "transnational labor citizenship," would create a new immigration status allowing free movement and freedom to work, as long as one pledged solidarity with a non-governmental, transnational labor organization. Such citizenship would be revoked if workers failed to abide by the rules, which would include a refusal to work for employers who did not maintain basic minimum workplace labor standards.

"Transnational labor citizenship is based on the theory that the only way to create a genuine floor on working conditions in a context of heavy competition is to link worker self-organization with the enforcement power of the state in a way that crosses borders just as workers do," writes Gordon. It's a bold assertion, and a blog post does little justice to the subtlety, complexity and sheer thoroughgoing detail that Gordon marshals in support of her ideas. But it is, above all, a progressive approach, one that sees greater inclusiveness and openness as the path to improved working conditions for everyone, instead of a "fortress mentality" of exclusion that tries, vainly, to privilege one group at the expense of another.

And lest one think that Gordon's self-confessedly unfeasible vision is just another strand of pure fantasy, Gordon does offer some concrete examples in the here and now of initial stabs in the right direction. In the opening paragraph of her opus, she describes representatives of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, an agricultural workers union from the U.S., meeting workers in Monterrey, Mexico, as they wait to see whether they will be approved to join a guest worker program in the U.S. The FLOC workers are organizing, across the border. It's May 2005, and, writes Gordon, "For the first time in history, guest workers are about to cross the border into the United States as union members."

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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Globalization How The World Works Immigration Immigration Reform Latin America Mexico Unemployment