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L.A. Story

Immigrant Workers and the Future of the U.S. Labor Movement

Ruth Milkman

Publication Year: 2006

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.

Published by: Russell Sage Foundation

Title Page

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pp. v-vi

About the Authors

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pp. vii

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Preface and Acknowledgments

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pp. ix-xii

This book is a valentine to Los Angeles, the city so many love to hate. Almost all of the research for it was conducted in southern California, and my perspective on the material is the product of an extended engagement with the vibrant labor...

Union Acronyms

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pp. xiii

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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...

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1. The "Wicked City": Labor and Los Angeles Exceptionalism

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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...

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2. Turning the Clock Back: Anti-Union Reaction, the Return of the Sweatshop, and the New Immigration

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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...

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3. Organizing the "Unorganizable": Immigrant Unionization and Labor Revitalization in the 1990s

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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...

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4. "Si, Se Puede": Union Organizing Strategies and Immigrant Workers

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pp. 145-186

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...

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Epilogue and Conclusion

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pp. 187-193

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...

Appendix A

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pp. 195-197

Appendix B. Adjusting for Changes in the U.S. Decennial Census Industry and Occupation Classifications, 1970 to 2000

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pp. 198-200


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pp. 201-211


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pp. 213-229


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pp. 231-244

E-ISBN-13: 9781610443968
Print-ISBN-13: 9780871546357
Print-ISBN-10: 0871546353

Page Count: 264
Publication Year: 2006