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Reviewed by:
  • L.A. Story: Immigrant Workers and the Future of the U.S. Labor Movement
  • John P. Koval
L.A. Story: Immigrant Workers and the Future of the U.S. Labor Movement By Ruth Milkman Russell Sage Foundation, 2006. 244 pages. $27.50 (paper)

Gallons of ink have been spilled in documenting and analyzing the decades-long decline of the density and power of labor unions in the United States. Yet, few workable contributions to stem the decline let alone reverse it exist. Now Ruth Milkman, Director of the UCLA Institute of Industrial Relations, is stepping up to the plate.

Milkman's L.A. Story: Immigrant Workers and the Future of the U.S. Labor Movement is a concise four-chapter book that tackles the difficult job of trying to identify what does and doesn't work when it comes to contemporary union organizing – as well as proposing her city of research, Los Angeles, as a locale and model for understanding and emulating the dynamics of union organizing. Why think small?

The book's introduction, not to be passed over, is a between-the-eyes, multi-faceted position statement – part factual, part analysis and part value position that covers a lot of ground and leaves little question as to where this author stands in framing the Los Angeles (union) story.

She places de-unionization square in the middle of understanding deindustrialization and the growth of economic inequality, while making it clear that these changes are driven by political and legal forces rather than the cold, impersonal and abstract hand of economic forces.

In asking the rhetorical question, "Who would have imagined that immigrant organizing in Los Angeles would be the center of the nations labor movement revitalization efforts?" she, in effect, asserts that to be the case.

She fits into the introduction a brief, valuable and informative state of the state of the labor movement in Los Angeles – which could just as well stand as the state of the state of the labor movement in the United States.

Lastly, she introduces the reader to four occupations – janitors, drywallers, truckers and garment workers – whose organizing efforts are examined in-depth in order to glean insights into understanding successful and unsuccessful organizing strategies and tactics.

The history portion of the L.A. story is contained in the first two chapters of the book. The first chronicles the transformation of prewar L A. from the citadel of the open shop into a union stronghold by the 1950s. The second, "Turning the Clock Back," documents the devolution of the city (like the country) back into a world of the open shop with the influx of Latinos, in the late 1960s, into those shops as Anglo union members [End Page 861] moved horizontally into other high-wage non-union jobs. The third chapter, "Organizing the 'Unorganizable,'" charts the rise of unionism among L.A.'s new immigrants.

As good and informative as these chapters are – and they are – they are like the warm up acts at a rock concert. They're background for getting you in the mood for the main act. And that is Chapter 4, "Si, Se Puede." Her strategy is simple. Four analytic cells each filled by one union: 1.) a Top-Down successful organizing effort – janitors; 2.) a Top- Down unsuccessful effort – garment workers; 3.) a Bottom-Up successful effort – drywallers; and 4.) A Bottom-Up unsuccessful organizing effort – port truckers.

So what does work? First, it should be clear that we're not baking cakes here. Milkman proffers no list of ingredients and no sequence of steps that produce the perfect unionizing outcome. Rather she tells us some of the ingredients that markedly enhance the probability of successful union organizing. High on the list are: 1.) organizing from the top down and the bottom up; 2.) rank-and-file mobilization; 3.) combining social movement-style mobilization with strategies that leverage the expertise of creative professional leaders; 4.) select leaders with activist experience in other social movements; 5.) committing adequate economic resources and staff to the organizing effort.

These are simple and, some might say, obvious propositions, but like so many complex events, the devil is in the details – none...


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pp. 861-862
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