Working for Justice

Working for Justice: The L.A. Model of Organizing and Advocacy edited by Ruth Milkman, Joshua Bloom and Victor Narro, ILR Press, an Imprint of Cornell University Press, Ithaca and London, 2010, 296 p., ISBN 978 0 8014 7580 1, £13.95, paperback.

What do day labourers, garment workers, car wash workers, security officers, janitors, taxi drivers and hotel workers all have in common? In Los Angeles (L.A.), California, these workers are mainly immigrants from Mexico and Central America, many of them undocumented. They often work in low-wage service industries where labour standards are precarious and union density is low. In certain industries, companies offshore parts of production in order to increase their ‘competitiveness’. In immobile industries, such as large parts of the service sector, they recruit migrant labour as a functional equivalent to save on wage costs. In particular, in some low-wage and labour-intensive industries in the United States — and indeed in many other countries — employers have developed a propensity to recruit undocumented immigrants. This strategy poses a challenge for labour unions, already struggling in the light of loss of influence and declining membership figures. How unions deal with this particular challenge is the focus of Working for Justice.
In this book, Ruth Milkman, Joshua Bloom and Victor Narro together with other researchers, labour lawyers, social movement activists and union organizers take a close look at the very unique setting of L.A. As a diverse group of authors, they offer an impressive collection of detailed case studies of union organizing campaigns and advocacy strategies in different low-wage industries. The case studies include a number of campaigns aimed at fostering social and economic justice for undocumented immigrant workers. Of particular interest are the conditions that might have enabled or inhibited successful organizing campaigns. Furthermore, they illustrate new forms of cooperation and crucial learning processes between labour unions on the one hand, and worker centers and immigrant rights groups on the other, converging on what they call the ‘L.A. model of economic justice organizing and advocacy’. What makes the ‘social ferment’ of L.A. such an interesting object of investigation, or, in the words of Jennifer Gordon, the ‘epicenter of labor’s resurgence in the United States today’, is not only the high concentration of undocumented immigrants, but also the broad network of organizations and actors engaged in social change. In her introductory chapter, Milkman outlines the different approaches of unions and worker centers in their efforts to support and organize immigrant workers. Following this, the different authors discuss a variety of campaigns that include crucial themes such as strategic research, grassroots organizing and alliance building. Further, readers get a vivid idea of other elements such as legal initiatives, narratives, shaming and ‘public dramas’ that were used to increase pressure on employers and policy makers in order to improve immigrant workers’ rights. While the eleven case studies offer a very readable and in-depth analysis of union campaigns and worker struggles, the book would have benefited from a concluding chapter comparing the different campaigns in more detail to illuminate the factors that enable or inhibit successful efforts to ‘organize the unorganizable’.
Notwithstanding this drawback, Working for Justice shows labour researchers at their best. The contributors see themselves in the tradition of engaged research that is cognizant of the dominant power relations in society. The book should therefore be of interest not only to scholars but also to practitioners such as union organizers and social movement activists. Although the book’s main focus is on the particular setting of L.A., its findings are relevant far beyond southern California. Given the current debate about the opening-up of labour markets and the free mobility of labour, unions — including those in Europe — often find themselves in an apparent dilemma. Is it possible to protect the interests of their traditional membership and at the same time to reach out to new groups of workers including immigrants, documented and undocumented? The answer of this book is a resounding ‘yes’. In fact, the message is that unions have little alternative in times of dwindling membership figures. As such, it is a welcome contribution not only to the academic debate on ‘union revitalization’ but also for labour and social movements in Europe.

Buchrezension erschienen in: British Journal of Industrial Relations, 55(2), 2012, 386f.

Sandra Stern

Sandra Stern

…war in den vergangenen Jahren in verschiedenen Organizing-Kampagnen in den USA, Deutschland und Österreich aktiv. Aktuell arbeitet sie für die UNDOK-Anlaufstelle ( und hält Organizing-Seminare für BetriebsrätInnen und GewerkschafterInnen. […]

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