Date: Sat, 20 Mar 1999 22:38:39 -0600 (CST)
From: Paul Johnston <>
Subject: Anti-Bracero/Toward Transnational Unionism? by Paul Johnston
Article: 58161
To: undisclosed-recipients:;
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Toward Transnational Unionism?

By Paul Johnston, extract from Citizens of the Future: The Emergence of Transnational Citizenship among Mexican Immigrants in California (a work in progress), 20 March 1999

Not coincidentally, the accelerating labor movement among immigrant workers stalled after the passage of Proposition 187. In spite of a strong demand for labor in low-wage labor markets, the climate of general hostility toward immigrants and the growing vulnerability of undocumented workers to employer reprisals left them much less likely to organize. The next several years would see little progress and some notable failures in immigrant worker organizing campaigns, including high-profile efforts by the United Farm Workers and the Teamsters in California’s strawberry fields and in Washington’s apple industry.

Both of these industries depend heavily on undocumented labor. In other industries, however, even the presence of a relatively small proportion of undocumented workers now presented major new challenges to organizers. In 1998, the Social Security administration began to send employers letters notifying them of invalid employee social security numbers, handing them a new resource for disrupting an organizing campaign. In most cases, the unions inability to provide much protection or support for this vulnerable group undermines the confidence of the larger workforce.

More ominously still, in 1998 the INS field-tested a new strategy of regionally and industrially targeted employer audits, and in March 1999 announced that in the future it would rely on this method in lieu of the less effective, more labor-intensive and scarcely-implemented practice of workplace raids and employer sanctions. If implemented without effective opposition, this agenda is likely to be an effective tool for purging entire workforces. Presumably it will be implemented on a very selective basis, as the result would be gaping labor shortages and strong upward pressure on wages.

This industrial audit strategy may be rendered more widely useful, however, through a complementary initiative: proposed Republican legislation which would make the currently temporary and limited guest worker programs permanent, remove the cap on the number of guest workers, expand it from agriculture to the food processing industry, make it easier for employers to qualify for the program, and prohibit families from accompanying the guest worker. In the face of strong Democratic and labor opposition, that measure passed in the House and failed in the Senate in 1998. In March 1999, however, Clinton’s Secretary of Labor met with her Mexican counterpart and agreed in principle to support the enactment of legislation of a system similar to the old bracero program.

The stage is set, then, for the imposition of a new labor regime in the United States which more effectively and selectively excludes undocumented immigrants, while also selectively inserting an expanded guest worker workforce into the lowest rung of the labor market. The adoption and full implementation of this agenda is likely to be a focus of struggle, and is by no means assured. In particular, both the U.S. and the Mexican labor movements are likely to claim a voice in regulation and labor rights for such a workforce.

Even were it to be fully implemented, moreover, unintended consequences are likely to surface once again. By politicizing and regulating secondary labor markets and by creating explicit institutional bridges between related public institutions in the U.S. and Mexico, this agenda may well create the context for a viable transnational unionism. In the immediate future, in fact, foundations for transnational unionism may develop through dialogue within the context of coordinated cross-border campaigns to resist and/or shape the content of the proposed new bracero program...