Immigration, Liberal Legalism, and Radical Democracy in the U.S. Labor Movement

in Historical Reflections/Réflexions Historiques
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This essay considers whether legal rights remain a core resource for transforming the social situation of low-income workers in the United States. In particular, how does the recent expansion of the immigrant workforce in the US affect the prospects for workers to generate a symbiosis between legalist struggles and rank-and-file movement activism? I demonstrate that the migration narratives of Mexican immigrant union activists intervene in the law's formation of political subjects, such that the thorough disciplining of a docile subject by the law does not necessarily result from legalist activism. Instead, migration stories furnish alternative sources of identity that can mitigate these effects and spur the translation of legalist struggle into radical-democratic unionism. My analysis is based on interviews with immigrant workers who led a highly unusual movement of resistance from 1995-2005 at a large beef processing plant in Washington State.

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